THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- With no preseason games and just five snaps during a regular season blowout over the New York Jets in Week 6 to evaluate, Los Angeles Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley will have to go back to game tape from Alabama to help draw up a defensive game plan to contain Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
“I just know that he’s had as much of an impact on that place as anybody probably has since Coach (Nick) Saban has taken that job,” Staley said. “So, I know what a good player this guy is.
“I know the type of impact he had offensively at that place, where they really became an offensive team when he was there. His ability to distribute the ball and really be the point guard of that offense, I know that this guy was as good as it gets at the college level.”
Staley’s not wrong: Tagovailoa finished with a 22-2 record at Alabama and helped lead them a national title.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores announced last week that Tagovailoa would replace starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and get his first NFL start against the Rams on Sunday, allowing the rookie quarterback two weeks to prepare for the likes of game-wrecking defensive tackle Aaron Donald and All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
“He’s been preparing as if he were the starter the entire year, even though he’s been the backup,” Flores said about Tagovailoa’s readiness for Sunday’s game. “He’s just continuing to do what he’s been doing. Obviously, he’s getting more practice reps. And we’ll get him out there and see what he can do.”
At 6-foot and 217 pounds, Tagovailoa has been compared to Drew Brees because of his smaller stature as a quarterback, along with his ability to quickly get through his progressions and get the ball out.
Tagovailoa is a good athlete, and in college regularly created offense by escaping the pocket and finding receivers down the field on second-reaction plays. Playing a left-handed quarterback like Tagovailoa also provides its own unique set of circumstances; Donald said the defensive line will have to be aware of Tagovailoa’s potential to be more comfortable rolling and making plays to his left.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what he would want to do, being able to throw on a run,” Donald said. “We’ve played multiple mobile quarterbacks, the only difference this week is he’s a left-handed guy. So, you just expect them to roll a different type of way to get the ball off.”
Like everyone else, Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell watched Tagovailoa at Alabama, but also had a chance to evaluate him on tape during the pre-draft process.
“I always kind of felt from early on, even in his college days that he could make some plays off schedule and he was a threat when he got out on the perimeter against the defense to really extend the play and give his receivers chances to work for him,” O’Connell said. “So obviously, that’s going to be something that he’ll probably continue to do now that he’s given a chance to play full time.
“I've always been impressed with not only the player, but the . His teammates really seem to respond to him and I'm sure he’s excited about the opportunity this weekend.”
Along with that ability to make plays outside the pocket, the Rams will be concerned with Tagovailoa’s efficiency in handling run-pass options (RPOs), a strength of his at Alabama.
Per ESPN Stats & Information research, Tagovailoa’s 90.8 QBR on RPO plays from 2018 to 2019 was third in the nation over that span among signal-callers with at least 50 such attempts.
“It’s something that you definitely have to be prepared for,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said. “It is something that these guys do, they were even doing it with Fitzpatrick. It’s something that is a real strength of Tua and it’s something that we’ll practice, we’ll prepare for and we’ll hope to defend it to the best of our ability. That’s definitely a focal point for the week.”
Expect the Rams put stress on a young Miami offensive line by disguising pre-snap and bringing pressure.
Facing another young quarterback in Washington Football Team’s Kyle Allen earlier this year, the Rams sent five pass rushers on 37 percent of the passing attempts per Next Gen Stats, sacking Allen and his backup Alex Smith eight times.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff faced a similar circumstance in making his first career start in the NFL four years ago, coincidentally against the Dolphins.
The Dolphins sent at least five rushers 31 percent of the time according to Next Gen Stats, sacking Goff once. The Cal product finished 17-of-31 for 134 passing yards, with no touchdowns and no interceptions in a 14-10 loss to the Dolphins.
“It wasn’t our best game of the year, but it wasn’t our worst,” Goff said. “We had a chance to win and ultimately didn’t. It was a fun day to be out there and to get my career started, but I don’t really want to watch that film any time soon.”