MIAMI GARDENS, FL – In honor of Bryan Flores’ return to Hard Rock Stadium, Tua Tagavailoa and Miami Dolphins played like it was 2021.

They beat a bad team—in this case, a team Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-10 — with a stifling defensive effort and plenty of plays on offense. Tagovailoa, in his first game back from a serious concussion, started well but finished poorly.

There were also a number of underwhelming coaching decisions, but Miami’s ability to play defense overshadowed all of those shortcomings.

Miami Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa over Pittsburgh Steelers

The Dolphins are 4-3 instead of 3-4 for one main reason: their defensive backs were able to catch the ball and the Steelers’ defensive backs couldn’t. Miami intercepted rookie Kenny Pickett three times — including Noah Igbinagene at the goal line on Pittsburgh’s final play.

Meanwhile, the Steelers defense unofficially had four interceptions, making Tagovailoa’s final numbers — 21 of 35 for 261 yards, one touchdown and no picks — look better than they actually were.

Tagovailoa couldn’t start the game — he led Miami on three scoring drives to open the game — but was ineffective after halftime. The Dolphins had just four first downs and went over the 50 twice in the second half.

Tua was rusty, not surprising after a long period of inactivity. But he also threw some passes that would have been inexcusable even on the first day of practice.

“Ball placement mistakes, route communication, what that receiver thought was a look, and I thought it was a look,” Tagovailoa said. “Just a misunderstanding on our part. We just couldn’t find our rhythm.”

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McDaniel isn’t one to dwell on the negative, so he was upbeat about Tagovailoa’s performance, saying Tua “did a tremendous job.”

Still, McDaniel took issue with Tagovailoa’s decision — again less than a month after suffering a traumatic brain injury — to drop his shoulder twice and play bumper-to-bumper with Steelers defenders while trying to get a first down.

The first collision occurred on the Dolphins’ second drive, when he used his body as a batter against Steelers linebacker Devin Bush.

“Did I advise him to do that? No, McDaniel said. “I think he said right away, the next series after he did it the first time, “Coach, I’m sorry. I needed it.”

“…He’s a competitor and he’s trying to get a first down for his team, so I’m never going to fully encourage that at all,” McDaniel added. “Probably, I will advise him to ride every time. But when it comes down to it, when a guy has the ball in his hands, it’s going to be hard to get him to completely give it up — although I’d try.”

Mike McDaniel takes a risk against the Pittsburgh Steelers

McDaniel is right. People are what they are. And McDaniel, like Tagovailoa, can be aggressive to a fault.

His game management wasn’t the best on Sunday. His ill-fated decision to go for fourth-and-three midway through the third quarter — avoiding a field goal that would have made it a two-point game — nearly turned a win into a loss.

Credit to McDaniel for fully accepting the decision and removing any blame from his analytics department.

“I have a couple of analysts that keep me on the phone in all those situations,” McDaniel said. “In this situation, I was not advised to go for it. So there are a lot of decisions that are made—it’s a balancing act. You take the statistical percentage of the chances that they rate and it’s one of those things, I think it was the fourth – I think the scoreboard might have said [fourth-and-]3, but I think it was like a long two and a half, but it’s one of those when it’s fourth and 2, they support a lot more; fourth and third – the interest is significantly reduced.

“But that was what I do in pretty much every game, where you balance it with the momentum of the game and where we’re at. I was very confident that we would be able to convert. Obviously not.”

Miami Dolphins prospects after Sunday’s win

While it’s important to note what went wrong in Miami on Sunday night, let’s not overlook the following:

For the first time since 2018, the Dolphins enter Week 8 above .500. In other words, McDaniel did something Flores — the former Dolphins coach who returned to the Hard Rock on Sunday as a Steelers assistant — never could.

Flores’ relationship (or lack thereof) with Tua was a topic of discussion in the days leading up to Sunday’s game. He coaches from the penalty box, but was on the field briefly before the game. He welcomed several Dolphins players he coached over three seasons, but Tagovailoa was not one of them.

“No,” Tua said when asked if he had spoken to Flores Sunday.

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There are many reasons why Flores is no longer the coach of the Dolphins. The way he handled Tua during their two years together was definitely part of the equation. He never believed in Tagovailoa the way McDaniel does.

And Tua showed he can play better — much better — than Flores thought, and better than he played against Flores’ defense on Sunday. But if the Dolphins’ schedule improves again in November, 16 points on 12 possessions won’t cut it.

“We have to score more points than we have,” McDaniel said. “I think everyone on the team would agree with that.

“… It’s all about constantly improving your game and making sure it’s not the norm because you don’t — it’s frustrating for the whole team and we’re not going to be able to just go out and score 10 points every time, to win games, so we have to find a way to improve on that and we will be focused on moving forward.”