Is the Dolphins' defense good enough to win a championship?
Can Miami's defense rise to the level of its offense, or will it submarine a potential Super Bowl run?
In this everyone-is-average, everyone-is-beatable season, we know few things for certain. But we do know this: When Tua Tagovailoa is healthy, the Dolphins’ offense is dynamite.
When the motions are whirring, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are zooming, and Tagovailoa is dealing, the Miami offense is less about executing football plays and more about waging psychological warfare. It is a group that can hang with anyone in January – no game, played anywhere, is out of reach for an offense with this kind of fire-power.
But what about the defense? The difference between the Dolphins being a legitimate contender and a fun team with an explosive offense will be whether or not the team’s defense can climb from the ranks of the worrisome up toward league average.
Let’s throwback to the last offseason. Mike McDaniel walked into the Dolphins as a first-time head coach. Everything about him – the persona, the verbiage, the style – screamed different – even as his offensive style became the norm across the league. One of the first different moves he made was to keep Miami’s defensive staff in situ. The typical move for a first-timer would have been to bring in one of ‘his guys’, to ditch what had (successfully) gone before in the name of loyalty and identity and philosophy and leadership. This is my organization.
Not McDaniel. He recognized that what Brian Flores and his staff had constructed in Miami over the past 24 months was at the vanguard of defensive innovation. They crafted a creative option-blitz structure, one that frazzled the minds of the league’s best OCs and quarterbacks.
When McDaniel replaced Flores, the coach opted to keep Josh Boyer on as DC, running the Flores defense, rather than looking for an alternative. It was a smart plan: maintain the creative defensive style, ask the defense to hold serve, and unleash a new offense.
Not so fast, my friends. McDaniel has tapped into and unleashed the offense (duh), but Boyer’s defense has stalled. All of the creativity and down-to-down lunacy of the Flores era has gone – and the results with it.
Early in the season, Boyer looked to maintain as much of the Flores structure as possible. Miami mugged as much as anyone. They crowded the line of scrimmage with defenders. They maintained the read-blitz identity that was key to the Flores doctrine. They played more cover-zero (no defenders deep) than any defense in the league. And they beat the shit out of everyone in coverage, playing physical bump-and-run coverage all over the field. At the center of all that was right and good about Flores’ defense – beyond the wackadoo blitz profile – was a simple, core message. No. Easy. Access. Throws.
Then something flipped. The Dolphins backed off. Injuries robbed the secondary of some of its man-to-man potency. The team’s idiosyncratic blitz packages were compromised through savvy offensive tactics. The Dolphins of old turned into something different – a more traditional, New England-centric, one-guy-goes-one-guy-drops style of defense; the madcap pressure packages and all-out blitzes were replaced with more subdued arrangements. And in a crime against Flores-ism, they offered too many easy access throws. The total cost: they fell from being good to, well, not good. The Dolphins currently rank 25th in EPA per play, a poor mark for a team with division title and Super Bowl aspirations.
As ever, it’s all about pressure – or a lack thereof. And it’s less so to do with the notion of pressure alone (though that’s important), but more about how the Dolphins pressure – and the knock-in impact that has on the makeup of the defense as a whole.
Last season, the Dolphins ranked 1st in the NFL in pressure rate, pressuring opposing QBs on a whopping 40 percent of their dropbacks. This season, they’ve sunk to 26th in pressure rate. Add a lack of pressure to a defense conceding free releases and easy access throws and you quickly wind up with a defense in the bottom third of the league, and a group shifts the ‘Phins from title contenders to pretenders.
More troubling in the declining-pressure-department: Miami’s issues getting off the field on third down. The Dolphins currently rank 18th in the league in third-down pressure rate. They’re 25th in third down EPA per play. Compare that to the rest of the league’s contenders on third down and you can see the concern:
Even average (Chiefs) to bad (Ravens) groups with eyes on a title run have cranked it up on third down; cranked it enough to keep their heads above water and to hand their title hopes over to their all-world offenses. The Bills nestled at 20 is probably right on the threshold of ‘this could submarine our entire season.’ But the Bills do something the Dolphins don’t: They get home with four on third down.
The playoffs require a four-man rush. You only have to look back to last season’s Rams to see how significant a team’s pressure profile is as much as scoring pressure on its lonesome. Getting home with five or six is great. Designer blitzes are necessary for a snap or two vs. the Mahomes, Burrows, and Allens of the world. But it’s an unsustainable diet. To win it all, to win games on the road in the playoffs, a group must pressure with four – be it an organic rush, a zone pressure, or whatever.
Right now, Miami can’t. Boyer’s group gives up an average of 6.6 yards per coverage snap when they put four guys in the rush – the sixth-worst figure in the league. When they rush four, they average less than a sack a game – the very worst mark in the league.
Early on, some of those figures were murky. Due to the Dolphins’ read-blitz structure, they might be committing, on paper, six or seven guys ‘to the rush’, with only four flying home or attacking because of the blocking scheme. But that setup collapsed early in the season. Baltimore’s use of a ‘motection’ in week two – motioning into protection to bleep with how the Dolphins set up their read-blitzes – was mimicked by Buffalo the following week, and brought the whole design crashing down.
(A read-blitz is as it sounds: The defensive front reads the protection of the offensive line at the snap before the potential blitzers decide if they’re a part of the pressure or dropping out into coverage.)
The idea of the read-blitz is to overwhelm the LOS by crowding it with seven (or six) bodies covering all of the gaps – some mugged, some not – and having one offensive lineman block a ghost, springing a free rusher elsewhere. One or two blockers engage with someone they think is coming (who starts to engage and then bounces out) while they leave the static defender on the perimeter who looks like he’s dropping before he attacks the backfield with an open alley.
The Ravens and Bills used motion-at-the-snap to flash a body across the formation, dirtying the read for the would-be blitzer on the end of the line.
The Dolphins’ front was too often paralyzed by uncertainty – should I stay or should I go? Is he motioning to release into the flat or to pick me up? Is he inserting inside or clipping the edge?
Adding an extra (unforeseen) blocker into the equation helped even out the numbers for the offense. Where the Dolphins thought they had gamed up a seven-on-six or six-on-five, it was truly a five-on-five; may the best players win. What should have been clean lanes were closed.
Droppers were left in no man’s land the scheme asked for them to drop, but they had initiated the rush, leaving wide-open lanes behind them vs. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen with clean protection.
It was a mess. Opposing OCs broke some of the reads; opposing quarterbacks gobbled up the clean looks. Through ten weeks, the Dolphins have the third-worst EPA per play in the league when they send pressure on third-down; their read-blitz style has been compromised.
Worse: Remember all those chaotic cover-0 looks from a season ago, those all-out-pressure packages designed to freak out Lamar Jackson and the like? In the new motection world, they’ve bombed. The Dolphins are still running cover-0 (zero defenders deep) at a league-high rate – though that figure has dwindled throughout the season. The only team close to contention for the top spot is the Giants and crazy ol’ Wink. When playing in cover-0, the Giants give up one yard per snap. Martindale ID’s the front or personnel group and attacks it with a specific concept – one of those ‘designer blitzes’ in coaching parlance. Martindale knows which fronts/looks/personnel groupings/protections he wants to attack and checks to an all-out pressure when he sees it.
It works! For Miami, not so much. The Dolphins are conceding FOURTEEN yards per cover-zero snap. They’re getting into a specific coverage package at a league-high rate simply to get roasted. Whenever they check to cover-0, the odds are they’ll be conceding an explosive play.
Boyer has responded by ditching the read-and-react style as the team’s go-to late-down weapon, a decision that was egged on by injuries draining the defensive backfield of, you know, talent. Without Byron Jones, the Dolphins have proven incapable of living the blitz-centric lifestyle – and there appears to be no agreement on when Jones will return (it could be in two weeks; it could be two months; we might not see him again this season, which is feeling increasingly likely).
Stripping out the read-blitz style. Lobbing off the all-out-pressure looks. Trading in a punch-you-in-the-sack, press and press and press some more style for an added dose of hit-out-landmarks, spot-dropping zone-coverages, and press-and-trail coverage concepts has led to one thing: An identity crisis.
And how do you solve an identity crisis when you’re in the middle of (you hope) a championship run? You trade for a high-caliber pass rusher, hand him a bumper contract… and pray.
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