Don’t look now, but the Miami Dolphins are 3-0. It’s one of the NFL’s “feel-good” stories of the young season. A promising team in South Beach, the Dolphins are led by a young quarterback named Ryan Tannehill who many believe to be the face of the future, a defense that’s dominant like it was last decade and — get this — good coaching.
Good coaching will be key tonight when the team takes on the undefeated New Orleans Saints. Both teams are rejuvenated and will be playing for the top of their divisions. On the Dolphins’ end, they’ll need a strong defensive performance to keep up with New England Patriots atop the AFC East, and there’s a good chance they get one.
Going into Week 4, the Dolphins’ defense was top 10 in interceptions (5) and sacks (9). The ball-hawking secondary has taken advantage of errant throws forced by the front seven. The pressure has come in multiple ways from second-year defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who was plucked off the Cincinnati Bengals’ staff when head coach Joe Philbin was hired in 2012. Coyle’s brought over some tricks that he learned from longtime defensive guru Mike Zimmer.
The most visible of those tricks is the pressure packages. He’s used linebacker (“DOG”) or safety blitzes to apply pressure and distort blocking schemes. This is an important and often forgotten aspect of applying pressure. It’s a matter of numbers and forcing protection to go one way in order to create a favorable one-on-one matchup in another direction. Here’s an example.
It’s 4th-and-2 with more than five minutes left, and the Cleveland Browns are attempting to make a late comeback to upend the Dolphins in Week 1. The score is 20-10. Quarterback Brandon Weeden is in the shotgun with fullback Chris Ogbonnaya to his left. The Dolphins are pressing the line of scrimmage with a four-man line and two potential blitzers — safety Reshad Jones, who is lined up outside of tight end Jordan Cameron, and speedy linebacker Philip Wheeler, aligned in the B-gap.
Wheeler is the one coming here, but the Browns are uncertain. The film study suggests that he’ll likely be blitzing because he’s “sugaring” the B gap, meaning he’s showing pressure in it. He’s also exactly on the line of scrimmage, making it easier to expect him to come. Here’s the conundrum for Cleveland, though: how do they protect against him?
Their only logical option is to slide the offensive line to the left. In this case, each linemen goes on to block the next downhill defender. This is what the Dolphins want. It’s what they’re hoping for.
When the ball snaps, the Browns’ line slides to the left. It’s a full-slide, meaning all five move at once. Once they slide left, Ogbonnaya slides right. He’s the back-side protection for Weeden. Problem is, the back-side rusher is not just a contain rusher, it’s one of the league’s fiercest, most intimidating speed rushers. It’s Cameron Wake. It’s a one-on-one matchup.
Wake stands up out of his four-point stance and, for a split-second, appears to slow down out of the gate. It’s almost like he saw the Browns’ protection, his matchup, and laughed before speeding up again, booming his right shoulder into the chest of Ogbonnaya. That knocked the fullback back into the pocket, and Wake sacked Weeden before he could get rid of the ball.
In Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts, the Dolphins got to quarterback Andrew Luck three times and held him to his only rating less than 80 this season. They sacked him in multiple ways, none prettier than the safety blitz Coyle dialed up in the fourth quarter.
They didn’t see it coming until it was too late. It was right before the two-minute warning. The Dolphins were in a 3-3-5 package that had weak-side defensive end Olivier Vernon standing up. It was a seven-man box counting safety Reshad Jones. Deep in the secondary, the Dolphins were moving around their free safety and nickel cornerback, showing a late double rotation to a two-deep look. They’d done this before, playing a form of pattern reading quarters coverage with Jones being a hole player in the middle of the field. But things were different this time around.
Jones wasn’t the hole defender. He was the blitzer.
The play began and the Dolphins’ rushers went after Luck. The two edge rushers, Vernon and Wake, rushed wide of the pocket and through the C-gap, while the interior defensive linemen, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick, played “games” with the offensive linemen when they performed a stunt that saw Odrick tie up two blockers in the A-gap and Starks loop around. This was done to force the interior offensive linemen to slide and focus all of their attention on the defensive tackles, so that Jones could blitz from the safety spot freely.
Jones waited for the blockers to slide laterally to his left, and then he ran downhill. Once left guard Hugh Thornton changed direction, Jones looped into the middle of the field and rushed inside the left hash. He nearly got a free shot at Luck, but a last-second blitz pickup attempt by running back Donald Brown delayed the sack. Jones popped Brown and bounced off of him and right into Luck, who tried to escape the caving pocket.
In the end, it was all about a one-on-one matchup. That’s Coyle’s goal when designing pressure packages, which he smartly builds around pressuring the A and B-gaps. By doing so, he forces the offensive line to make potentially fatal decisions, such as pinching the line inside to accommodate interior pressure, thus leaving the tackles on an island against speedy defensive ends, or slide fully in one direction and leave a running back on a blitzer. As the Browns and Colts found out, it’s not the ideal matchup.
Will the Saints think the same after tonight?