This was one of the coolest schematic plays we saw this weekend. The Dolphins faced a 3rd and 7 from the Lions 19-yard line with just under 6 minutes left in the first half. Miami was down 10-0 and desperately needed to get some points on the board.
The Dolphins went with an empty formation (no players in the backfield). Pre-snap, the Lions appeared to be bringing “0 blitz”. This meant the 6 defenders near the ball were going to blitz, and the five defenders remaining would be playing man coverage against the Dolphins’ 5 receivers.
The slot receiver to Tannehill’s right would be running an out route. Because Tannehill figured it was man-blitz and a quick throw was needed, he felt most comfortable with an out route against the softest defender – that’s safety James Ihedigbo – and as you can see, he’s playing about 10 yards off his receiver.
From the end zone angle, you can see that the Lions have two linebackers aligned to either side of the center in the A-gaps. They are showing what is called “double A-gap pressure.” The center is pointing at LB #59 Tahir Whitehead before the snap. This meant he was identifying Whitehead as the “Mike” linebacker.
There were 6 possible rushers. The Dolphins only had 5 blockers. Because LB #59 Tahir Whitehead was identified as the Mike, the Dolphins slid to his side (their left). The Dolphins had to protect the middle at all costs. They were willing to allow a free rusher off the edge because it would take more time for him to get to Tannehill than it would for any inside penetration. As a result, the Dolphins’ 5 blockers would match up to these 5 potential rushers (noted in the box below):
This meant the defensive end on the left side of the screen would be left unblocked. This is what double A-gap pressure can do to an offense’s protection schemes.
However, at the snap, both linebackers dropped out. It wasn’t man coverage – it was zone. The Lions ended up only rushing four, yet they still got a free rusher to the quarterback.
Going back to the sideline view, you can see that the free rusher forced Tannehill to get rid of the ball quickly, before he could realize it was zone coverage. The pressure also didn’t allow him to step into his throw. The ball hung a bit as a result.
Ihedigbo, who did not move and was sitting on the route because that’s where he was supposed to be in his zone coverage responsibility, stepped in front of the receiver for an easy interception.
This is one example of how teams can use disguise to confuse the quarterback, disrupt protection schemes, and manufacture pressure on the quarterback without sacrificing defenders in coverage.