You’d probably laugh at the beginning of the season if I told you Miami would have one of the best defenses in the NFL entering Week 13. I would have laughed too. But they are currently in the thick of the AFC East hunt, largely because of their defense. The Dolphins are 2nd in the NFL in points allowed, 3rd in takeaways, and best in the league on 3rd down. Those are three high-impact categories in which success generally translates to wins.
Why have the Dolphins been so good in these areas? Because of their ability to use scheme to stress the offense. Most of that stress comes from the blitz. Brian Flores’ defense ranks third in the NFL in blitz frequency. He does a great job using disguise, attacking the middle, and marrying smart coverages to his pressure looks.
On this play against the Rams in Week 8, the pre-snap look was Cover-0 blitz: man-to-man across the board, no deep safety, and pressure.
From the end zone angle, you can see the pressure look. The Dolphins had 6 defenders threatening to rush and the Rams had only 5 men to protect. They slid the protection to the right, which meant Jared Goff would throw hot off of the defensive end to the left if he rushed.
That’s exactly what Goff intended to do, thinking he had 1-on-1 coverage across the board. And right after the snap, it looked like all 6 defenders were coming.
Except not all 6 defenders ended up rushing. Christian Wilkins and Jerome Baker dropped out from the other side of the formation. This made the play, because with Goff’s eyes focused on the free rusher to the left, he didn’t have time to see Wilkins and Baker dropping out from the other side of the rush.
Goff fired the ball right into Wilkins’ chest like he was the intended receiver.
That’s great design and execution all the way around.
The below 3rd-and-3 from Week 12 against the Jets is another great example of the Dolphins scheming free rushers to the quarterback. This time, they were able to get that pressure through the A-gap, which is an area they love to target. Here, you can see that Miami had 5 defenders spread across the line of scrimmage with the nose head-up on center. The design of the pressure was to split the center and left guard, with safety Brandon Jones coming through the middle with speed.
The Dolphins ultimately rushed 4 here but were still able to get a free rusher in on quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold had nowhere to go with the ball because Jones got in so quick.
Even if Darnold did have time, the Dolphins were prepared to take away or even jump any quick throws. They had defenders jam the point man of the trips bunch to the left and sit on the tight end’s route to the right.
Miami had the free safety provide a double-team to the left, and they also matched the release of the running back (a hot option). He released right, so edge rusher Kyle Van Noy (#53) took him.
When coverage and pressure schemes work together, it is incredibly hard for the offense to overcome. Flores and the Dolphins do a great job of this.
It isn’t just the pressure itself that the Dolphins have capitalized on this season. They also have done a great job of using the threat of pressure to force bad plays out of the offense. The below play was a 3rd-and-12. Look at all those defenders in the middle of the field. No one had their hand on the ground. Who was coming? Who was dropping?
The Dolphins ended up only bringing 4 here. But all of the movement created a lot of noise for rookie quarterback Justin Herbert to decipher. The Dolphins ultimately dropped into Cover-3, which Herbert appeared to recognize. As a result, he thought he had the out-route to the perimeter on the right side. Unfortunately, he didn’t see that cornerback Xavien Howard was playing flat-footed, ready to jump any intermediate route his way.
This is what all that movement and disguise can do. The quarterback doesn’t have time to look at every single defender on the field each play. He has to make assumptions, based on pre and post-snap reads, that certain players will behave a certain way based on the coverage. Herbert recognized the coverage post-snap here, likely based on what he saw out of the safeties in the middle of the field. He assumed he would have the out-route. All the noise in the Dolphins’ pre and post-snap movement seemed to prevent him from focusing enough of his attention on Xavien Howard. The result was a game-changing play in the 4th quarter of what was a one-score game at that point.
Because of their schemes and aggressive style, the Dolphins have become one of the most entertaining defenses to watch each week. But their competition is about to heat up. They face the Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders, and Bills in Weeks 14-17. We’ll find out exactly who the Dolphins are in the coming weeks.
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