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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Dolphins Defense, they should call Jason Taylor

Miami Dolphins v Denver Broncos Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Overview

On November 10th, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Miami Dolphins. In this Week 10 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may “attack” our Colts.

The Colts and Dolphins share a long history together going back to the days of the old AFC East. It was a rivalry that was mostly one-sided as the Colts only managed two wins from 1977 to 1987 a span that saw 21 match-ups between the two franchises. Due to those lean years in Colts history, the Dolphins lead the all-time series 47-27. However, our Colts have had the upper hand in more recent history, going 4-1 in the last decade. On paper, the Colts look to have the upper hand in this game as well, but the Dolphins players and coaches aren’t on the “tank for Tua” train, as they have improved as the season has gone on. Hopefully, our Colts can help the ‘Phins front office in their quest to land the number one overall pick.

Let’s see what we can expect in week 10.


Defense

Brian Flores’ first job in the NFL was as a scouting assistant for the New England Patriots in 2004. Flores was just 23 years old. Over the next 15 years, Flores went from a scouting assistant to a pro scout and from a pro scout to a special teams assistant. Then in 2010, he was promoted to assistant offensive/special teams coach, then in 2011, he was simply a defensive assistant. From 2012 until 2015 he served as the Patriots safeties coach and from 2016 until 2018 he was their linebackers coach.

If this sounds like an unusual path to take to become a head coach, that’s because it is. Flores’ understanding of an NFL franchise has to be unique. He got his start as a scout, spent time assisting offense, defense and special teams and then coached two different defensive position groups before landing the Dolphins head coaching job at 38 years old.

Flores has no experience as a coordinator, something that you almost always see from newly hired NFL head coaches. From what I can tell that lack of experience may have hindered the team at the beginning of the year but Flores and his staff seemed to have righted the ship and have clearly gotten their legs under them, learning on the job. The one aspect that has never been in question is Brian Flores’s knowledge or ability to install his defensive system.

Sometimes when you hear a coach say they want to be “multiple on defense” and then you watch the product they actually put on the field you have to question if they actually understand what that phrase means. That isn’t so with Flores, having sat at the feet of Bill Belichick for 15 seasons. Learning from the best does have its benefits.

If you want to take a really deep dive into the Dolphins new scheme this is a fantastic article from Kevin Dern of Locked on Dolphins.

Dern, compiled information from several sources and what he created was a one-stop shop of charting and a level of detail that would take me weeks to produce on my own. So head over there, give it a look and then come back here and I’ll fill in what’s important for this week’s match-up given what we know about our Colts.

In most situations, Brian Hoyer might not be great against this defense. With that said this is the same defense he saw every day in practice for the past two seasons before landing in Indianapolis, so there’s a chance he will understand what he’s seeing. I did write about Hoyer back in 2017 and did a followup earlier this year when the Colts signed him so if you’re curious as to why I feel this way you can give that a read here. This Dolphins defense is complex and will look to win in a lot of different ways, one of them is with the zone blitz.

Zone Blitz

I know Sam Darnold picked up the first down on an easy completion. It was a good play call for the called defense, the protection was good and for maybe the first time all season both of those things happened on the same play for Darnold.

The success or failure of this play for the Dolphins defense is secondary to the fact that they’re using zone blitz concepts.

Before the snap of the ball, the Dolphins are in a true 3-4 alignment which is interesting given the fact that the Jets have five receivers split wide. On the back end of the defense there is a single high safety which tells us that this is either man-cover one or cover three:

From the end zone angle you can see that the outside linebackers aren’t much of a threat to rush the passer if the Dolphins hope to have any chance at all of covering the receivers in the slot:

Darnold lifted his foot and Jerome Baker (55) came to the line trying to anticipate the snap:

At the snap both Baker and Raekwon McMillan (52) come on a blitz while defensive tackle David Godchaux (56) and John Jenkins (95) work to the right and left respectively to try to open a lane for the blitzing linebackers:

Baker makes contact with the center first but he really doesn’t have much motivation to get off of his block, if he is able to keep him busy it means that the left guard won’t be able to get to McMillan as he crosses behind Baker. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the Jets called a play that gave Sam Darnold a quick option to get the ball out before he could feel any pressure:

Directly after the throw:

This combination of routes really stresses cover three and it stresses it more so when you are dropping outside linebackers (who may be better suited to rush the passer) into coverage. The slot receivers running vertical routes coupled with the outside curls and the drag route coming from left to right means that no fewer than three defenders are going to have to decide who to cover and for how long, which will usually result in an open receiver.

Had the play call been different or Darnold made a bad decision this play would look much different than it does. With that said, the fact that Flores is installing his playbook and using more complex concepts is telling. If nothing else it’s absolute proof he is trying to win games (as if that were ever really a question) and now that his players seem to be understanding what is being asked of them, this defense no longer looks historically awful.

The Dolphins don’t really give a consistent base alignment. Will come out in 4-3 under, will line up in 3-4, obviously play a lot of nickel but their front seven gives a lot of different looks. Truly multiple.

The Amoeba Defense

Years ago the Patriots named this pre-snap “alignment” after the microscopic, shape shifting organism, the amoeba defense looks chaotic before the snap to the TV viewer. Even with the benefit of the coaches film, things don’t get much clearer until after the snap:

Before the snap, the front 7 (6 in this case) will move around and ungulate trying to create uncertainty for an offense. They use this look enough that I felt the need to include it but the play above is one of the most obvious looks they gave that I saw.

At the end of the day, no matter where the defenders line up (or don’t line up) there are only so many blitz combinations and coverage looks they can give you. It makes it inconvenient if a quarterback is unable to make accurate pre-snap reads but it’s not a death sentence. Also, it’s entirely possible that the Dolphins tip their hand when they give this look. I didn’t see anything that would indicate they did, but once again I don’t study tape and coach football full time, so take what I say with a huge grain of salt. Ultimately every receiver has to be accounted for, there isn’t a defense in the league that’s going to attempt to implement a completely foreign coverage concept.

This defense is little more than window dressing, it can be more effective if the pass rush generates a lot of pressure and the quarterback doesn’t process the field quickly. I don’t believe it will be effective against our Colts but time will tell.

Other fun facts that you might see on Sunday: this Dolphins team sends more than four pass rushers over 40% of the time on third down. Nik Needham a rookie cornerback out of UTEP blitzes, a lot. The Dolphins like to send pressure from the defensive backfield and Needham gets the call often. When the Colts are in third and long look for this defense to drop into a soft zone and rely on tackling to make stops short of the first down marker.

Now that I’ve covered what I expect them to do, let’s take a look at who exactly will be doing it.


Defensive Line

The names you need to know are Samuel Eguavoen edge, Davon Godchaux NT, Christian Wilkins DE, Charles Harris edge, Taco Charlton DE, John Jenkins DE, Avery Moss DE.

Eguavoen and Godchaux have both seen 67% of this team’s defensive snaps this season, which is at the top of the list for this defensive line group. Godchaux is a solid defender while Eguavoen has not been great, at all. Another thing to note, Eguavoen is listed at 6’0” 236 pounds, he’s listed as starting at outside linebacker so he is listed as an edge defender but he is undersized to play on the line and we may see him in coverage.

Clemson rookie Christian Wilkins was selected in the first round and so far he hasn’t been stellar. Charles Harris was taken in the first round of the 2017 draft and has looked very much like a bust of a pick. Sure he’s starting but you don’t draft a pass rusher that early and then expect him to have three (3) total sacks in his first 35 games.

After coming over from the Cowboys Taco Charlton hasn’t been great but he does have four sacks on the year. John Jenkins is listed at 327 pounds. Jenkins isn’t much of a pass rusher but overall he may be this Miami team’s best defender. Avery Moss was playing okay football before going down with an ankle injury. It’s unknown if he will be ready by the weekend.

This is not one of the best defensive line groups the Colts will face this year. So that’s good news.

Positive play for the Dolphins

The Steelers don’t give up a lot of sacks but Taco Charleton made this play happen by attacking the guard and ensuring that the tackle wasn’t able to get his hands on blitzing linebacker Jerome Baker.

This says a lot more about the Jets than the Dolphins

So it doesn’t look the same as the play above this because every guy that was involved with this stunt is 300+ pounds but it’s effectively the same thing. Christian Wilkins (94) is lined up at nose while John Jenkins (95) is lined up to his right at defensive end. At the snap, Wilkins attacks the guard across from Jenkins while Jenkins loops behind Wilkins.

The guard that Wilkins attacked is knocked off balance, the center that was lined up across from Wilkins, picks up Jenkins and the tackle that started the play blocking Jenkins follows behind him wondering what to do next. If you’re doing your math at home, that means that no one is blocking Christian Wilkins. Sam Darnold figured it out too!

This ‘Phins defensive line isn’t great but their coaches are going to do all that they can to scheme them a pass rush. Watch for a lot of movement up front this weekend in Lucas Oil Stadium.


Linebackers

Jerome Baker will play almost every down on Sunday. Raekwon McMillan has played around half of the snaps this season while Vince Biegel has taken around 44%.

Baker is a very good athlete who plays well in coverage but based on what I saw, he has questionable instincts. His athleticism will help mask some of the mental mistakes he will make but it’s something to watch for. McMillan is a good run defender and a good athlete and while Biegel is listed on the depth chart as an ILB, he came into the league as a pass rusher and that’s still probably where he is best.

McMillan on the blitz

I really have no idea what Sam Darnold was doing here. I don’t understand. What I do understand is McMillan on this blitz, getting to the quarterback and forcing him to do whatever this is.

Baker in coverage

I wanted to give both the TV angle of this play and the all 22 because the TV angle is the play people saw and the all 22 really shows the kind of athlete Baker is. Once the tight end reaches the 25-yard line Jerome Baker is beat. He has at least a step on his defender and this should be an easy completion. Instead, Baker shows off his speed and gets back into great position to take away the throwing lane that might have existed before. Now it’s true this pass came late. Had Darnold thrown the ball on time this is probably a completion for a first down. With that said it really highlights how fast this guy is.

These linebackers are probably the defenses most talented unit. Granted it’s only three people deep, that said McMillan and Baker give this Dolphins defense a pair of talented defenders to build around in the future.


Defensive Backs

Names to know: Eric Rowe CB, Bobby McCain S, Jomal Wiltz CB, Nik Needham CB, Ryan Lewis CB, Reshad Jones S, Chris Lammons CB.

Rowe and McCain played almost every down a week ago. Rowe is at best an average corner. McCain is solid in coverage and iffy against the run. Wiltz played some at safety but no matter where he lines up, he’s not great. Nik Needham is the guy the Dolphins like to blitz. Needham is solid against the rush but is a liability in coverage, which seems not great for a cornerback. Ryan Lewis played in 87% of downs a week ago and he’s another guy that probably shouldn’t buy property in south Florida (he’s not going to be in town long, he stinks). Lammons is another corner who can stop the run on the edge but can’t really cover and he played nearly 50% of the Dolphins defensive snaps a week ago.

This unit really misses Minkah Fitzpatrick (now with the Steelers) and Xavien Howard who was placed on injured reserve. There isn’t much talent to build around with these DB’s without Fitzpatrick and Howard.

Wiltz just looks silly here

Focus on the safety in the upper left. Number 33. That’s Jomal Wiltz. James Conner isn’t a back with terrible lateral agility but he’s decidedly not Saquon Barkley. Conner is a power back with some speed and Wiltz takes a bad angle and is juked out of his shoes on this one.

Ryan Lewis

Ryan Lewis just isn’t very good.

Needham Blitzes a lot

If you watch off of the left tackle, Needham comes shooting in before getting pancaked. I saw around five instances of Needham blitzing. I went back through the clips I pulled for last weeks game against the Steelers and sure enough I found a clip where Needham was rushing the passer. I would be surprised if the Dolphins didn’t send him, regardless of who is playing quarterback on Sunday.


Final Thoughts:

This defense is lacking talent at all three levels. There are some decent players here but a competent general manager would rip this thing to its studs and rebuild. For now, the only thing they have going for them is a solid defensive head coach and effort.

This Dolphins defense isn’t very good but they play hard. These guys want to win but they’re going to give up yards and points, regardless. They shouldn’t be counted out, and they have improved as the season has gone on, but our Colts should be able to move the ball this weekend.