Youth Movement: How Vance Joseph’s Defensive Schemes Will Fit in Miami
Vance Joseph was supposed to get his chance last year. The Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive backs coach was targeted by the Denver Broncos for their defensive coordinator position at the end of the 2014-2015 season. However, he was ultimately rejected permission to interview for the job by Bengals’ owner, Mike Brown. Brown saw Joseph’s involvement in the revitalization of Adam “Pacman” Jones’ career, as well as the development of young cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Denard, as a central piece to their defensive puzzle. The Bengals did their best to prevent it, but they must have known Joseph’s time was coming.
Soon after the Miami Dolphins’ hiring of head coach Adam Gase, Joseph was believed to be the favorite for the defensive coordinator job. No one can deny that Joseph has plenty of assistant experience; he has simply lacked the opportunity to run his own defense. With that being said, the performance of his defensive backfield in Cincinnati speaks to his ability to lead a successful defensive unit, and he has consistently received the approval of his players and fellow coaches.
Joseph’s hiring was the next step in the Dolphins’ rebuilding movement. While Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen are sure to make improvements on the offensive end, Gase needed to place his trust in someone that could make changes to a Dolphins’ team that ranked 25th in total defense this past season. In this article, we will examine why Gase and the Dolphins’ front office singled out Joseph as the man to lead their defense, and evaluate how the Dolphins’ personnel will fit into Joseph’s defensive philosophies.
Joseph attended the University of Colorado as an option quarterback/ tailback hybrid during his four years of eligibility. After going undrafted, Joseph signed with the New York Jets, where he played one season as a defensive back before concluding his two-season NFL career with the Indianapolis Colts in 1996. Joseph played 17 games in the NFL, starting six of them, and totaled two interceptions in his brief playing career.
He ultimately returned to his alma mater in 1999 as a graduate assistant. He spent two years in the position before receiving his first offer to become a full-time coaching assistant as the Wyoming Cowboys’ secondary coach. This brief stint preceded his second return to Colorado, when he was given the opportunity to coach the team’s secondary. Joseph received his final position as part of the college coaching ranks in 2004, as the defensive backs’ coach at Bowling Green University.
In 2005, Joseph obtained his first coaching role in the NFL as an assistant secondary coach for the San Francisco 49ers, prior to being promoted to their defensive backs coach in 2006. Joseph remained in this position for five seasons, leading into his stint with the Houston Texans from 2011-2013. Under Joseph, Houston’s secondary developed into one of the best in the NFL. In his first two seasons with the Texans, the defense allowed the third fewest passing yards per game (207.7) and held teams to a 52.5 completion percentage, a mark that led the league. Not to mention Jonathon Joseph evolved into one of the league’s best cornerbacks, being named to the first two Pro Bowls of his career. Then, after his time with the Bengals and the work he did with their secondary, specifically with Jones and Kirkpatrick, it became inevitable that the defensive backs coach would soon receive his opportunity as a defensive coordinator.
Joseph has seemingly learned a lot about his own coaching style and what players respond to since his first NFL position. In an interview with Paul Dehner Jr., the Bengals’ beat writer for Cincinnati Enquirer, Joseph explained what his style and goals as a coach are. He describes himself as a “positive”, “fix-it” type of coach, who prides himself on being a “teacher”. The directness and honesty of this “see it, fix it” approach allows him to instill trust in his players. This is the aspect of his coaching style that has made him so popular among his players, and has led to the significant improvement of their techniques and all-around performance.
Many assume that Joseph will be a proponent of the Dolphins eventually transitioning into a 3-4 defense. Those who run a 3-4 do so with the hope that it will allow for a better pass rush, which would seemingly be attractive to the former defensive backs coach. It is well known that one way to improve play in the secondary is to get more pressure on the quarterback. If there is chaos occurring around the passer and he the less time he has to go through his progressions, it makes it much easier for the cornerbacks to hold their coverage and potentially make a big play. However, as of right now it doesn’t seem that the Dolphins have the defensive personnel to make the change right away. Luckily, Joseph is familiar with the 4-3 after coming from Paul Geunther’s system in Cincinnati.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to know exactly how Joseph will choose to design his defense. While we can assume that it will have similarities to Geunther’s considering the success that his unit has had, this is still the first time that Joseph will have total control of the defensive decisions. With that being said, let’s look at a few of the X’s and O’s elements from Cincinnati that Vance Joseph may choose to incorporate with the Dolphins.
One technique that the Bengals consistently seemed to use under Geunther and Joseph, especially this past season, was off-man coverage. Their secondary was decimated by injuries, so they understandably turned their attention to preventing long passing plays. While off-man does give wide receivers a large cushion and time to accelerate, it allows defensive backs to keep plays in front of them. If it is a short, 3-step route, a solid tackling cornerback should be able to break on it and make the play. If the offense decides to take a shot deep, the defensive backs are expected (and in the correct position) to turn their hips and recover.
The following play from the team’s Week Two matchup with the Chargers, when the Bengals’ secondary was still relatively healthy, is an example of the coverage’s ability to help defend the deep pass.
In this sequence, every Bengals cornerback starts in off-man coverage. Even as Kirkpatrick creeps towards the line prior to the snap, this is still a perfect example of the desired success of off-man coverage. Malcom Floyd runs a simple streak route along the sideline. Kirkpatrick turns his hips and uses his speed to remain on Floyd’s hip. Finally, he turns his head, locates the ball and is in the perfect position to force an incompletion.
In the play below, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, the Bengals’ secondary leaves a 7-8 yard cushion between themselves and the Steelers’ receivers:
By keeping the play in front of them, it allows them to break on the route once they identify the screen to Antonio Brown. The lead blocker is forced to pick up Kirkpatrick who quickly recognized the pattern. This leaves Iloka with a free path to Brown, and he is able to drag him down.
While these are cases in which the off-man strategy succeeded, not getting a hand on a receiver within the first five yards of a route can be a dangerous proposition. However, it seems likely that he will incorporate this strategy in Miami, in an effort to alter a Dolphins defense that gave up the 8th most completions of 25+ yards in 2015. Off-man allows the receiver to accelerate undeterred and often increases the probability of a pass interference or defensive holding penalty if the cornerback lacks the ability to turn their hips and recover properly. More often that not, however, off-man coverage mixed with an explosive pass-rush is a successful recipe for preventing the kind of back-breaking, big plays that can cost the team a football game.
Two Deep Safeties:
Another strategy that Vance Joseph’s secondary seemed to utilize as part of the popular “bend don’t break” mindset was employing two deep safeties. This formation is often used as a security blanket for the cornerbacks on the outside and in the slot. The strategy can be useful in multiple manners. It decreases the likelihood that your defense is beat deep or that a short completion is allowed to turn into a game changing play, and even increases the likelihood of an interception as cornerbacks will have more freedom to take the risks necessary to force a turnover.
Watch below as the Bengals’ deep safeties take away any possibility of the deep pass that the Steelers so often turn to:
On this play, the Steelers run three deep crossing routes. Roethlisberger is clearly looking to target one of them, but the Bengals pass rush, while only sending four on the blitz, causes Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket. The two deep safeties make it extremely risky for Roethlisberger to try and throw it over the top, forcing him to settle for the dump down pass to his running back, who ultimately drops the pass.
This next play is very similar, but the Bengals get an even best result:
Roethlisberger’s eyes are once again up field as he goes through his progressions. The secondary has taken away the threat of the deep pass, forcing Roethlisberger to step up in the pocket once again. Without a dump-off option, Geno Atkins is able to tackle him from behind for the sack.
Having two safeties cover the deep middle of the field will not always be enough to get the desired results, but it is a common way to improve coverage down field and keep the play in front of the defense’s last line of defense. One would expect Joseph to attempt to carry these techniques with him to a Dolphins team that surrendered far too many big plays this past season, especially as teams blew past their safeties for huge gains.
Will Joseph bring more blitzes from the secondary?
One thing that I did not notice while examining the Bengals’ tape was the presence of many safety/cornerback blitzes. Being creative with blitzes and intensifying pressure is the perfect way to force teams into mistakes. This will be essential for the Dolphins in the upcoming season, as they recorded the third fewest takeaways in the league in 2015-2016.
The play below is once again from their matchup with the Steelers, and displays the success that a team can have when occasionally deploying a blitz from the secondary:
In this play, safety Reggie Nelson comes on the blitz. Nelson timed his pursuit perfectly, and as soon as Roethlisberger’s first read was covered he had nowhere to go. Although it looks like much more on tape, only five players blitzed and the rest dropped back into zone coverage. Roethlisberger simply had no time to react due to the strong coverage and pressure from Nelson. It will be interesting to see if Joseph chooses to incorporate more of these blitzes now that he has control of defensive play calling.
Joseph attempting to convert the Dolphins to a 3-4 defense immediately would be a disaster. The Dolphins already struggled to stop the run this season. They were one of only six teams in the league to surrender over 2000 yards on the ground, and this was while running a 4-3 defense, which is supposed to assist in clogging running lanes. Transitioning to a new defense without the necessary personnel would seemingly compound the problem dramatically.
So we can likely assume that Joseph will stick with the 4-3, or at the very most deploy a hybrid defense of sorts. The Dolphins’ defense has question marks across the board, and they’re going to have to be answered successfully in order for Joseph to make progress in his first year.
The Dolphins will be forced to make difficult decisions regarding their defensive line during the offseason. The front office will have to decide who will be playing at the two defensive end positions, as they have several free agents and aging players at the position.
In an ideal situation, the Dolphins would be able to keep both Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, but their salary cap situation makes that nearly impossible. It is probable that at least one of them will no longer be with the Dolphins next season. Vernon will be an unrestricted free agent in the coming months, and is set to receive a sizeable contract after leading Miami in sacks this season. The soon-to-be 34-year old Wake is coming off a torn Achilles injury. Cutting Wake would save the Dolphins nearly $8.4 million off the salary cap.
The choices the Dolphins make regarding their salary cap situation (including Brent Grimes, who severely underperformed this past season), will directly affect the trajectory of Joseph’s first year in Miami.
Many Dolphins’ fans will scoff at their team’s decision to hire another first-time defensive coordinator after the performance of the defense last year. However, Joseph has long been considered an up-and-coming talent in the NFL coaching ranks and undoubtedly deserved his first shot. He will now be taking over a defense that severely underperformed considering the talent on the roster this past season, and will be heading into the offseason with a myriad of questions concerning their personnel.
In order for there to be real improvement on the defensive side of the ball, Joseph will need to sure up the defensive line and work his usual magic with the secondary. The 4-3 only works when you are able to consistently stop the run, and if you have the talent on the outside to prevent big plays.
Expecting an immediate turn around may be unfair to Joseph, but expect him to make continuous progress throughout his first year as defensive coordinator. He will undoubtedly improve as he becomes accustomed to his new role and learns the strengths and weaknesses of his new players. For now, we will just have to wait and see how the front office handles the obvious questions that need to be answered during Joseph’s first offseason as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator.