Covering Ground: Breaking Down Vance Joseph’s Approach Ahead of Miami Makeover
When Vance Joseph was first hired as the Miami Dolphins’ new defensive coordinator, it was understandably difficult to predict exactly how his schemes would look in 2016. After all, this was going to be his first time in complete control of a defense, and additionally, he had always been considered a proponent of a 3-4 scheme and was taking over a group that undeniably fit better in a 4-3. Now, as we approach Joseph’s first training camp in Miami, we have a much better idea of what is to come in his inaugural season. Let’s take a look at the aspects of his defense that we are sure to see a lot of in the upcoming season and identify the players that will benefit most from them.
While this doesn’t necessarily relate to his potential scheme, the attacking style that Joseph hopes to instill in his players will be essential to ensuring success in his “rookie” season. He wants to play aggressively; bring blitzes, rely on his players’ instincts and force negative plays or turnovers. He doesn’t seem to be an advocate of the “bend don’t break” strategy, and he wants to force his opponents into making mistakes or at least drive them backwards. If his defense is faced with a third and short, Joseph will look at it as a failure.
Joseph has been consistent in saying that he wants his front seven to be the most aggressive in the league. Many will hear this and will have Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh and Mario Williams immediately come to mind, which is understandable. Miami’s defensive line is arguably their most naturally talented position group, and Joseph would be remiss not to fully take advantage of their skill set. Yet I believe that the player who will most directly succeed because of the aggressive nature of the Dolphins’ defense actually lines up behind the d-line: Kiko Alonso.
Alonso, newly acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles, is at his best when he is playing downhill, utilizing his instincts and playing fast. A torn ACL is what has seemed to hamper him since departing from the Buffalo Bills after a stellar rookie campaign. While the physical effects are obvious (decreased speed, cutting ability and lower body strength in general), I think the real problem was mental. Alonso was forced into a “read and react” role in Philadelphia that didn’t suit his skillset even prior to the injury. However, I don’t think he fully trusted his physical capabilities either. This gave him practically no chance of being successful in his stint as an Eagle.
You can bet that Joseph will put him in a better position to thrive. No longer will he be forced to sit in the middle of the defense waiting for the play to develop before reacting. Instead, Joseph will allow him to roam the field and be the aggressor: a role he is undoubtedly suited for. One of the biggest questions facing Joseph is whether or not the linebacker corps will be able to hold up behind the stellar defensive line but, if Alonso has anything to do with it, I think they may surprise some people.
Just as Kiko Alonso figures to play a key role in his first year as a Dolphin, so does Byron Maxwell. Joseph, like many new coaches, should experiment with his defensive play calling at the beginning of his tenure. That suggests that Miami will display a variety of coverage schemes in 2016, including plenty of zone, and Maxwell’s skillset makes him a perfect fit.
While Maxwell’s lack of hip fluidity and route recognition limit him severely in man coverage, they aren’t as detrimental when covering a zone. This partially explains why there was such a huge discrepancy between his performance in Seattle and his performance in Philadelphia. The zone that Seattle consistently employed gave Maxwell help underneath as well as over the top, whereas in Philly, he was often left on an island. Joseph seems likely to call a lot of zone schemes in order to mask some of these deficiencies.
Zone coverage can play a key role in forcing turnovers as well. While Byron Maxwell displayed a ton of playmaking ability as a Seahawk, those talents seemed to disappear as an Eagle; he simply never seemed comfortable in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ defense. Truthfully, he has the soft hands to be a ballhawk if placed in the right situations. Despite his physical limitations directly affecting his abilities to cover a receiver one-on-one, I believe the Dolphins brought him to Miami with the belief that he would be a much better fit in Joseph’s zone heavy scheme.
Joseph absolutely loves long, physical and tough cornerbacks, and Maxwell fits the bill. Despite Maxwell’s abysmal performance in Philadelphia, Miami took a calculated risk in taking on his contract. If he can return to making plays like the one shown above, it will almost assuredly be because of his return to the zone coverage scheme that he has always been more comfortable in.
Two Deep Safeties:
Speaking of Joseph’s infatuation with lengthy, physical corners, look no further than the team’s selection of Xavien Howard in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. While Howard should also be a good fit in Joseph’s zone coverage scheme due to his short area quickness and playmaking ability, I chose to focus on Joseph’s potential employment of two deep safeties instead.
In Cincinnati, Joseph’s secondary was often found using a mix of off-man coverage with safety help over the top in order to prevent big plays. Of course, this partially had to do with the various injuries that faced the Bengals’ defensive backfield. Yet I could still see Joseph bringing this strategy with him to Miami, specifically to help Howard. The former Baylor standout’s two biggest weaknesses in coverage are his inconsistency in locating the football in the air and his worrisome tendency to grab and hold onto the receiver in order to prevent being beaten deep. While this makes him better suited for zone coverage at the next level, at least initially, Joseph is going to be forced to switch up his play calling at least every once in awhile. Luckily, Joseph should be used to playing two deep safeties from his prior experience as a defensive backs coach. Take the play below from his time in Cincinnati for example:
This clip should be seen as a prototype for Joseph’s defense. The safeties would provide plenty of help to Howard over the top, hopefully allowing him enough room for error in coverage. Additionally, the strong play in the secondary should provide the aggressive defensive line plenty of time to wreak havoc in the backfield.
Although I believe Howard has the physical abilities to succeed in both zone and man coverage further down the road, NFL wide receivers are simply too smart. Expecting Howard to shut them down in his rookie season would be a mistake. Joseph has two very talented safeties at his disposal in Isa Abdul-Quddus and Pro Bowler Reshad Jones. If Miami’s defensive backfield is going to take a major step forward in its first year under the tutelage of Joseph, Abdul-Quddus and Jones are going to have to provide Howard support on nearly every play. Thankfully, with this assistance, Howard seems primed to be a major contributor even in his first year in the league.
I find the potential for the Wide-9 defense to be one of the most fascinating storylines for Miami heading into 2016. Vance Joseph and head coach Adam Gase have both advocated for it since joining the Dolphins, and Senior Defensive Assistant Jim Washburn used it often in Philadelphia.
In short, the “Wide-9” technique describes aligning the two defensive ends outside of the last offensive players on the line of scrimmage (either an offensive tackle or tight end). They then angle themselves toward the quarterback. This is supposed to put them in the absolute best position to rush the passer.
The most significant criticism of the Wide-9 is that it makes defending the run significantly harder. Not only are the interior linemen forced to cover more space inside, but also the linebackers are tasked with successfully filling the running lanes created due to the extra space between the defensive linemen. For this reason, it can absolutely not be seen as a base defense. However, for someone like Joseph who will look to take as much pressure off of his secondary as possible, it can definitely be successful as a sub-package.
This defensive alignment should, in theory, be a fantastic fit for defensive end Cameron Wake. For someone with the speed, strength and versatility of Wake, the Wide-9 should be seen as a fantastic possibility. The belief is that Wake should be able to easily bend around an offensive tackle or tight end on his way to the quarterback. If the blocker overcompensates to the outside, then Wake could use one of his variety of pass rush moves to beat him back inside. The next two plays speak to both points, respectively:
Wake is coming off a severe Achilles injury and, while I trust his ability to remain productive next season, I also believe he should benefit greatly from the occasional use of the Wide-9. Even if the injury managed to sap Wake of some of his speed, he is still one of the most polished, intelligent pass rushers in the game. If there is one player that is going to take advantage of the creative positioning of this technique, it is going to be him. With Suh occupying blockers and wreaking havoc on the inside, Wake should be in prime position to rack up the sacks and quarterback pressures in 2016.
I fully expect Joseph to be creative with his play calling as defensive coordinator. Unfortunately, no one really knows how the defense will perform in his first year. The key for him is finding the aspects of his players’ games that will benefit the team the most and employing the schemes that will put them in the best position to display these attributes.
Alonso, Maxwell, Howard and Wake all have a ton of talent, but sort of remain question marks at this point in their careers, whether it is due to injuries, down-years, or inexperience. Yet Dolphins’ fans should take solace in the fact that Joseph has been looked at as an up and coming defensive coordinator for multiple years now and has already stated his plans to make the necessary changes to a defense that struggled mightily last season. For these reasons, I strongly believe that Joseph will shape Alonso, Maxwell and Howard into valuable contributors and keep Wake’s performance at a high level despite concerns with his age and Achilles.
Additionally, while I have mentioned Suh a couple of times, I chose not to feature him in this article. The truth is, despite 2015 being considered a “down year” for Miami’s best player he was still extremely dominant. It seems like he will be surrounded by more talent next season, and Joseph is dead-set on taking advantage of Suh’s endless abilities. Suh is always going to draw attention away from his teammates, but Joseph isn’t going to settle for him simply drawing double teams. Instead, I think the first time defensive coordinator is going to be extremely creative with how he uses Suh. Admittedly, I can’t say for sure what his plans are for him at this point. However, it should be extremely fun to find out.
For the most part, I suspect Joseph and Gase are happy with the amount of defensive talent they have at their disposal at this point in the process. If they weren’t, I reckon the draft might have developed much differently. Depth has and will remain to be a concern heading into the season, especially considering the bad luck they’ve recently had in terms of health. Yet the starters have generally impressed this offseason and Joseph, with the help of the aspects discussed above, will hope to coach them to a high level of play in 2016.