Cracks Begin to Show: How the 49ers Exposed the Greatest Weakness of the Dolphins’ Defense
Entering the 2016 season, there was little hope for the Miami Dolphins.
The concerns really weren’t on the offensive side of the ball; most expected that after an acclimation period, Ryan Tannehill would be able to succeed within Adam Gase’s offense and that the running game would be serviceable. (Obviously, the ground attack has been better than serviceable.)
The main red flag surrounding the 2016 Miami Dolphins was the team’s defense. After losing players like Derrick Shelby and Olivier Vernon from the line, and watching the cornerback position deteriorate as Brent Grimes aged (and was eventually cut), the Dolphins’ defense was clearly undermanned. After underperforming in Philadelphia, expectations were low for Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso, and it wasn’t hard to overlook veteran acquisitions like Andre Branch and Isa-Abdul Quddus.
Vance Joseph was also a question mark in Miami. While the Cincinnati Bengals, where Joseph served as the DBs coach, were a good team defensively, they were never great. Even further, their best players were developed in the front seven, where Joseph didn’t coach.
Early in the 2016 season, these concerns seemed to be valid. The Dolphins were in the NFL’s bottom-three teams for rushing and passing defense heading out of the team’s game against the Titans in Week 5, and the eye test wasn’t any prettier than the rankings. The unit appeared confused and unprepared while missing assignments all over the field.
However, everything in the NFL should come with a “subject to change” disclaimer.
While the rankings still aren’t pretty for the Dolphins’ run defense (30th in yardage allowed), the pass defense has turned the corner in a major way. Miami has given up the 10th fewest yards through the air while allowing the 14th fewest touchdowns.
The major turning point for the defense was in Week 6 when the team managed to shut down the Steelers’ offense, which entered Miami equipped with Le’Veon Bell, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
While the team did find success after that, red flags started popping up throughout the team’s games, even though they were pulling out victories.
What do players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, Marquise Goodwin, Tyrell Williams and (the most recent player to burn Miami’s defense) Colin Kaepernick have in common?
- They’ve all scored touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins.
- They’re all very, very fast.
Entering Week 12, most didn’t give the 49ers much thought as an opponent. The Dolphins’ opponent hadn’t notched a victory since Week 1 and had scored 21 points or fewer in 7/10 games. The offense wasn’t highly effective, and their defense was allowing opponents to score with ease.
Despite it being true that the 49ers’ offense is bad, most who watched the Dolphins knew that trouble could be on the horizon.
Facing Colin Kaepernick was going to be a tough task for the Dolphins given their personnel deficiencies on defense. But Vance Joseph had schemed well enough for each opponent over the last month to hold back their offense, so why wouldn’t he be able to work against the QB of a 1-9 team?
Because Colin Kaepernick is the Dolphins’ defense’s worst nightmare.
Vance Joseph’s strategy as a coordinator is to work towards limiting big plays. How has he been able to execute this within a team with little-to-no talent in the secondary (considering Reshad Jones’ injury)?
The Dolphins’ approach defensively is to spread out enough men in coverage that it compensates for the fact that there isn’t a single elite coverage player on the roster. So, if they can’t rely on Byron Maxwell to cover the boundary and in-breaking routes, there will have to be a linebacker dropped into coverage to take care of those in-breaking plays.
This has a trickle-down effect, taking players away from the other areas of the defense one spot at a time. Eventually, you’re left with a team that is only able to rush 4-5 defenders at a time, knowing that a receiver is liable to come wide-open down the field if there aren’t additional resources committed to coverage.
Having to commit extra men to coverage also means that the team needs to be incredibly disciplined up front and in their approach against the run. If the Dolphins are in a situation in which it isn’t an obvious rushing down, they need to find balance between selling out to stop the running back and ensuring that nobody gets open down the field on a passing play.
Problem: When you’re facing Colin Kaepernick, you never know whether it’s going to be a run or a pass.
Cameron Wake falls for the option play, tackling the running back while Kaepernick has the ball. The 49ers’ QB takes an easy gap and runs for a big gain.
Later in the same drive, Kaepernick beat Kiko Alonso for a nice chunk of yardage.
Alonso is trying to position himself for the tackle, but he hesitates and is juked by the 49ers’ dual-threat QB.
On the 49ers’ first touchdown of the afternoon, the Dolphins’ defense’s athletic limitations showed up once again.
Here, Kiko Alonso is unable to catch up with Carlos Hyde to make the stop after taking a bad initial angle.
All of these plays reinforce one common-denominator: The Dolphins’ defensive strategy makes it incredibly difficult to stop offenses on downs when it isn’t clear whether or not the call will be a run or a pass.
Throughout the season, the Dolphins have been the NFL’s best defense on third down in terms of percentage. They only allow conversions on 33.1% of opponents’ attempts. However, they are allowing the 10th most first downs per game with 20.7. This is partially contributed to the problematic nature of 2nd down. In a 2nd & 6 situation, it’s incredibly difficult to guess whether a team will pass the ball or run it.
Because of personnel deficiencies, the Dolphins are often forced to sell out for stops. Against the Jets, you saw examples of this on Matt Forte’s biggest runs.
On these plays, Matt Forte has wide-open lanes because the Dolphins’ defense lacks a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who you can assume will be able to catch runners from behind. As you saw on the Carlos Hyde touchdown, athleticism is lacking within the linebacker corps.
When Colin Kaepernick hit Brent Celek for a TD, you saw another example of the Dolphins’ defense selling out on a play and getting burned because of it.
The Dolphins’ D was awaiting a running play here, and the team wasn’t able to cover both options at the same time. It ends up as an easy touchdown for the 9ers.
Sunday’s game was an extreme example of this dilemma; when facing a mobile QB, there is a threat of rushing the ball on every play. The Dolphins’ schedule only contains one more truly mobile QB in Tyrod Taylor. Even then, Taylor is more likely to gain rushing yards by scrambling rather than on designed plays. Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tom Brady aren’t exactly frightening dual threats.
However, there is an issue that the Dolphins’ defense will have to account for as they head down the stretch: Speed. Miami’s defense has struggled to defend pure-sprinters that they have faced this season, often realizing that dropping back several slow players into coverage still won’t help you cover the fastest ones.
Here is an example of where speed can kill the Dolphins at other levels of the defense:
Tyrod Taylor has plenty of time to throw, as the Dolphins revert to the aforementioned pattern of dropping everyone into coverage on obvious passing-downs. The problem is that the longer the QB sits in the pocket, the more his receivers can stretch out the defense. In this case, the extra men in coverage allow Tyrod Taylor time in the pocket, which creates an opportunity for speed-demon Marquise Goodwin.
Goodwin takes the top off of Miami’s defense, which can’t hold off players with his speed for very long at all. The Dolphins’ best-case scenario is that a pass rusher makes it through before their lack of athleticism and recovery speed can be exploited.
Against the Steelers, the Dolphins failed to defend another of the league’s speedsters: Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Vance Joseph has players in Heyward-Bey’s path but, after breaking a tackle, the Steelers’ WR is able to fly through Miami’s defense without being caught. Despite being in proper position, the players just aren’t able to physically execute well enough to stop him.
The Dolphins’ defense was able to handle speedster Torrey Smith fairly well on Sunday, but the defense clearly lacked in other areas because of those resources. Against the Rams, Miami didn’t have to worry much about Tavon Austin given Jared Goff’s limited range in his first start. However, the Dolphins will face a speed-oriented player they are very familiar with this Sunday.
Mike Wallace and Joe Flacco will look to test the Dolphins’ secondary by combining Wallace’s abilities with his QB’s arm talent. Even if the Dolphins put more men back in coverage, it’s likely that issues with decisions on angles and a lack of recovery speed would mean that Wallace could find production anyway.
How can the Dolphins slow down the potential Mike Wallace revenge game? It’ll all come down to Cameron Wake.
Thanks to the presence of Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake has been facing single blocking all season. Not only has Wake been incredibly productive (8.5 sacks with four games to go), but also one could argue that he has been the catalyst for Miami’s defensive improvement during the winning streak. Vance Joseph’s decision to play Wake for a substantial percentage of snaps coincided directly with Miami’s Week 6 win, which ignited the turnaround.
The Dolphins will need to follow suit on Sunday with extra men in coverage, and the only way to prevent the Flacco-Wallace connection from giving Vance Joseph headaches will be pressure on the quarterback. Now, we’re coming back to the same dilemma: It’s tough to get pressure when you can only rush four (or five if you’re feeling gutsy) players at a time.
However, Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake have been able to make up for the lack of extra blitzers, as Wake continues to take advantage of the presence of his defensive-line counterpart.
In theory, this is a strong demonstration of how the Dolphins’ defense has been able to find its mojo. Not only is the unit making plays in big moments (another feature of Joseph’s defense is to sell out for huge plays), but they are also managing to piece it together every week.
On paper, none of it should be working. In theory, there’s only a slight chance that it would work. In execution, Vance Joseph has the unit firing on all cylinders, despite the odds being stacked heavily against him.
The greatest question that remains for Miami’s defense is how sustainable the unit’s success is. Can they stay healthy? Even if they do, can they travel on the road and face dangerous offenses at home down the stretch?
Sunday’s game will be a good start in evaluating the ability of Vance Joseph to continue working his magic as the Dolphins fight for a coveted wildcard berth in the playoffs.