Cardinal Calamity: David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald Appear Primed for Big Days in Miami

Throughout the 2016 season, the Dolphins have had success against high-powered NFL offenses. They are currently 2-1 against top-10 passing attacks with wins over the Chargers and Steelers with their loss coming against the Patriots.

Often, concerns have been raised heading into games about Miami’s ability to cover well-equipped, dangerous offenses. Each time it seems that there’s no reason to expect the Dolphins to be able to hold back another team’s weapons, but somehow Vance Joseph has come up big when his team faces stiff opposition.

The problem is that they do not show the traits consistently that have at times allowed them to perform at a high level.

Sometimes the Dolphins defensive line will come out and play their gaps well, using deliberate design to shut down rushing lanes. On some occasions, the team’s linebackers have been incredibly well prepared and disruptive in the passing game. Miami will also often rely on their defensive backs to make heads up plays and take away receivers downfield.

However, these things rarely all occur in the same week. The defense often has the ability to take away one element of an opponent’s offense, then falter in another area. Even worse, the defense sometimes doesn’t do any of those things.

Week 13’s game against Baltimore was an example of the latter. The Dolphins defense was undisciplined, seemingly unprepared and shredded by a team that doesn’t have a wealth of high-level talent. Nothing went right, and sometimes it was as simple as the way the ball bounced for them.

Bounces wrong way for Miami.gif

In the prior weeks, the play above falls to the ground or is intercepted. Luck had been in Miami’s favor, and it clearly was not against the Ravens.

In Week 14, luck won’t be enough. The Dolphins are facing one of the NFL’s most well-equipped offensive attacks as David Johnson, Carson Palmer, Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals’ seemingly bottomless pit of weapons come into Hard Rock Stadium.

Sure, the Cardinals are a subpar team this season with a 5-6-1 record. However, their personnel is not vastly different than the ground that led them to the NFC Championship Game last season. Their offense is capable of carving up almost any of the league’s units, and that is thanks in no small part to two of their most dynamic weapons:

The ageless Larry Fitzgerald, and the up-and-coming David Johnson.

It really seems unfair to call David Johnson an up-and-comer. Really, he has already arrived.

On Sunday, the Dolphins will need to be at the top of their game to defend Johnson. The Northern Iowa product has incredible burst, balance, vision and elusiveness. Some running backs are tough to get a hand on, and others are tough to bring down once you get there. Johnson is both.

There is a strong argument to be made that, given Russell Wilson’s (slight) down year and Tom Brady’s suspension, David Johnson is the best offensive player Miami has faced in 2016.

Against the Jets, Johnson showed exactly why he’s the future of the NFL at running back by displaying all of his aforementioned abilities on one play.

DJ 2.gif

After hitting the hole and making a defender miss, Johnson bounces outside and hits the turbo. He manages to stay on his feet despite contact while maintaining speed, blazing down the sideline and into the end zone.

His impressive balance and vast arsenal of moves to evade defenders add to the danger he poses to opposing defenses.

DJ 1.gif

On the play above, Johnson appears to be bottled up but manages to stay on his feet and keep himself aware downfield. After bouncing outside, Johnson makes another defender miss and helps pick up the first down on a play that initially appeared to be bottled up.

How do you stop David Johnson when he’s carrying the ball? Gap control and fundamental tackling are your only hopes. Defenses often attempt to overcompensate against Johnson by trying to bring him down in the backfield, but he’s almost impossible to stop in the open field. Defenses have to play as a complete unit if they want to slow him down as a ball carrier.

However, if he isn’t hurting you as a ball carrier, he’s probably doing it as a receiver.

David Johnson is currently the third-leading rusher with 1,005 yards and the third-leading scorer on the ground with 11 TDs. While impressive, those numbers aren’t historic.

They become historic when you consider the fact that he also has over 700 yards receiving on 64 catches. He’s currently 20 catches ahead of DeVante Parker and has outpaced Miami’s No. 2 receiver by 201 yards. As a running back.

Part of what makes Johnson so dangerous is the supporting cast he plays with in Arizona. The Cardinals’ offense is known to stretch the field deep thanks to not only a litany of speed receivers, but also the presence of Larry Fitzgerald underneath. When accounting for Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, John Brown, Jermaine Gresham and the running game, it’s often hard to be focused on the running back’s ability to beat you out of the backfield as a receiver.

Arizona’s offense keeps opposing defensive coordinators honest due to the threat of a deep shot on any snap. This means that there are often openings for Johnson to gain easy yards as a receiver.

GIF - Can't Cover DJ out of backfield.gif

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the play above. However, there is something wrong with trying to catch up to David Johnson in coverage. Su’a Cravens is unable to gain enough ground to stop Johnson from picking up the easy first down.

Does anyone actually see a linebacker on the Dolphins capable of covering Johnson on that snap?

When coverage is concentrated downfield, Palmer always has Johnson as an easy outlet underneath.

GIF - Johnson Huge Catch.gif

The greatest advantage of having a player like Johnson is that he’s always serving a purpose on the field. On the play above, the Bucs leave a linebacker and a corner playing off-coverage underneath to stop David Johnson. He’s able to make them miss and turn it into a 50+-yard gain.

If you leave more coverage or center your attention underneath against Johnson? Well…

GIF - Huge Jaron TD.gif

The Bucs’ defense has its eyes underneath, the safety hesitates and it ends up being a huge touchdown for the Cardinals.

The Dolphins do not have the safety coverage to hold up consistently over the top against the Cardinals deep route-combinations, and Miami clearly will struggle to leave linebackers underneath with the responsibility of holding Johnson back from huge production.

While less concerning than having to face David Johnson, the Dolphins will need to give plenty of attention to Larry Fitzgerald on Sunday. Fitzgerald, much like a TE, specializes in settling into weak zones of the defense. The Dolphins have been able to cover crafty route runners, but Miami struggles against players who have an advanced understanding of how to attack zone defenses.

Here’s an example of Fitzgerald’s ability to settle into a weak zone from last week’s game against the Redskins:

GIF - Chemistyr with Fitz, Weak spot in D.gif

Fitzgerald finds himself coming over the middle and clearly slows down to allow Carson Palmer to get him the ball where defenders are nowhere to break up the pass.

GIF - Chemistyr with Fitz, Weak spot in D ANGLE 2.gif

The linebacker who comes flashing across Fitzgerald’s face was the best chance to stop this play; it really could have been an interception.

One of the keys to Sunday’s game will be making sure that the Dolphins’ linebackers are focused and aware in coverage. Often it appears that Miami’s players at that position struggle to get their hands up in coverage or use their upper bodies to bat down passes and prevent big plays.

Another huge issue for the Dolphins’ defense has been early reaction. Linebackers often fail to react until the ball is already out of the quarterback’s hand or, even worse, already caught by the intended target.

Here’s an example of what late recognition gets you against Arizona:

GIF - David Johnson Improv.gif

GIF - David Johnson Improv ANGLE 2.gif

Carson Palmer stands in and finds David Johnson leaking out of the backfield and towards the marker. Palmer flips the ball out to his running back, who remains untouched until he has already gotten the first down.

Mario Addison and Thomas Davis both need to react earlier in this situation. On Sunday, it will be on the Dolphins’ defenders in the front seven to be ready not only for Johnson out of the backfield, but also to break up passes headed towards Larry Fitzgerald in weak parts of the defense.

It’s easy to see where problems could arise for the Dolphins on Sunday. Arizona’s offense is tough to defend when a team lacks high-end players who can singlehandedly take away a receiver or option underneath. The Dolphins don’t have a speedy linebacker who can play sideline to sideline, or a corner who can be relied on to shut down his side of the field. The Dolphins’ defense needs all 11 men to be focused, prepared and to play as a team. The unit does not perform well when they’re trying to make individual plays; they shine when they are working as a team to compensate for each other’s struggles.

This article marks the third occasion on which I have written that the Dolphins are primed to be exploited by another team’s offense. Currently, the Dolphins are 2-0 when I have done so, defeating the Steelers and Bills while shutting down the Taylor-McCoy and Bell-Brown-Roethlisberger combos.

The Cardinals are not only a turnover-prone team, but also have been plagued by inconsistency. They don’t bring everything to the table each week and often cost themselves games through miscues. The Dolphins should have a chance to win Sunday’s game; I don’t believe that the Cardinals, traveling across the country for a 1:00pm game and playing for nothing other than their pride, will be able to decimate the Dolphins like the Titans or, even worse, Ravens.

But, if Sunday’s game comes down to a late drive with Carson Palmer, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald looking to punch it into the end zone for the win, the Dolphins’ defense will have to play its best football of the season to stand a chance at stopping the Cardinals’ ninth-ranked offensive attack.

If they can’t slow down Arizona, the Dolphins’ hunt for the playoffs could come to a screeching, heartbreaking conclusion at Hard Rock Stadium.

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