Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Inside the NFL Film Room: How 'Bout them Dolphins?

Finding new ways to get Jarvis Landry the ball is just one of the ways Miami is turning its season around.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The Miami Dolphins entered their fourth season under coach Joe Philbin with playoff expectations.

Miami had finished 2013 and 2014 with matching 8-8 records, enduring mini-collapses to end both campaigns.

2015 was supposed to be different, as quarterback Ryan Tannahill entered his fourth season as well, now with a revamped receiving corps that included budding young stars Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews and DeVante Parker, along with veteran Greg Jennings, and tight ends Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims.

Another unit expected to make a leap was the Dolphins offensive line, which was now two years removed from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying saga that tore it apart in 2013. Led by star center Mike Pouncey and left tackle Brandon Albert, along with a pair of promising young guards, the Miami line seemed poise to lead the way for a big year from Lamar Miller.

And that was just on offense.

The expectations were even higher on defense, as Miami opened up its wallet this past offseason for All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, signing the former Lion to a 6-year, $114 million deal that made him the highest paid defensive player in league history. Adding Suh to an improving defense that included revitalized pass rusher Cam Wake, and a promising secondary led by Brent Grimes surely made this a playoff team, right?

Unfortunately for Dol-fans, Miami's season began to fall apart almost instantaneously.

The Dolphins barely survived Week 1 against a bad Washington team, then suffered the embarrassment of losing at Jacksonville. Miami was then smacked around in back-to-back division games against the Bills and Jets, losing those two contests by a combined 40 points.

Miami could get little to nothing going on the ground as Lamar Miller was bottled up, and rumors of Suh's displeasure with the defensive scheme were flying around South Florida as the defense struggled to stop the run, rush the passer, or get off the field in general.

Something had to change and, during Miami's Week 5 bye, it did. Over the bye, the Dolphins relieved Philbin of his duties as head coach, officially declaring the Philbin era a failure, and one of unfulfilled promise. In his place, Miami would install former NFL tight end and current Dolphins tight ends coach Dan Campbell.

Almost over night, Miami looked like a new team. In their first game under Campbell, the Dolphins went on the road and smashed Tennessee 38-10, rushing for a season-high 180 yards in the process. Then, last week, Miami put on a clinic at home against struggling Houston, crushing the Texans 44-26 in a game they led 41-0 in. Things were going so well for Miami that, at one point, the Dolphins had more touchdowns (5) than the Texans had yards (3).

Miami's re-commitment to the ground game was again on full display, as Lamar Miller went off, and Miami rushed for a combined 248 yards.

If you want evidence that the Dolphins have become more physical under Campbell, the rush numbers are a great place to start. Under Philbin, Miami rushed for a paltry 69 yards per game, while surrendering over 160 yards on the ground to opponents.

Since Campbell took over, Miami has rushed for 214 yards per game and surrendered an average of just 67.

But improvement hasn't been limited to the ground. Tannehill has also been sharper, completing an absurd 83 percent of his passes, including 25 consecutive completions, since the coaching change. Prior to the change, Tannehill had been completing under 57 percent of his throws, and was chucking the ball an average of 35.25 times per game.

Since Philbin was dismissed, Miami has put less on Tannehill's plate, simplifying his reads, and only asking him to throw 24 times a game. On offense, it's been more a change of philosophy than actual schemes, as offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is still on staff. But it isn't just about running the ball more, the Dolphins are also getting more creative before the ball is snapped, and making defenses think more with motions, shifts and reverse looks.

Defensively, Miami has made some changes up front, probably in response to Suh's complaints that he was playing too much nose tackle. After dismissing defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, Miami promoted defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo. Since getting the job, Anarumo hasn't exactly revolutionized defensive football, but has at least put his players in position to succeed. As a result, the Dolphins have seen their rush defense improve dramatically, and created more one-on-one opportunities for Wake on the outside.

All around, Miami is doing exactly what most people thought they would do this year, just four games later than we expected them to do it. Make no mistake about it, the Titans and Texans are bad teams (Houston may have played the worst half an NFL team has played this decade against Miami last week), but there is something to this Miami turnaround.

Let's take a look at the film to see what I'm talking about.

Changes on Defense
With this, and all pictures, click to enlarge
First let's take a look at some of the alignment changes Miami has made defensively. This first play came in the Dolphins' Week 3 home game against Buffalo. Early on in the year, Miami was shifting its defensive line to the strong side, which is the offense's left here, due to the presence of Buffalo fullback Jerome Felton (42), and former Dolphins tight end Charles Clay (currently split out left, out of the frame). We're just going to focus on Suh, who has shifted to the left, taking him out of his desired three-technique (where he would line up over the outside shoulder of a guard) and into a 1-technique (in between the center and backside guard).

Rather than being used as a play-making defensive tackle, Suh is now limited to simply playing nose tackle and absorbing blocks. This is the guy they're paying $114 million to, by the way.
Regardless of whether or not this is a wise use of resources, Suh and the rest of the Dolphins line is going to slant down to the strong side, which is the perfect call, as you'll see, since the Bills are going to try and run it to their left. In this case, Suh has one responsibility: Get across center Eric Wood (70)'s face to control both A gaps (the gaps on either side of the center) and prevent a cut back.

But as you can see, Wood beats Suh to his spot, and gets his head around Suh's shoulder, sealing him to the backside of the play.
Now you'll see that Wood truly has Suh hooked, which is exactly what the Bills needed, because they are executing a fold block with play side tackle Gordy Glenn (77) and Clay (85). In this fold block, Clay blocks down take out Dolphins defensive end Terrence Feed, while Glenn pulls around to lead the way, alongside Felton.

To prevent backside defenders from blowing this play up before Glenn and Felton pull around and lead the way, Wood needs to handle Suh one-on-one, and former Dolphins guard Richie Incognito needs to reach block defensive tackle C.J. Mosley and seal him inside.
Despite the Dolphins being in the perfect alignment, with the perfect slant on, the Bills execute both those blocks and get exactly what they want on the corner. Whether due to effort, or just the fact that Suh isn't built to play the nose, he gets obliterated here. By the time Bills running back Karlos Williams (29) is cutting it upfield, Suh is five yards off the ball and still getting pushed backward. To make matters worse, Glenn and Felton have come totally free as blockers and are now bearing down on Dolphins corner Brice McCain (24).
Felton takes out McCain, and Glenn nearly blocks both Dolphins linebackers in pursuit. Williams can't quite stay on his feet, but the Bills gash Miami on the ground for a first down here, in what would be a long day for the Phins.

Now, let's take a look at what Miami is doing on first downs the last two weeks.

The first thing you'll notice is that Suh (93) is now playing strong side tackle, and is lined up in a three-technique (on the outside shoulder of the guard).
At the snap of the ball, Houston shows that it will not double Suh (something you can get away with when he's playing the nose, apparently), and will instead use tackle Chris Clark (74) to move to the second level and block linebacker Jelani Jenkins (53). Unlike against Buffalo, Suh destroys the single block, getting into guard Derek Newton's chest immediately and pushing him back.

Also note the job that defensive end Derrick Shelby (79) has done setting the edge on the strong side, and the great effort nose tackle Earl Mitchell (90) has put in to fight through a double team and get across the center's face to eliminate the cutback lanes (something Suh could not do against the Bills).

Defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) has also refused to be sealed to the back side, fighting across the back side tackle's face to further clamp things down. We also see Jenkins properly diagnosing run, and stepping up to take on the block early, along with backside pursuit from linebackers Koa Misi (55) and Kelvin Sheppard (52).
Basically, there's nowhere to go, as Suh is the first one to Texans running back Arian Foster, but a host of other Dolphins are rallying to the ball.
Misi and Shelby actually make the tackle, but it was the quick penetration from Suh, playing out of a more comfortable alignment, along with gap soundness across the front, that make the play for Miami.

When you look at these two plays, which are fairly representative of what Miami was doing against the run under both coaching staffs on first down, you see a stark contrast. Early on, the Dolphins were using Suh as a nose tackle and, whether he was uncomfortable there or simply not putting forth the requisite effort, he is obviously playing better as a three-technique.

(Note that this isn't all apple-to-apples. Buffalo is a power running team, while Houston's ground game is built on zone blocking, but the general principles of gap responsibility and getting off blocks transcend scheme. Suh, and the rest of the Dolphins front seven, are simply more active than they have been during the year's first four games.)

After recording no sacks in his first five games of the year, Suh grabbed a pair of quarterback sacks against Houston and was constantly disruptive in the Texans backfield. By playing to Suh's strengths, Miami may be able to rebound and build one of the league's better fronts.

Using Motion and Misdirection

With Ryan Tannehill throwing it all over the yard and most of Lamar Miller's carries going up the middle or off tackle, the Dolphins featured one of the more predictable offenses in football over the season's first month. Thus far, the staff has made a few changes to spice things up, and they've made Miami a much more difficult team to defend.

First let's take a look at the Statue of Liberty play Miami ran against Tennessee two weeks ago.

On this play Miami will do something it should do many times each game: Get the ball in wide receiver Jarvis Landry's hands. In case you've never watched Landry; He's a dude. Just a play maker you need to generate touches for. You'll know a lot more about him as the year goes on, he's that good.

Running the second-year receiver is nothing new for Miami, who has lined Landry up in the backfield a bunch early on this year, but the way they get Landry the ball is what makes this play novel.

Rather than lining him up next to Tannehill in the gun or just handing it to him on a Jet Sweep, the Dolphins find a creative way to get the budding star into open space, and he does the rest.
Miami lines up with two receivers to the wide side of the field and a pair of backs flanking Tannehill in the shotgun. Landry (14) is the slot receiver to the left.
Just before the snap, running back Lamar Miller (26) motions into the left flat behind the two receivers, giving a quick screen look.
The Titans quickly react to the potential screen to Miller, and Tannehill's pump fake freezes corner Coty Sensabaugh (24), who was in coverage on Landry.

This fake allows Landry to slip into the backfield and snag the hand-off from Tannehill. The Dolphins allow the defensive tackles into the backfield (another way to make the play appear to be a screen pass), banking on Landry's ability to out run them to the corner, so that they can pull a lineman and running back Damien Williams out in front of Landry.
Landry does get the corner, and is now moving toward the end zone with a wall of blockers in front of him.
Williams seals the corner to the outside, creating an alley for Landry to run through, and Rishard Matthews sets another nice block downfield. Then the rest is just a great individual effort.

Landry somehow beats three Titans for a score. Like I said, he's a dude.

Motion and the potential for a reverse will haunt future Dolphins opponents, as we see in our next play.
Here we see Miami lined up with trips to the left and a tight end on the line to the right.
Just before the snap, Miami sends receiver Kenny Stills in motion to the right, causing the Texans secondary to shift a bit and fall back, but not totally follow him. With the two corners playing as far off as they are, and both safeties hanging back, splitting the middle of the field between each other (though one appears to be creeping up, perhaps to cut off an inside release from the tight end), Houston seems to have tipped that it's playing Cover 4, or Quarters.

That's exactly what Miami wanted, because this play is built on misdirection, and will take advantage of the Texans having a third of their defenders so far away from the ball.
At the snap of the ball, Landry runs into the backfield, bellying his path out behind running back Lamar Miller, who runs up to take a fake hand-off. This gives the defense both an inside run and reverse look.
Both Texans corner Kevin Johnson (30) and linebacker Brian Cushing (56) have now broken down, preparing to take on blocks and stop Miller, while on the strong side linebacker Justin Tuggle and safety Andre Hal are reading reverse and focusing on Landry. Johnson and Cushing will quickly realize Miller doesn't have the ball and begin backside pursuit of Landry as well.
Of course, both of these are fakes, and while Houston is paying attention to Landry, Miller sneaks out of the backfield to the left, and three Dolphins linemen come with him, forming a wall.
Houston is so comically out of position (with three players at least 20 yards off the line), that Miami only needs to set one block for Miller to get across the 50, then it's just good blocking, poor tackling, and smart running from Miller all the way to the end zone.

Teams now know that Miami is not afraid to run reverses and use motion to its advantage, so they have to account for it, especially when Landry is the one in motion. Miami is now playing off that to create opportunities in the passing game, both on screens and down the field, and the Dolphins have also used some fake reverse action to free Miller for for big gains up the middle.

Frankly, I could show a bunch of other plays from the Houston game, but there were so many missed tackles and botched Texans assignments on long touchdowns from Landry and Miller. Being that I wanted to show the plays that more represented the Dolphins executing, and less represented Houston being a total dumpster fire defensively right now, I limited my selection to these plays.

I know it's only been two games, and Miami's opponents have been pretty bad, but the Dolphins are now putting their personnel in position to succeed on both sides of the ball. With Suh back to playing the three-technique regularly and Miami finding new ways get their many talented skill players in space, the Dolphins may not be dead quite yet.

Obviously, we'll know a lot more about this team Thursday night when it travels to Foxboro to play the undefeated Patriots. You can be sure that if I've noticed these changes, so has Bill Belichick, and I'm sure he'll have answers for the new-look Dolphins.

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