Happy Friday, friends. I hope you're hungry, because today we're going to munch on some Dolphins that got caught in the nets. The Broncos travel south to sunny Miami, where they've never won a regular season game. Since the Dolphins seem hell-bent on winning the Suck for Luck sweepstakes, it's looking like the Broncos will have a solid chance to end that streak. Can you hear the zealots? Tebow is the greatest ever! He did something that no Broncos QB has ever done!
Personally, I'd be happy with continuous improvement from Tebow, and effective overall play. If the Broncos get that, and if the defense plays like it did in the second half vs. San Diego, I feel pretty good about their chances to improve to 2-4. If not, there's always next week. Anyway, let's get on with the show. As En Vogue once said, Now it's time for a breakdown.
Game Watched: Dolphins at NY Jets (Week 6)
a. The first thing you notice about Miami on defense is that they’re stout against the run up front. They play a two-gapping Fairbanks-Bullough style of 3-4, and their coordinator is old friend Mike Nolan, who has better scheme-fit players than he did in his only year in Denver.
The starting Defensive Line consists of LE Kendall Langford, NT Paul Soliai, and RE Randy Starks. They’re followed in the rotation by backup DEs Tony McDaniel, Phillip Merling, and Jared Odrick, and DE-NT Igor Olshansky. That’s seven quality bodies, and each of those players is capable of tying up a blocker and to play two gaps in the running game. None is a dynamic pass rusher, but they’re all pretty much what Nolan wants. Starks is definitely the best player, followed by Soliai and the emerging Odrick, who was 2010’s first-round pick.
b. The LBs looked pretty good against the Jets but are a fairly average group overall. OLB Cameron Wake is a dangerous pass rusher, but he doesn’t give you very much in any other area of the game. He has three of the Dolphins’ eight sacks this season. The other starting OLB is Koa Misi, who’s in his second season. I remember all kinds of speculation after last year’s Draft on Sirius NFL Radio that Misi was going to be Rookie of the Year and take the league by storm as a pass rusher, but nothing resembling that has happened. He’s been Just A Guy, and in fact, he’s come off the field a lot of times in pass rush situations in favor of veteran Jason Taylor. Taylor and Misi each have one sack, and in fact, seven of the Dolphins’ eight come from LBs this year, with none coming from the Defensive Line. The other backup, Jason Trusnik, is mostly a special-teamer.
Inside, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett are both solid players. Dansby is more of a striker in the running game, and Burnett is more of a coverage guy. I thought both looked pretty good in those roles Monday night, although our friends at PFF rate each player as negatives for the season. The backup ILB Marvin Mitchell doesn’t see the field on defense a whole lot.
c. If you look at where the pass rush comes from, you wouldn’t be too surprised about which players are hitting the QB.
It’s almost all DL and OLBs coming in the rush game, just like we saw from the Chargers. The Dolphins don’t do much at all with dropping DL into coverage, or blitzing from the secondary. Those activities are worth keeping an eye on, but the Broncos are unlikely to see them much. Just as we remember from the short-lived Nolan era, this defense is relying on players, and not so much on getting cute with the scheme. The Dolphins average 4.5 rushers and 6.5 coverage players, which, again, is very Charger-like.
d. I’ve always liked CB Sean Smith, but he hasn’t looked as good when I’ve seen him this year as he did in his first two seasons. Smith is tall and can run, and he’s best used in man-to-man coverage, which Miami does a lot of. He’s giving up catches this season and dropping interceptions. The other CB is Vontae Davis, and I also think he’s regressed a bit. Davis is an outstanding athlete, one of the best at the CB position, but he gets himself turned around sometimes against good route-runners. Backups Will Allen and Nolan Carroll see the field a lot, and the Dolphins do use a lot of sub packages, as offenses bring in extra receivers. They’re a personnel-matching team, as opposed to a team like Pittsburgh, who figures they can mostly stay in their base personnel and do just fine.
e. Another historical YGS Favorite is SS Yeremiah Bell, but he’s not having a great year. I like his physicality in the box and his instincts, but he looks a step slower this year than in the past. FS Reshad Jones is nothing special, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to get guys deep against this back end. The backups Chris Clemons, Tyrone Culver, and Gerald Alexander are unlikely to see the field much on defense. Culver has played six snaps all season, and the other two haven’t been out there. The Dolphins use CBs as their sub guys almost exclusively.
f. The overall participation data shows the Dolphins to be a base-to-nickel defense:
Interestingly, the Dolphins vary who comes out for the nickelback – sometimes it’s a lineman, and other times it’s a LB. That makes good sense, based on the situation, but it’s pretty atypical in the NFL. Usually a 3-4 team will either become a 2-4 team or a 3-3 team in nickel situations.
g. Miami should have a good defense, and it does most of the parts of the job of a good defense well at times. By that, I mean that they’re usually solid against the run and they’re usually good at covering on the outside, and they often generate some pass rush up front. (That sounds a little like the Broncos, actually.) The issue is consistency and longevity. As the offense plays terribly, the defense eventually starts to break down, and the second halves of games have been difficult for the Dolphins this season. They’ve been outscored 64-39 in the second half, and it’s been especially bad since the Matt Moore era began, at 23-6.
a. The Dolphins were conceived by Bill Parcells to be big and strong on the offensive line. With that in mind, they made LT Jake Long the first pick of the 2008 Draft (passing on Matt Ryan), and they subsequently drafted C Mike Pouncey in the first round in 2011. Prior RT Vernon Carey (himself a first-rounder in 2004) is now at RG, and veteran RT Marc Colombo (another #1 in 2002) join LG Richie Incognito (not a first-rounder, but he has a cool last name) to fill out the line.
This is a group that can play well, especially the left side. Long is not having a great season overall, but he looked pretty solid against the Jets on Monday night. In general, I don’t think he’s as good as his reputation. While he can often dominate in the running game, he struggles with elite speed off the edge. He’s given up four sacks already this season. Incognito is a nasty player, and the book on him has always been that he takes stupid penalties by letting his emotions get away from him, but that he’s otherwise an above-average player.
The rookie C Pouncey has been better than his brother Maurkice was last season, and could easily be called the best player on the Dolphins offense through five games. He was pretty average to me against the Jets, but I think that was an outlier against an emerging NT in Sione Pouha. Carey has been up-and-down with his move inside to RG, struggling with inside pass rush and playing solidly in the running game. I’d been hearing of his struggles in the early part of the season, but I thought he looked good against the Jets. The RT Colombo is a turnstile at this point. He’s only given up two sacks, but teams have 18 pressures and five other QB hits on him this season.
As a group, the Dolphins are a lot better blocking for the running game than the passing game. If you get them into 3rd-and-long situations, the Dolphins are really going to struggle to protect the QB, and there’s a lot of opportunity there to create turnovers.
b. The QB is Matt Moore, who has some talent but isn’t a good player. Moore is mobile and he throws a good ball, but he’s a bad decision-maker, and that’s what comes out when you watch him. Like a younger Kyle Orton, Moore will often walk right into sacks, and early in the 3rd Quarter Monday, he took one by running out of bounds when he could have easily thrown the ball away. That mistake took the Dolphins out of field goal range in a game that they were very much in at that point. Moore will especially struggle with pressure, and getting some is a great idea.
c. The RB position consists mainly of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. Bush is not a featured back, and Miami continues to try to use him as one, to poor effect. He is dangerous in space, and it’s a good idea not to miss tackles or lose gap integrity against him. Thomas is more of a between-the-tackles guy, but he’s pretty un-dynamic. Lex Hilliard is the primary FB, and Steve Slaton is on the roster as a backup RB as well. None of these players is a good pass protector, and they’re all asked to do it a fair amount, although Bush only did so once against New York, so the team may be wising up on that.
The Dolphins minimum-protect a fair bit and rarely max-protect, and this boggles my mind. They totaled 120 extra blockers in 207 snaps, which means that they average 5.58 blockers per pass play.
d. The starting WRs are Brandon Marshall and Brian Hartline. Marshall, we know well; he’s as talented as anybody in the NFL, but his effort comes and goes, and his play is pretty inconsistent. I suspect that he’ll be motivated on Sunday, and that he’ll play well, because a player who turns his intensity off and on will tend to have it on in a game where he thinks there may be some attention in it for him. (MARSHALL BURNS FORMER TEAM!) Hartline is a marginal talent who was undrafted for a good reason. He has excellent size and pretty good speed, but he’s just not that good of a player. The third WR is Davone Bess, and he’s a decent slot guy, but he doesn’t scare teams that much with the big play. The only other player who’s seen the field at WR this year is rookie Clyde Gates; he’s a speedster, but he’s very raw as a football player.
e. The TEs are Anthony Fasano and Jeron Mastrud. Fasano is a decent two-way player, and Mastrud is nothing special. The Dophins, like seemingly everybody else, are sometimes using OT Nate Garner as an extra TE as well, and FB Charles Clay plays TE sometimes too. This group is more block than catch, although Fasano can hurt you in the middle of the field, here and there.
f. Here’s the season-to-date participation data for the skill position guys:
Some observations of this data tell us the following:
1. The Dolphins average 1.34 Tight Ends, 1.18 Running Backs, and 2.45 Wide Receivers on any given snap. From a packaging standpoint, they’re very similar to the Chargers, and they don’t do a lot to drive matchups, save the consideration of whether to have Bush or Thomas on the field on a given play.
2. Mastrud’s presence strongly indicates run, and so does Garner’s as a TE, with both frequencies being right around 73%. The Dolphins will throw with either guy out there, but the percentages say to play it as a run. With Clay as an extra TE, there’s no tendency.
3. Bush is much more likely to be on the field in passing downs than Thomas is, which makes a lot of sense if you consider the skill sets of each player.
4. Fasano has played 316 out of 337 offensive snaps, so he’s pretty much always out there.
5. Gates is used mostly in four-wide sets, (which aren’t common), and not as a substitute for other players.
g. I would point out in a general way that the primary reason that the Dolphins are 0-5 is that they don’t convert on third down. They’re converting 24.2% this season, which is last in the NFL. #31 is the also winless St. Louis Rams at 27%, and then everybody else is at 33% or higher. This is a major issue for the Dolphins. They’re also minus-7 on turnovers, which ties for 30th in the NFL. This is an easy story to tell.
Beating the Dolphins Defense
a. I said that the Dolphins are solid against the run, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful running against them. On the contrary, staying patient with the run is important, because it forces guys like Cameron Wake to play run first, which lessens their pass rush effectiveness. I expect to see a lot of runs to Willis McGahee, Tim Tebow, and hopefully, Knowshon Moreno.
b. Miami is pretty susceptible to play action, and with Tebow at QB this season, I expect the Broncos to mostly be a run-to-play-action team, where most plays have elements that look like run. It’s the kind of thing that Tebow did extensively in college, and having him execute fakes is the best way to put him on rhythm, and give him a sense of timing. Effective run fakes also tend to provide separation for receivers on isolation routes against man-to-man coverage. Let me show you what I mean:
This starts out looking like an outside zone run right, but it ends up being a half-field read of a two-man pattern back to the left side. The fake has to be good, but the key is going to be block fakes by the X and the slot guy. Both are going to start out their first couple steps looking like they’re going to block the RCB and the LOLB. That’s going to tell the FS that he can flow right with the run action. The nickel CB hopefully also gets flat-footed for a moment. When the X runs deep, and the slot guy runs the shallow crosser, Tebow has a three-way go against man coverage. He can throw it deep, throw it short, or run. One of those options is virtually guaranteed to be wide open against man coverage.
c. The QB run threat in initial passing looks is really dangerous against all the man-to-man that Miami will play, because there will be a bunch of guys with their backs to him. Look for Tebow to break a couple of big runs in this game, like he did against Oakland last season. If the Dolphins spy him at times, that’s cool too, because it costs them a coverage player.
d. I really like the screen game to whatever side Wake is coming from. The Orton-era Broncos didn’t have this ability as much, but with Tebow, the screen is a huge weapon, and helps to slow down the pass rush.
e. I’d like to see what Demariyus Thomas has on the 9 route. I think going deep 3-4 times against Miami is a really smart idea overall, given the box-focus of Bell and the general underwhelmingness of Jones.
Stopping the Dolphins Offense
a. The name of the game is gap discipline and stuffing the run. If the defense can keep Miami off schedule by limiting the run, the Broncos are going to win this game. Miami can get it blocked at times, and Bush is dangerous with a crease, so tackling is paramount.
b. The Dolphins have nobody outside who scares me from a man coverage perspective. I’d assign Champ Bailey to Marshall all day and let Andre’ Goodman take care of Hartline. If Bess is on the field, Cassius Vaughn can have him. Fasano doesn’t particularly scare me in the passing game either. The only guy I’m really worried about matchup-wise is Bush, and the Dolphins haven’t shown a lot of ability to take advantage of his special skills.
c. The Broncos should play a lot of Cover-1 and bring five men in the pass rush on every play. The Dolphins struggle to protect, and Moore struggles to play QB effectively under pressure. There’s really nothing complicated about this – Man-under, Rahim Moore in centerfield, and consistent pressure.
d. I’m really interested to see what Miami does to help Colombo, because this is the first time they’ve faced two big-time pass rushers this season. I suspect that they’ll frequently keep a TE in to help on the right side, and that removes a receiver from the equation. If the Dolphins keep in six blockers, the Broncos need to rush six. You do that by assigning D.J. Williams (or whoever) to cover that TE and let them read keys and green-dog if the dude is blocking. One way or another, I want Colombo to have to hold up against Von Miller or Elvis Dumervil, because he can’t. If Mastrud and Colombo want to double Miller, I’m fine with D.J. running free off the edge to crush Moore.
I think that the Broncos are the better football team, and that they should win this game. I expect that the Tebow era will get off to a good start on Gator Day, and that we’ll all have something to smile about Sunday evening.