Quarterbacks and wide receivers: those are the hot topics for Dolphins fans these days. All eyes are focused on the development of Ryan Tannehill, the shiny new first round quarterback, and the subsequent competition at that position. All eyes are focused intently on if and how this receiving core, loaded with potential AND question marks, will develop into a unit capable of beating opposing secondaries. Fans are concerned, yet optimistic about the new offense which is being retooled and rebuilt. But once again, the Miami Dolphins will look to a strong defensive unit to carry this team while the new offense gets its legs under itself.
Over the past few seasons, Miami has used a base 3-4 defense. Over the past two seasons, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan ran a hybrid defense that used some 4 man fronts, but still mainly operated out of the 34 base. New defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has decided to use another hybrid defense, but this unit will be out of the base 4-3 set. While questions abound on the offense, this defense has the chance to be one of the better units in the NFL. If the defense remains stout, the Dolphins will stay competitive this season. The defense is not without its own question marks though. The biggest question mark with them deals with the change in scheme. If they cannot handle the scheme change well, the Dolphins could be in for a long season. That being said, I believe the transition from one scheme to another will be smooth.
This two part series is going to highlight the roles of the Miami Dolphins front 7 defenders in the new 4-3 base defense. I hope to cover how the move benefits the players and the questions raised by the move.
Resigning Paul Soliai seemed to make sense if the Dolphins planned to stay in a 3-4 defense. When it became known that the Dolphins were moving to a 4-3, the move made less sense... on the surface. However, I think if you look at how Soliai plays and what his role will be on the defense, he becomes a very important piece. In 2010, Soliai had his breakout season with 39 tackles, 2 sacks, and a fumble recovery. In 2011, Soliai didn't have quite as good a year, with 27 total tackles, no sacks, or fumbles forced. I think Soliai's apparent struggles come from scheme and personnel.
Soliai plays the all important nose tackle position in a 3-4, which is called the 0-technique. That means he plays directly over center and is responsible for both A-gaps, or the gaps between the center and guards. However, in some 3-4 defenses, the nose tackle is responsible for only one gap and an inside linebacker behind them is responsible for the other gap. This is the type of defense the Dolphins played in 2010 with Channing Crowder. Soliai hit one of the A-gaps, Crowder hit the other, and Dansby cleaned up the rest. As that type of nose tackle, Soliai excelled. In 2011, it appeared that Miami wanted Soliai to play more of the 2-gap NT and he wasn't as effective.
Now in a 4-3 defense, Soliai will move to the 4-3 nose tackle position, or 1-technique. He will no longer be lined up directly over the center, but over the inside shoulder of a guard. He will once again be a one-gap defensive tackle and this should allow him to become more of a presence in the backfield. I personally think he is a perfect fit for this position. He will be able to stuff the run, command double teams, open up things for Starks and Odrick on the interior, and let the linebackers make plays. The biggest question mark with Soliai at this position is pass rushing ability. Everyone knows what they are getting from him as a run defender. Will Soliai be able to generate some pressure from the interior? That answer will determine how many snaps he gets to play.
Starks looks to be a lock to start as the defensive tackle along with Soliai. Starks is primed to play the 3-technique, which means he lines up over the outside shoulder of the guard. This position will allow him to become an interior pass rushing threat. His job will be to penetrate into the backfield from the B-gap and force the quarterback out of the pocket and hopefully into the clutches of Wake, Odrick, Vernon, or whoever the outside rusher is on that play. Starks has shown he can be a good pass rusher from the 3-4 defensive end spot, and his speed, strength, and athleticism should translate well to the interior line. The biggest question mark here is whether or not Starks can be effective in run defense. With Soliai closing one side of the line down, teams will be running to Starks' side more. I don't really see this as too big of an issue, but you never know.
Jared Odrick was drafted in 2010 to be the starting right end in the Dolphins 3-4 front. He has the perfect combination of size and athleticism to play the 5-technique. Many fans questioned this pick because the team missed out on more impactful players like Dez Bryant or Jason Pierre-Paul. Well the shift to a 4-3 makes Odrick a much bigger deal than before. In my opinion, Odrick is the lynchpin of the entire defensive scheme. His performance will determine much of what the defense plans to do week in and week out. Odrick will start at the left defensive end in the base 4-3 set. His primary responsibility at that position will be to contain the run. He will have to control both B and C gaps. He was able to accrue 6 sacks last season in a situational role, so he will also be expected to generate some pressure from that position as well. The reason Odrick is so important is that he must hold down that position if the Dolphins plan to stay competitive. This gives them time to develop rookie Olivier Vernon into an every down defensive end. If he cannot play this position effectively, the Dolphins defense will suffer.
Right now, he is the best option on the team to fill that role. However, I don't see him becoming a full time left end. I think his best position now and in the future will be at the 3 technique. This is where you will see Odrick on obvious passing downs. He will use his speed and athleticism to get after the quarterback from the interior. How he plays at this position will be important against teams like New England, who pass the ball more than they run. If Vernon develops quicker than expected and/or Miami acquires another edge rusher in 2013 (they should), then Odrick will move into the 3-tech spot for good.
There are two major questions concerning Odrick right now. The first and most obvious question involves his ability to generate pressure from the edge, as mentioned. He won't be considered a speed threat off the edge, but he will need to show ability to get after the quarterback. Can he do that consistently? The second major question is whether or not Odrick can hold up for an entire season as a starter. Odrick missed nearly all of his rookie season with a leg injury. He did see an increase in snaps in 2011, but as a situational player and not a starter. Odrick is going to be asked to play significantly more snaps this season. Can and will he hold up physically?
Cameron Wake's role in the 4-3 front is obvious: get after the quarterback. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, Wake was asked to rush the passer, while also asked to drop into coverage. While I'm sure the play calling involved an elaborate rush from other players, it always seemed to me to be a waste of assets to make your best pass rusher do anything but rush the passer. Now, Wake shouldn't have to do that nearly as much. His primary task will be to generate pressure on the quarterback, which is the area in which he excels. He will operate from the right side, except on obvious passing downs and sub packages, where he will move to left side (which he prefers). The biggest question if any regarding Wake will be about his ability to hold up as an every down defensive end. Wake isn't a prototypical end in terms of size and that could be a factor as the season goes on. However, this is a minor issue in my mind and I don't see it being a big deal.
The rookie defensive end from ‘The U' will be a major contributor as a reserve. His most likely niche starting out will be as a right defensive end in passing situations and sub packages. As mentioned, Wake prefers to rush from the left side. When he moves over, someone will have to take his place on the right side and that would appear to be Vernon. Vernon will likely split game day reps with Westerman, until Vernon proves he can lock down the position. Vernon also has the ability to move inside and rush from the interior; though I think he will get more reps at end. The ideal situation would be for Vernon to develop into an every down defensive end, allowing Odrick to move back inside.
Jamaal Westerman will be a reserve pass rusher and possibly starting left end if Odrick can't play that position for whatever reason. Tony McDaniel will be a reserve defensive tackle; probably for the 3-tech spot (though I think he's a better fit as the 1-tech). Kheeston Randall will also be a reserve for the defensive tackle and will spell Soliai at the 1-tech. There could be a reserve defensive end from the undrafted free agent class with Jacquies Smith or Jarrell Root.
Next week, we will look at how our current set of linebackers fits into the 4-3 scheme and what their roles will be.