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The New Miami Dolphins Defense: Hybrid Fronts Gone Wild

Miami moved from a 3-4 to 4-3 defense last season. But with the addition of rookie Dion Jordan, the Dolphins might want to use both.

Dion Jordan is excited he made it to the NFL.  Opposing QBs? Not so much.
Dion Jordan is excited he made it to the NFL. Opposing QBs? Not so much.

The Miami Dolphins have made headlines all off-season with their blitzkrieg approach to rebuilding the roster. Jeff Ireland made move after move in free agency addressing plenty of team needs and getting good caliber players to fill those needs. The draft was no different as the first big move of the draft was Miami trading up for Oregon edge rusher Dion Jordan. Considered by most to be the best pass rushing prospect in the draft, Jordan was THE player in 2013 that Jeff Ireland said he would NOT miss out on in the draft.

Most Miami fans are still basking in the rays of post-draft excitement and optimism after the embattled GM makes what appears to be quality picks in the draft. However, some in the media have questioned Ireland's decision to move up for Jordan. The biggest questions are: how does Jordan fit in the scheme and will he contribute right away? These are valid questions that fans should not dismiss as mere disrespect from the media.

Miami has been a 3-4 defense for years and in 2012, made the move to play 4-3. Jordan projected to be more of a 3-4 edge rusher than a 4-3 edge rusher based on his size. While he checks in at over 6'6", he only weighs about 250 pounds. When you look at him, he doesn't appear to be big enough to play a full time 4-3 defensive end at the pro level. Part of the issue was a torn labrum and the subsequent surgery to repair it that has prevented him from getting in the weight room and adding weight and bulk. He says that as soon as the recovery is complete, he'll be back in the weight room and will start adding some weight. But the lack of bulk makes some wonder if he'll be a heavy contributor as a rookie at the defensive end position.

After the pick was made, some fans were asking the Dolphins beat writers via twitter if Miami is moving back to a 3-4 front. There were various answers and speculation, none of which were definitive. However, it got me thinking about what Miami's defense may look like this season and beyond. Like those questioning the pick, I too wondered about Jordan's fit within the defense. So I thought I would take a look at the possibility of Miami swapping back to the 3-4. The more I thought about it, the more the idea of using a hybrid defense with various fronts made incredible sense.

In reality, very few teams anymore run a strict version of the 3-4 or the 4-3. Most teams use hybrid schemes where the defense will show various formations throughout the game. Miami was one of those few teams that primarily based one scheme though. This season however, I think Miami could be using a hybrid scheme in order to maximize the talent of the front seven, including Jordan. The Dolphins have the personnel to play a hybrid scheme and play it very well. Let's look at the 3-4 front first.

The 3-4 Look

The Dolphins still have holdovers from the 3-4 days that are effective in either scheme. Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, and Jared Odrick have the experience and talent to be a devastating defensive line in the 3-4. Soliai can play a 1-gap 0-tech very well. Soliai is best when he can pick a gap and go (this is also what makes him an effective 1-tech in a 4-3 scheme). Starks and Odrick are ideal 5-techs that can not only set the edge in the run game, but can generate pressure from the 3-4 end position. The ONLY issue with a lot of 3-4 looks is depth. Miami did sign Vaughn Martin who has experience at 3-4 DE, but he's about it. Kheeston Randall could play either the nose or end, but is inexperienced and it is unknown if he would be effective in the 3-4. But for the starters, Miami is in good shape.

The linebackers are a pretty solid group. The outside linebackers would be Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, and of course Jordan. The inside linebackers would most likely be new additions Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. Koa Misi and rookie Jelani Jenkins would be the depth at that position, with Misi being the versatile linebacker than can play SOLB or ILB. Jenkins may be a big undersized for the 3-4 ILB spot, but could be used for his coverage skills. With Austin Spitler in the mix, the Dolphins have both good starters and good depth at the linebacker position.

In this week's Clayton's Mailbag article, ESPN football writer John Clayton was asked about the difference in cornerback and safety play with the different fronts. He says that 3-4 teams tend to play more zone than 4-3 teams. He also says that the safety (most likely strong safety) plays in the box more in the 3-4. Of course Clayton is generalizing, but given the 3-4 front's nature as a good run defense, his assessment makes sense. The Dolphins have already said they want to play more zone coverage this year and that would fit in the 3-4 mold. Reshad Jones would be the safety to move into the box to play the run and cover the tight ends while the other starting safety (interesting battle in camp to watch) will play the deep, centerfield role. But regardless of fronts, Miami's secondary has players to work either scheme.

The 4-3 Look

We are already familiar with this since we ran the 4-3 last season. On the defensive line, Wake lines up as the left end. Soliai plays the 1-tech over the guard and Starks plays the 3-tech. Odrick, Vernon, and Jordan will battle it out in camp for the starting right end spot. Right now, Odrick has the advantage, with Vernon in second place. If Jordan bulks up before the season, he'll be in contention for the starting spot. Right now, the best situation is to have those players rotate depending on the situation, until Jordan can hold down the spot.

At linebacker, Wheeler and Jenkins are outside linebackers. Ellerbe could play middle linebacker or outside linebacker as could Misi. I think they will let them battle it out in camp for those spots. The secondary doesn't change.


When I look at the Dolphins' schedule, the first game would make perfect sense for a 3-4 front. The Browns will look to establish Trent Richardson and get the running game going against Miami. The Dolphins could counter with using more 3-4 fronts in order to stuff Richardson and isolate the pass rushers. The Browns have the best left tackle in the NFL in Joe Thomas. Despite our hopes for Dion Jordan, he's not going to win many, if any matchups in his first game as a rookie against the best left tackle in the NFL. Using more of the 3-4 front will give Vernon and Jordan the best chance of winning on the left side because Odrick or Starks would create opportunities for them (much like Justin Smith does for Aldon Smith in San Francisco). Soliai would command a double team in the middle, Odrick and Starks could force a double team at the edge, leaving the rushers to get after Brandon Weeden.

On the other hand, the Dolphins play Indianapolis the very next week. The Colts do not have the power rushing game that Cleveland possesses and will more than likely rely on the arm of second year quarterback Andrew Luck to drive that offense. Given that Indy's offensive line is less of a concern than that of the Browns, the 4-3 scheme would probably be the best. The interior defenders can generate pressure and drive Luck into the waiting arms of Wake and company. Jordan will not be facing the same caliber of tackle as Thomas and could win some matchups against the Colts' left tackle, as could Vernon. A steady diet of the 4-3 would make more sense in that game.

Getting Creative

The Atlanta Falcons are a tough team to defend from a talent perspective. But scheme wise, you know what you are getting from them. The Patriots on the other hand are tough both from talent and scheme perspectives. Their unconventional offensive tactics make them tough to get a lock on defensively. It's games against teams like that where defensive coordinators want to use multiple fronts and schemes to counter. Kevin Coyle, with the addition of some athletic linebackers now has much needed versatility that he can use against the Patriots. He can run a three, four or even five man front depending on the offensive set. He can use a front of Wake, Starks, Odrick, Vernon, AND Jordan to either generate pressure or have Jordan drop off into coverage against the tight ends. He can mix and match the linebackers to maximize coverage and blitzing schemes. He might use a 3-4 front on one play and switch to a 4-3 front the next. He can use various fronts to get Brady out of rhythm and uncomfortable in the pocket. He can use various fronts to get the best coverage schemes available. He can unleash the mad defensive scientist within himself to give the Dolphins a chance to win

Final Thoughts

Dion Jordan was a good draft pick in that it will allow Miami to become more versatile on defense. Instead of running a strict 4-3 front, the Dolphins can mix and match fronts to gain an advantage. Miami can maximize the rookie's potential by using him in a variety of fronts where the offensive line cannot lock in on him. The Dolphins appear to have the personnel to finally become more creative and more disruptive on defense. By using a hybrid scheme, the decision to move up and draft Jordan takes on a different light. Dolphins fans can hope the results of that move is not only silencing the critics, but silencing opposing offenses as well.