This is part 3 in a 3-part series of articles previewing the specific traits of Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's new system that has been installed this offseason. These articles are an attempt to be as specific as possible about what fans should hope to see from the offense this year, with frequent comparisons being made to what was seen last year as a frame of reference.
In the first article in this series, topics ranging from the importance of improving the Dolphins' offense because of the high scoring opponents on the 2014 season schedule to the benefits and downsides of playing at a faster tempo on offense were discussed. I recommend you read these articles in order, so if you didn't read the first article, you can click here to review it before coming back to this article.
In the second article in this series, the focus was on how Lazor's emphasis on versatility would expand the roles of players in each position group, with the biggest changes likely being in the use of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, wide receiver Mike Wallace, the running back group as a whole, and tight end Dion Sims. In every article in this series, an "In Defense of Mike Sherman" section is included to explain how the approach of Lazor's predecessor was different (or similar) and to try to make a case for why Sherman's approach might have made more sense than Lazor's. If you didn't read the second article, you can click here to review it before coming back to this article. The main topics in this article "More Use of Pre-Snap Motion/Shifts plus Different Formations/Route Combinations" and "QB Development."
More Use of Pre-snap Motion/Shifts Plus Different Formations/Route Combinations
"We're not a big motion team." - Mike Sherman last year
"It’s been great. Just the difference from last year, moving guys around, is huge. Just being comfortable with moving, shifting tight ends and backs. It’s challenging. But it’s going to create a lot of mismatches on offense. We’re going to put people in positions they don’t want to be on defense, get the ball to our playmakers all over the field." - Ryan Tannehill discussing Lazor's offense
Those quotes say it all when comparing the difference in pre-snap motion and shifts in Lazor's system versus Sherman's. We saw a fair bit of pre-snap motion and shifts last year, but it generally involved either a running back or tight end. The most important targets in our offense - the wide receivers - were stationary for long stretches.
Just to provide some quick definitions - "Motion" is when an offensive player is moving at the time of the snap. It's legal for the player to be in motion if he's the ONLY player in motion at the time of the snap, and if he's either moving laterally (parallel to the line of scrimmage) or away from the line of scrimmage. Unlike in other leagues, NFL players are not allowed to be running towards the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap.
A "shift" is when a player like a running back moves from one spot (the backfield) to another spot (the slot receiver position) and then stops BEFORE the ball is snapped.
Pre-snap motion and shifts have a several benefits. It helps reveal the type of coverage the defense is using because if a wide receiver goes into motion pre-snap, and a cornerback follows him, that's clear evidence the cornerback is in "man-coverage" (assigned to the wide receiver). Motion can lead to coverage breakdowns by the defense since it occurs as the ball is snapped, which gives the defensive players less time to communicate with each other before the play starts. Putting a wide receiver in motion can cause a defensive back to be slowed down by "traffic" (other defenders) if he's following the wide receiver in man coverage, which makes it harder for the cornerback to play effective press-coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Motion can also help the running game. For the Dolphins, the man to watch is Dion Sims, whose blocking has reportedly improved this offseason. If the offense is up against a zone defense, putting Dion Sims in motion, for example, from the left side to right side as the play starts could lead to a favorable mismatch of blockers versus defenders on the right side. That's because no defender was "tracking" Sims in man coverage as Sims was moving due to the defense being in zone coverage, and the ball was snapped before the defense could shift a defender to his side.
Another concrete detail about the new offense is that Lazor will have five players running routes on any given play more frequently than Sherman. That's another specific way this offense hopes to create mismatches because very rarely will an opposing defense have 5 players who are great in coverage on the field, so by having 5 offensive players run routes, the offense is likely forcing 1 or more defensive players who are weak pass defenders to attempt to cover the Dolphins' receiving targets.
Also, receivers will have "options" on their routes more frequently. Option routes require receivers to read the defense and adjust their route based on what they see from the defense. In theory, this allows the offense to maximize its potential on every play by having the receivers run routes designed to exploit specific coverages.
As for the new formations, the Chip Kelly-led Philadelphia Eagles did some creative stuff to confuse defenses, particularly with their offensive linemen lining up in unique formations. So far there haven't been any reports of Branden Albert or any other offensive linemen being used in particularly creative ways, but that's something to keep an eye out for. As mentioned in part 2 of this series, the wide receivers and tight ends are lining up in every receiver spot and sometimes in the backfield. We'll probably see more 3-tight end sets this regular season (though with so many Dolphins tight ends currently injured, I wouldn't expect to see those formations early in pre-season).
In Defense of Mike Sherman
That all sounds wonderful, so why didn't Mike Sherman do more of that stuff?
Well, head coach Joe Philbin himself explained the drawbacks to using pre-snap motion: "If you’re stationary and you’re sitting at the line of scrimmage and your ducks are in a row as we like to say, it’s a little bit easier from an offensive perspective, but you’re not challenging the defense probably as much. There is give and take. I think, as a coaching staff, we have to examine whether all of this motion and shifting a detriment or is it a benefit? And what’s the right blend and what’s the right balance."
Simply put, pre-snap motion and shifts increase the potential for mistakes. As I discussed in the first article in the series, one of the few things the Sherman-led offense did well last year was avoid penalties. The potential for illegal shift penalties and illegal motion penalties goes up if your offense involves more shifts and more motion.
Next, when 5 players run routes on a play, that leaves the quarterback and 5 offensive linemen as the only players staying in the pocket. When Lazor is asked for what he's looking for from Tannehill, he's repeatedly said, "Faster decision-making." When there are only 5 offensive linemen being used as blockers, and no tight ends or running backs to block, the ball MUST get out of the QB's hands quickly or he must run if nobody is open by the time pressure arrives.
Longtime offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offenses in St. Louis were nicknamed the "Greatest Show on Turf" because he had an elite quarterback in Kurt Warner, elite wide receivers including Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce, and an elite running back in Marshall Faulk who could both run and catch at an elite level. Martz would send those wide receivers, tight ends, and Faulk out on receiving patterns, and he'd trust Warner to get the ball out quickly. They scored a lot of points and won a Super Bowl with that system. After leaving St. Louis, Martz went to the Chicago Bears and tried to install a similar system, but the system failed because the Bears' skill position players weren't nearly as good as those in St. Louis. They didn't have receivers who could get open at will, so putting quarterback Jay Cutler behind a shaky offensive line without additional blockers left Cutler vulnerable to punishing hits in the pocket. Martz's system was elite with his personnel in St. Louis but terrible with his personnel in Chicago.
Like Martz's system, Lazor's system places a big burden on the receivers to get open quickly and on the quarterback to connect with those receivers using quick throws. Tannehill's recent string of bad practices came as a result of bad timing. Tannehill himself said that the throws were just "fractions of a second late," and the results were multiple incompletions and interceptions. A system that emphasizes timing and incorporates more option routes increases the numbers of ways a mistake can occur, since if either the quarterback or receiver mis-reads the defense, the throw will end up closer to a defender than a receiver. Tannehill is being asked to trust that Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and other receivers "see what he sees," and he'll have to throw to spots hoping the receiver decides to run there.
I very briefly wanted to discuss a couple of tactics Lazor is using to aid Tannehill.
As mentioned, Lazor is emphasizing getting the ball out of Tannehill's hands quickly, and he's working to build in "easier" throws into the offense, such as those to running backs on screens.
Secondly, Lazor is working with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to ensure that Tannehill is exposed to a different defensive playcall with each practice rep of a specific play.
As Philbin himself said, "[Lazor and Coyle] don’t script together, but we noticed on two or three of our different pass concepts after the spring, we had only seen them against let’s say quarter’s coverage. What the quarterback needs to see is he needs to see a pass concept versus man-to-man coverage, three-deep zones, quarters, cloud coverage."
Third, in practice, Tannehill is being asked to throw on the move or run the read option far more frequently than last year. Tannehill has consistently been rated top-5 at throws on designed rollouts, by both Pro Football Focus and ESPN's Total QBR rating systems, and Lazor's scheme will allow Tannehill to showcase his ability on those types of throws. Tannehill has demonstrated the athleticism to be an intimidating threat on the read option, and we should see more of that this year. Tannehill came into the league as a quarterback who was pretty good at throws towards the sideline, particularly in the intermediate area. He improved on that strength as a sophomore and became one of the best in the NFL at sideline throws 10-20 yards deep from the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. As part of the Lazor offense, he'll be asked to attempt more quick (short) sideline throws, while still being asked to attempt a healthy number of intermediate throws (his strength).
He still has work to do improving his throws towards the middle of the field and on deep balls to Wallace in particular (he's generally been fine when aiming at slower targets like Clay and Hartline), but the scheme overall seems to emphasize Tannehill's strengths. The hope is that Tannehill performances become more steady week to week with playcalling tailored to Tannehill's skillset.
So hopefully, the general thought process behind the Lazor offense is starting to make sense. Player versatility helps create mismatches. Pre-snap motion and exotic formations help create defensive confusion. Quarterback development helps the most important player on the offense identify those mismatches and exploit them.
However, those mismatches will vanish if the offense can't increase their tempo. If defensive coordinators notice a weakness that the Dolphins offense is exploiting, they'll work to fix it. By playing fast, the Dolphins offense will try to prevent the defense from fixing those weakness. An up-tempo offense limits the time in between plays that the defensive coordinator has to instruct his defense on how to combat the weakness, and an uptempo offense prevents the defensive coordinator from making substitutions that might fix the weakness. Moreover, an up-tempo offense tires out the defense, which further increases the chances of defensive mistakes, otherwise known as "big plays for the offense." That's why in multiple press conferences, Lazor has said priority #1 in installing his new system is the ability to go up-tempo for long stretches, not just at the end of each half.
If I had to sum up Lazor's vision for this upcoming season, I'd say he's trying to ask the players on the roster to do more. He's asking Tannehill to process more information and make more decisions and do that all more quickly than last year. He's asking the wide receivers and tight ends to line up in different spots in the formation and make defenders miss when given the ball in space after a quick pass, as well as get better at reading opposing defenses. He's asking the running backs to be prepared to run the ball, provide pass protection, and establish themselves as receiving threats out of the backfield. He's asking the offensive line to both pass block and run block well enough to have a balanced offense, and he's asking them to be able to move well enough to block in open space on screens. For his system to work, he needs all that to happen, and even more audaciously, he's doing all this in his first year as offensive coordinator. Metaphorically speaking, he's pushing the players into the deep end of the pool to teach them how to swim.
One of the themes of the "In Defense of Mike Sherman" sections is how the former Dolphins offensive coordinator generally was reluctant to ask his players to do more. He kept his wide receivers in the same spots play after play after play, and he rarely put them in motion or involved them in screens. He rarely asked running backs to catch the ball. He admitted that he asked Tannehill to focus on being a pocket passer at the expense of making plays either as a runner or a passer outside of the pocket.
That's what this 2014 season is about on offense. By the end of the season, either Lazor will get more out of the offense than Sherman did, or the Dolphins' season will likely be over before January. If the Dolphins simply can't keep up with all the good offenses on the 2014 schedule, there's a good chance we'll be looking for an entirely new coaching staff at the end of the season. I'm optimistic - I think the Dolphins offense will be scoring more points, and if we're lucky, we'll even see opposing coaches being forced to call time outs in frustration to make defensive adjustments during a Dolphins up-tempo drive. Even with the high powered opposing offenses on the schedule, I still have a lot of faith in the Dolphins' defense that appears to have improved given the strong training camp performances of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas. The combination of a good defense along with a more productive offense should be enough to power the Dolphins to a playoff appearance.
This is the last article I'll be writing discussing the offense in abstract. From here on out, I'll be breaking down film to show how the team is either meeting Lazor's goals or falling short. In other words, "More pictures/screen shots, I promise."