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Breaking down the Miami Dolphins defense: A film study

Why Can’t Miami's Defense Cover A TE? I Wish There Was A Simple Answer ...

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Phinsiders.  First, let me apologize for not posting last week.  Again, work kicked my ass.  I spent 40+ hours on planes, in airports, or in rental cars last week just getting to places to do my actual job.  This week I get to travel to corporate in Indianapolis for division meetings.

I've never been more ready for a light couple of weeks over the holidays like I am right now.

This week, instead of looking at the Dolphins opponent, we are going to take look at the Dolphins Defense and try to figure out why they can't cover a TE in the passing game.  The last 2 weeks against the 49ers and the Ravens, the Dolphins defense has allowed TE's a combined stat line of:  17 receptions, 208 yards receiving, 3 TD's, on 26 Targets.  That's not good.

Breaking down film the last two weeks, I was hoping for an easy explanation.  But if there were an easy explanation, I would hope that the Dolphins Coaches would have solved the problem.  What is happening at the LB and Safety level of the defense are a bunch of individual player break downs.  Some of it is scheme, some of it is alignment, some of it is missing assignments, and some of it is just players not making plays.  In other words, there isn't just one thing that needs fixing.

Let's look at some plays.  In this play the 49ers are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE).  The Dolphins are in their Nickle Defense having taken out a LB and replaced him with a CB.  The 49ers come out of the huddle in Shotgun, TE Right, RB Offset Left, Trips Left Formation.  The 49ers have 4 eligible receivers (3 WR's, 1 RB) to the left of their formation.  Miami counters with a single high safety look (could be Cover 1 -€” man free, or Cover 3).  Miami has 4 defenders to the offensive left with a FS in the middle of the field.  They are in good position to cover the 4 eligible receivers to that side of the formation.

The 49ers then motion the outside WR from left to right prior to the snap of the ball.  Now, the 49ers have 2 eligible receivers to the right of the formation (1 WR, 1 TE) and 3 eligible receivers to the left of the formation (2 WR, 1 RB).  Miami adjusts their coverage based on this motion to a 2 deep safety look.  Miami has 4 defenders covering 3 receivers to the offensive left and 3 defenders (CB, LB, S) covering 2 receivers to the offensive right.  Miami is in good alignment to cover the pass in either direction at the snap of the ball.

At the snap of the ball, everything changes for Miami's defense based on a simple route by the RB.  The RB crosses the QB and runs a flare route to the right side of the formation.  That gives the 49ers 3 receivers to that side of the formation for Miami's 3 defenders.  That leaves Miami with 4 defenders to the left of the formation covering 2 receivers.  That's a big OH NO.

Kiko Alonso, #4, is in no man's land in coverage.  Alonso and the Safety (#3) behind him are covering the exact same part of the field without a receiver threatening that part of the field.  The LB to the offensive right of the formation sees the RB flaring his direction and makes 1 step in that direction just as the TE running a seam route up the middle of the field is running past him.  Look at how WIDE OPEN the TE is on this play.

This play resulted in a 35 yard gain.  The main reason why the TE was so wide open on this play was because Kiko Alonso dropped the coverage.  He has to be looking at the RB on this play.  If he goes away, to the other side of the formation, Alonso has to work toward the middle of the field.  He has to follow the motion, the movement, of the RB.  Because he doesn't do this, when the other LB reacts to the route of the RB, the middle of the field is wide open.  It's easy pitch and catch at this point.

I'm highlighting this next play because I simply have no idea what the Dolphins Defense is trying to do.  I can't figure out the coverage and I've watched this play 20+ times.  Whatever this defense is, it's bad, resulting in a completion to the TE running a simple hook route 10 yards over the ball.

Here is what I do know about this play.  In this play the 49ers are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE).  The Dolphins are in their Nickle Defense having taken out a LB and replaced him with a CB.  The 49ers come out of the huddle in Shotgun, TE Right, Flanker Right, RB Offset Left, Twins Left Formation.  At the snap of the ball, Miami is in a single high safety look.  Kiko Alonso, highlighted in yellow, is blitzing.  Like I say above, the TE is running a hook route in the middle of the field.  The slot to the offensive left is running a shallow crossing route.

If I had to make a guess, I would say that Miami is in a Cover 4 (1/4 deep defense).  But that is only a guess based on where the outside CB's are in relation to the safeties and the fact that the LB's don't seem to be covering anyone.  All I know is that the TE is sitting in the middle of the field, directly over where the snap took place, and the closest defender is 8 yards away.  I wish I could break this down more for you, but I really have no idea what the Dolphins defense is doing on this play.

Let's now take a look at some of the Ravens game.  On this play, I know what Miami is doing.  Baltimore comes out of the huddle in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE).  The Dolphins are in their Nickle Defense.  The Ravens are in single back, TE Right, Twins Right, Split End Left Formation.  Miami counters by playing Cover 1, man free with the SS on the LOS ready to blitz.  That means Kiko Alonso, the MLB, is covering the TE.

Joe Flacco sees the SS blitz coming, recognizes the coverage, and changes the play at the LOS.  He calls for the TE to run a 5 yard out, the slot WR to run a 5 yard out, and the outside WR to run a go.  Flacco knows, based on the alignment of Alonso, that the MLB can't cover the TE on this route.  Look at the advantage the TE has on the LB running an outside route.

Just based on the alignment of the LB, Flacco knows that Dennis Pitta will be open on the play.  And because the route is so quick, the blitzing SS doesn't have time to get to the QB.

That is an easy pitch and catch.  This route was open not because the Dolphins defense did anything wrong, per se, but because the QB recognized the alignment of 1 player would put him at a disadvantage covering the route.  On a 1st and 10 play, the Ravens gained 8 yards.

In my opinion, this is good offensive football that is taking advantage of a match-up and seeing which defender is at a disadvantage based on alignment.  We are going to see another example of this later.

This next play is an example of a player just not making a play.  There was nothing wrong on defense with the coverage, the alignment, the adjustment, etc.

Here is a 3rd and long play (3rd & 15).  The Ravens are in Shotgun formation, empty backfield (5 Wide), Trips Right, Twins Left Formation.  The Dolphins are in Dime with Kiko Alonso as the only LB on the field.  Miami's coverage is Tampa 2.  Tampa 2 is a Cover 2 where the Safeties are wide and the MLB is covering the deep middle of the field.

The TE is going to run a simple hook route in the middle of the field about 8 yards from the LOS.  As a defense on 3rd and 15, you are fine with the offense completing this route 7 yards short of the 1st down.  All you have to do is make the tackle.

As you can see, the TE is wide open, by design.  The defense is perfectly happy letting the TE catch this pass 7-8 yards short of the 1st down on 3rd and long.  The problem on this play is that Kiko Alonso didn't make a very good tackle.  Pitta was contacted after the catch 5 yards from the line to get.  He struggled for 4+ additional yards, resulting in a 14 yard gain and setting up a 4th and 1 (actually less than 1).  The Ravens went for it and got the 1st down.  If the tackle was made at the contact point, it would have been 4th and 4 or 5 and the Ravens would have punted.  Because of a missed tackle, the drive was extended and resulted in a TD thanks in large part to the next play after the 1st down run.


Let me just state right now, as an offensive coach, I love this football play.

The Ravens are 12 personnel (2 TE's, 1 RB).  They break the huddle in what we used to call "Ace" Formation, which is a single back, Twins Right, Twins Left, with the TE's in an "H-Back" alignment off the LOS.  The Dolphins counter the personnel with their Base (4-3) Defense.

This is a perfectly balanced formation with an equal number of receivers to either side of the formation.  But what makes this play OLD SCHOOL is that the receivers / TE's are running mirrored routes.  The WR's are running fades to the outside.  The "H-Back" TE's are running skinny posts.  Miami is in Cover 1 -€” man free.

Earlier in the post we talked about identifying mismatches and taking advantage of that as an offense.  That's what a mirrored route combination does for a QB in its simplest form.  The QB is reading 1 side of the field on the defense looking for a mismatch.  It could be a player mismatch or it could be a mismatch with how the defense is aligned.  It's the latter for this play.

Look at Miami's defenders and the leverage they have on the TE's.  It's an outside leverage, meaning that they need help from the LB's for an inside breaking route.  Now look at the alignment of the LB's.  The relationship between the LB on the offensive left is a lot closer to the TE than the LB on the offensive right.  The QB sees this right away.  Because of the mirror effect of the play call, at the LOS, the QB has to give a play direction, usually by calling out the Mike.  This tells the OL how to block the play, but just as important, it tells the RB which LB to run his route against to make sure that LB doesn't drift into the zone where the QB wants to throw the ball.  For this play, the obvious call is to the offensive right.

The QB knows where he wants to go with the ball based on the play call and the defensive alignment.  You can see how the skinny post will open up to the right compared to what he is getting on the left.  You can really see this on the All-22.

Remember, the defender covering the TE's are expecting help to the inside.  Because of the LB's alignment to the offensive right and the fact that the RB is running right at him, prevents the LB from supplying that help.

This play resulted in a 20 yard gain to a wide open TE.  He was wide open because of the alignment of the defense.  Outside leverage by the covering defender leaves them open to an inside route.  Because of the alignment of the LB's who are supposed to help on the inside routes, it left a mismatch for a skinny post on one side of a balanced formation.

Mirrored routes out of a balanced formation have been run in football for generations, and that isn't an exaggeration.  These type of pass plays are the easiest for a QB to read because he is only reading ½ the field.  It makes for a simple pass offense.  Identify the easier side to throw the ball and deliver the pass.

As to why Miami struggles to cover the TE, there are no easy answers.  I would like to think that the injuries at LB and Safety have made communications on defense more difficult, but every player should know there checks.  I've highlighted only a small fraction of the plays here along with mistakes made.  In those highlights I've tried to only deal with defensive breakdowns.  The far bigger problem may be personnel.  There are a lot of times where Miami's players are just getting beat.  I don't know if you can solve that without changing players.