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Breaking Down the Dolphins Defensive Scheme

What they told us, what we saw, and what might change...

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This is Matt Burke’s first year as Defensive Coordinator for the Miami Dolphins. Though, he was promoted to ensure continuity on what Vance Joseph was building. Yet, what exactly was Vance Joesph building? They told us some key things going into last season. And then we did not exactly see what we were told, or at least some of them. However, I find some reason to believe the personnel choices made in the off-season show we are farther along now in moving to the original vision. To make this easy I am going to start at the front of the defense and work to the back.

I will start with this, the defense as described by the coaches vision is... Wide-9, 4-3 Over Cover 1 press-man Robber. Keep that in mind, cause I will be bringing back up throughout the article.

Defensive Line-

The wide-9 part of the defense is something that has been discussed on the Phinsider a few times before. Defensive linemen put themselves on different spots on the line in accordance to the offensive linemen. 0 is over the center’s nose, and odd numbers are the gaps and the even numbers directly in front of a lineman. The spaces between the lineman are also known as gaps, either side of center is the A-gap. B-gap between gaurd and tackle. C-gap between tackle and TE and D-gap, or edge, is outside the TE to the sideline. In fact, there are two Phinsider Football 101 articles that detail all about Gaps and Techniques and about the wide-9 specifically.

With that said, the wide-9 is referencing where the DE is positioned. Just outside the TE is where the 7 technique resides. Therefore the 9 technique is even wider out than that, making for an easier shot for a speed pass rusher. Miami now has 2 of those in Cameron Wake and Charles Harris. Though, at times last season, Miami played into the traditional 7/5 techs because that was the personnel available with Mario Williams and Andre Branch. Most 4-3’s are looking for one power DE and one speed DE.

Now, the DT’s are doing something different too. The original 4-3 featured two mammoth men directly over the offensive guards or slightly to one side or the other. Today’s standard 4-3 features a 1 tech, or sometimes called the 2i, and a 3 tech who sits between the guard and the tackle. Jordan Phillips plays the 1tech spot for Miami while Ndamukong Suh plays the 3-tech spot better than just about anyone in the league. The 1 tech is supposed to absorb 2 blockers and the the 3 tech is supposed to shoot the gap and neutralize one blocker. Suh is so good at his 3 tech spot, he draws double teams out of necessity and hence he has to move around the line to find a maximum effectiveness. But most of the time Miami has the line in the “over” position.

You may have heard of the 4-3 over or under. Well there is very little difference between the two on the surface. Miami plays a lot of over while the Seattle Seahawks and Pete Carrol favor the under package. The over package puts the 3 tech DT, Suh in this case, on the strong side of the formation. The strong side being determined by the presence of the TE. When your 3 tech is a good run defender you want to run the over. Suh is dominant at his position. A run play to the strong side is usually advisable to the offense, but by doing so Miami is forcing them to run directly at Suh. The other option being a run to the weak side, where the RB will find the NT or 1 tech, whom is traditionally one of the best run defenders on the team anyway. The D-line will look like this, in most base plays:

Wide-9, 4-3 Over Defensive Line Formation

One interesting thing Miami does with the DT spot (besides swapping Suh to DE on occasion) is when they go into a sub package for obvious passing situations, they play what is known as Double 3’s or as you may have guessed... two 3 tech DT’s. Wide9-Double 3’s...That’s all pass rush baby.


Messing around with where and how the d-line plays is going to change how you want your linebackers to play. The line I described above is meant to shoot one gap and get into the backfield hopefully causing a tackle for loss (TFL). Though the linebackers are still responsible for certain gaps in the run game. The wide-9 changes how you want to play your Mike LB’er. In a Tampa 2 your Mike has to cover upfield seam zones and you want a backer like Kiko Alonso who can turn and run into coverage. We saw Tampa 2 more than we should have last season because it’s the opposite of what needed to be happening for the line scheme.

With the wide-9 your Mike LB’er has to be responsible for one or both of the A-Gaps in the run game. Which means they need to be able to stack and shed the center. And here is where we come to the point in the post where everyone should figure out exactly why Miami’s run defense was horrible last season. Kiko Alonso is a skilled athlete, and in certain 4-3 schemes would be an above average to elite Mike. Yet, he doesn’t really fair too well against a center head to head. What Miami needs is a downhill thumper who can still run sideline to sideline. Which is much more in the vein of Timmons or even McMillian.

Kiko best fits the WIll LB’er role in this defensive scheme. In the run game the Will is generally free to shoot the gaps and go after the ball carrier, they are also most likely to be in coverage and have opportunity to be a playmaker. In today’s NFL FB’s aren’t a common thing anymore and most teams have foresaken the i-formation unless they’re using some H-back/TE Hybrid like Charles Clay. So even then it is safe to say, LB’s in todays NFL are more likely to face 2RB sets or 2 TE sets when in the base package. So there will be times when both OLB’s will be tasked with shedding or covering a TE. That’s part of why Miami coaches say they are interested in mirror OLB’s as opposed to traditional SLB &WLB.

Which brings me to the strong side linebacker position, aka the SAM LB’er. From the things that were discussed by Vance Joseph, they came at this position last season with Koa Misi in mind. They wanted a run stuffer, but they also wanted him to be able to rush the passer from time to time leaving Jones in coverage on the TE. When you are playing your SLB like this, he will often be in a “stacked” position. Meaning he lines up directly over the TE. The idea being he won’t have to go far to shed the block and be on top of the ball carrier, or he can disrupt the TE off the line as he rushes the passer on a pass set. Miami has expressed interest in moving away from this type of SLB ideology and towards the mirror OLB approach. With this transition occurring, I see Alonso- Timmons- McMillian at least until Miami drafts or acquires another LB to replace the aging Timmons. It will be interesting to see what Matt Burke, a former LB’er coach, does with these three players plus Koa Misi.

Here’s what the typical pre-snap formation looked like last season for the front 7: (the stacked SLB is why we saw Cam Wake play there near the end of the year. He was capable of doing all the things he was being asked to do and may have saved our defense more embarrassment than many realize)

Wide-9, 4-3 Over, Sam stack

Now that all applies to the run and I talked a little about each positions need to be able to cover. That is exacerbated in man coverage. If the defense is in pass coverage out the base formation it means that the offense is most likely running either 2 RB’s, 2 TE’s or both. So that’s 2-1, 1-2, or 2-2 personnel for my offensive minded friends. That means, if Miami wants to run man coverage, that each linebacker is on single coverage of either a TE or a RB. When the offense brings in another WR, it’s time to substitute for a 3rd DB... very few LB’ers in the league can handle man coverage on a slot WR. That’s just asking for trouble.

Defensive Backs-

There are tons of different coverage shells. Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, Cover 6, Cover 0. Most of which are variations on zone coverage and even the most ardent man coverage teams will have some zone plays. And even some zone schemes look like a man coverage scheme on first glance. For a complete breakdown of all the different coverage shells and their uses, see the Phinsider Football 101 article that breaks these down (great gifs).

Now, in man coverage, the CB’s can either play press, off, or bump and run. Vance Joseph brought with him a mindset that valued, tall, physical corners who can compete with the Julio Jones, and AJ Greens of the world and press them at the line. But what happens is the big guys end up having to play off of the speedsters and give them a cushion. That’s how Revis Island stayed in business and it’s probably why we spotted more off coverage than we were expecting during last season. Bump and run coverage is usually more associated with zone scheme. One downside to man coverage is that it makes it more difficult for a CB to react to run support. The other thing about man coverage in a 4-3 is that you will always have 2 more defenders down field than the offense. This usually ends up in some variation of Cover 1 or Cover 2. Cover 1 being one deep safety, cover 2 being two deep safeties.

The base defense will include two corners and two safeties. Although, today’s NFL has become a passing league. And more and more often teams are using 1-1, 0-1, 1-0, and 0-0 personnel packages. 1-1 personnel is probably the most common and the reason why having a good nickel corner (NCB) is almost as important as having boundary corners. Bringing a 3rd CB on the field removes one linebacker (SLB) and is called the Nickel Package, 4CB’s is called the Dime Package. But there is something called the small nickel and the big nickel. The difference is in the size of the player on the field. The little nickel is the smaller more agile guy whom you want covering the Jarvis Landry’s and Julian Edelman’s of the world. The big nickel is, usually a safety, taller and bigger, able to better cover move TE’s like Jimmy Graham or Jordan Reed or big slot WR’s like Larry Fitzgerald or Brandon Marshall. However, in Miami, most of CB’s are over 6 foot and would work in the big nickel while Bobby McCain and Michael Thomas fit the profile of the little nickel a bit better.

When discussing the safety position and the way this team calls it’s plays there is one player whose presence changes things.... Reshad Jones. Jones is the reason Miami wants to play Cover 1 robber. He is the robber. Jones is no slouch in coverage, zone or man, but he is also a playmaker near the line of scrimmage and when the football gets thrown anywhere near him. Jones has a good number of pick 6’s to his pedigree as well as INT, FF’s and Fumble recoveries. If you were looking for the type of safety designed to excel in this scheme it would be Jones. So when Jones went down, this coverage scheme went from amazing asset to major liability. This mixed with an inability of our linebackers to cover man-to-man, lead Miami’s coaches to play a lot more zone schemes than intended.

It was assumed they were trying to play something akin to Seattle before last year started. And Seattle runs a Cover 3. Most assumed this because Miami brought in Maxwell and that is what he excelled in, cover 3. But Seattle played a man-through-zone scheme. Meaning they play as is if they were in press man coverage until the receiver leaves their zone then they turn for a secondary target. This works well for them because they both an amazing FS and an amazing SS. But what Miaimi did was fake a lot of cover 3 and drop into cover two. We have even seen examples of seeing the defense go into more Tampa 2 pass coverage shells which relied on Kiko Alonso to cover the deep seem.

I give Vance Joseph credit, he adapted his scheme to what his players were capable of doing as the season wore on. He schemed a stacked SLB for Misi, Misi goes down. Wants to play more man cause Alnso and Jenkins can handle it...Jenkins goes down. Wants to play Cover 1 Robber, cause he has one of the best SS’s in the business.... Jones is lost to IR. We saw a lot of things we didn’t expect to see last season, things we were told we weren’t going to see. Yet, the only logical conclusion I can come to is that it was done out of necessity. Lippett needed to add more mass to play press. Howard only played a handful of games. Maxwell was subpar for the first few games. Now they added Tankersly into the mix. Reinforcing what we were told.

Miami has also discussed the idea of interchangeable safeties and with that they went out and got Nate Allen who is primarily a FS but can come up to the line, and T.J. McDonald who is more like Jones in that he thrives at the line but can play in the backend when needed. Burke knows he can’t rely on Aikens or Thomas to play the safety position for any real amount of time. Tannenbaum, Grier and Gase, went out and helped rectify that Miami wasn’t stuck playing a different defense each time a player went down.

With a reinforcement of what we were told, seen in the off-season, here is a look at what Miami’s primary nickel coverage shell should look like. (I used the Nickel sub-package because offenses are in 1-1 personnel more often than any other one grouping in the NFL):

Wide-9, 4-2-5, Cover-1 Robber Press

We saw a multitude of different coverage schemes last season. However, I also noticed a lot of faking coverages and replacing them post snap. As Miaim’s personnel begins to line up more with it’s vision for the defense, I would expect less of this and more just forcing it’s will upon the offense. At least, that is the theory, after all.

Disclaimer: This is obviously an over simplification of the defense, breaking it down into one or two desirable plays. It was more of a way of bringing together all of the things that have been described to us about what they want to achieve with the defense.