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What is this new hybrid defense they speak of?

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A look at the evolving defense in the NFL, from a Dolphins perspective of course.

Miami Dolphins Rookie Minicamp
Burke’s Air Quotes Say it All
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The Old Hybrid Approach

When football types, and analysts, used to speak of the “hybrid defense” they were specifically talking about a defense that shifted around between 3 or 4 down linemen and 3 or 4 linebackers. Changing defensive fronts was the key to the hybrid formula. Some teams even varied on the heavier side with 5-2 fronts. Which was basically just admitting your outside linebackers were going to be rushing the passer. And that was that. Some looks worked better against different teams, some looks worked better against certain personnel groupings and defensive coordinators could cause a chaos of looks for the offense to figure out.

What this meant in terms of personnel is that: You needed a defensive end capable of standing up and playing linebacker. You needed a linebacker who was capable of rushing the passer. You needed a defensive tackle that could play both the 1 and 3 tech positions. And you needed a defensive end that could slide into the 5 tech position. That’s four different positions that required versatility in order for the fronts to flow seamlessly together; without having to send out massive personnel shifts from the bench. The Rex Ryan Jets and the Baltimore Ravens are two teams whom both played this style of hybrid front at it’s most effective level.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens
Terrell Suggs- DE/LB
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Evolution of the New Hybrid Defense

Von Miller is really one of the first players we see on this hybrid from the SLB perspective. Yet, playing in the 4-3 Denver still takes a man off the field for Miller to play defensive ends on passing downs. This, many thought, was going to be the basis of new hybrid players, or tweeners, between defensive end and linebacker. What it really just became was a shift of more defenses, in general, playing a 3-4 and simply avoiding taking anyone off the field.

DENVER BRONCOS VS WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Army of One
Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The second way that defenses are moving to a more hybrid look is to use more packages that feature the same number of down linemen and simply pull out more dime packages (6DB’s on the field) or dime + packages (7 DB’s on the field). A prime example of this has been Bill Belichick and the NE Patriots*. Bill moved to the nickel package as his base years ago, siting more teams using the 3WR look, and it has become the standard formation for most offenses across the league. Well, Bill has upped the ante once more and is playing tons of dime packages with 3 safeties and 3 Corners on the field.

Conversely, yet in the same mold, you have players like Deone Bucannon for the Cardinals. These are safeties, that can play the WLB role in Base Defense or the Small Nickel (3CB’s 2S), the 3rd safety in “Big Nickel” packages (3S, 2CB), they play the lone linebacker spot in dime packages, and they can play in a Dime+ package, and never leave the field. That is a massive amount of looks for one player. They are essentially replacing your WLB, or WILB in a 3-4, and replacing the need for a rotational S that comes in only for certain packages. With the NFL moving farther and farther into being a passing league, this seems to be the wave of the future.

New York Giants v Arizona Cardinals
The Future is Now
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What does this all mean for Miami?

Luckily for Dolphins fans Matt Burke, Defensive Coordinator, has been quite vocal on the subject. Especially in regards to what he sees Miami doing with T.J. McDonald in the future. Burke wants to use McDonald in this role. Which would likely accompany more snaps for Kiko as the MLB and not in coverage on TE’s, primarily. Which, as we saw from last season, is probably for the best. Many scratched their heads as Miami signed McDonald and Nate Allen in free agency. Many assumed it was simply as a buffer until McDonald came off suspension. What most did not realize is the intent was to see all three on the field simultaneously for a good amount of snaps. That never materialized, as Nate Allen ended his season on IR and never got to play at the same time as McDonald. An injured, but playing, Michael Thomas was not nearly as thrilling of a solution to the coaching staff.

That being said, the Dolphins staff have made hints before towards wanting interchangeable safeties. That doesn’t mean they want McDonald and Jones to fill those roles. Jones has the ability to play FS when called upon. However, his strengths lie in run-support and player in a robber/roam position in coverage. McDonald is good in run-support as well, but is also better at man coverage, which lends him to fill the hybrid S/LB role better than anyone else on the team, and at 6’3 and nearly 230lbs, he has the size to play there. What Miami needs is a Free Safety that can, at times, be efficient in the box and in run support. That would allow Burke to disguise what Jones and said hypothetical Safety (formerly Nate Allen) were going to be doing on a given play.

This style of play also requires a SLB that can play man coverage on a TE when called upon. That’s why Miami signed Lawrence Timmons and traded for Stephone Anthony and signed UDFA Chase Allen. The first shall be gone by the beginning of training camp, the other two played a number of snaps near the end of the season. Did they show the coaches enough to believe one of them can lock down the position? Or will Miami be looking to upgrade the position in the draft? I wouldn’t count out Miami’s desire to find a free safety and a strong side linebacker who can cover this offseason. Especially if they want to see more of McDonald in the hybrid LB/S role.