The NFL’s Best Defense

Wednesday November 19th, 2014

The Dolphins are traveling to the Mile High City to face a Broncos offense that, despite last week’s hiccup, is still the most dangerous in football. Which means this might be the worst week to make this argument, but here goes: Miami has the NFL’s best defense.

This thesis derives from 11 weeks of film study, though the numbers quietly back it nearly as well. The Dolphins defense ranks fourth in points per game (18.0), second to Detroit in yards per game (302.5) and is tied for sixth in takeaways (19).

But let’s focus on how this defense, orchestrated by third-year coordinator Kevin Coyle, looks on film. The first thing that stands out is the front four. When performing at its best, it’s as tough as any to run against. Jared Odrick is the best defensive lineman nobody talks about. He gets the maximum strength out of his 6-5, 300-pound frame, and he has no trouble moving laterally or changing direction off contact in the trenches. Next to Odrick is quick, low-to-the-ground free-agent pickup Earl Mitchell, who is having the best season of his career. And 11th-year veteran Randy Starks continues to play with enough leverage and burst to draw, and occasionally defeat, double teams.

Not that Starks gets doubled on every play. Offenses can’t afford that; flanking Odrick is Olivier Vernon. Despite weighing only 270, Vernon uses long arms and deceptive explosiveness to become a phenomenal play-side run defender. On the other side is Cameron Wake, who uses speed to rush the passer and chase down ball-carriers. Given these defensive ends’ particular strengths, one might surmise that offenses should simply run at Wake’s side, away from Vernon. But Wake can also stone blockers at the point of attack—Coyle’s scheme often gets Wake matched against tight ends in the running game—and Vernon is an exceptional chase defender as well.

Coyle’s scheme goes about getting favorable matchups in a variety of ways. One way is through the shrewd use of eight-man fronts, with interchangeable safeties Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones capable of consistently entering the box from a deep third-level alignment. This explains why Miami has survived the loss of top linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (hip).

Brent Grimes has overcome a height disadvantage—he's listed as 5-10—to become one of the NFL's top corners. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) Brent Grimes has overcome a height disadvantage—he's listed as 5-10—to become one of the NFL's top cover corners. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Also, new inside backer Jelani Jenkins has emerged. The 2013 fourth-round pick’s short-area quickness and sideline-to-sideline range make him an ideal linebacker for playing behind this defensive line. Jenkins has also been serviceable in blitz looks, both as a rusher and retreating into coverage. Coyle brought over many double-A-gap concepts from Cincinnati, where he spent four of his 11 years there under Mike Zimmer, the trailblazer of modern 4-3 double-A-gap concepts. Those blitz looks—and its amoeba front cousins—often compel offenses to block a defensive end one-on-one (see “Impressive Coaching” graphics below).

And then there’s the secondary. Brent Grimes has drawn the accolades, and rightfully so. The second-year Dolphin and eighth-year pro has evolved into a bona fide No. 1 corner. With the revived Cortland Finnegan out the past game and a half, Grimes has successfully shadowed Calvin Johnson and Sammy Watkins, which could become a trend. Only a small handful of corners shadow opposing No. 1 receivers. Grimes is good enough to be one of them, leading a secondary that’s equally adept in man and zone.

But for all his dominance, Grimes hasn’t provided the tipping point to this defense’s excellence. Reshad Jones has. The fifth-year safety said three weeks ago, “I’m playing like the best safety in the league." His self-praise may have been a little premature, but it’s not far off. Since Jones’s return from a four-game PED suspension in Week 6, the Dolphins have ranked first in points allowed (13.8) and in yards (289.3) and are tied for fourth in turnovers (11). Jones, who has always been a flashy practice player but an up-and-down game performer, has found a new gear in his downhill speed and east-west range. He’s terrific near the line of scrimmage, both in run support and as a blitzer. And he’s developed good awareness of route combinations.

Miami’s is the most dynamic defense in the NFL. If they go out and give up 30 to the Broncos this weekend, that will tell us only that Peyton Manning and his high-powered offense are fully back on track. 

Impressive coaching

This is an example of how Coyle’s scheme puts players in position to succeed. It’s also an example of how pre-snap alignment factors so critically into pass rushing.

A (1)

B (1)

C (1)

Jumping out on film

It looks like Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams plans on using newly acquired safety Mark Barron the way he should be used: as an attacker. The seventh overall pick of 2012 has played 44 snaps the past two weeks in either the Rams’ new “big nickel” package (two corners, three safeties) or new dime package (three corners, three safeties). In these packages against the Cardinals in Week 10, Barron rushed the quarterback 15 times on 33 plays, often popping off the screen. He only rushed Peyton Manning once on 11 snaps last Sunday, but that’s because Peyton Manning is not someone you blitz. (In recent years, Gregg Williams has chosen to play coverage-based concepts against the future Hall of Famer.) We may see a similar conservative approach this week against the Chargers, given how quickly Philip Rivers gets the ball out. But with matchups after Thanksgiving against Oakland, Washington, Arizona and the Giants, expect to see Barron and his fellow strong safety T.J. McDonald (a second-year pro who is too good to quickly be supplanted in the starting lineup) to attack the quarterback in a prototypical Gregg Williams scheme.

Smart watching for Week 12

We talked about the Dolphins’ man-free-lurk look in the graphic above. Expect to see that coverage from the Ravens when they travel to New Orleans on Monday night. The Saints passing game takes place largely in the middle of the field, which will especially hold true with rookie receiver Brandin Cooks out (broken thumb). Man-free lurk is an excellent coverage for between the numbers because it puts bodies (often both safeties) in that area at two different levels. Both defenders read and react to the quarterback. We’ve seen teams—most notably the Lions on Glover Quin’s game-changing, fourth-quarter interception in Week 7—have success against the Saints with it.

Podcast spotlight

This week I’m speaking with Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, who is having an All-Pro-caliber season. I’ll ask him why he's a different player in Buffalo than he was in Indianapolis, where he was regarded as a first-round bust. The podcast will be on the site Thursday. 

10 film study quick-hitters

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1. The Cardinals defense is only getting better. A big reason why: a healthy Tyrann Mathieu and ascending Deon Bucannon bring run-stopping prowess to Todd Bowles’s versatile dime package. That creates unique flexibility that very few defenses have.

2. The 49ers are drifting back to their power running ways. That’s good. What stands out every week on film is how scattershot Colin Kaepernick is in decision-making and ball placement. He can’t anchor an offense.

3. The Vikings might have a good one in receiver Charles Johnson. The 25-year-old former Browns seventh-round pick plays bigger than his firm 6-2, 215 size and can catch balls away from his body. (And hopefully he learned after the loss-sealing interception at Chicago that he can’t ever slow down a route, especially a vertical one against a Cover 2 safety.)

4. Drew Stanton was confident and decisive Sunday against Detroit. That led to two touchdowns early, but also two interceptions (both of which appeared to be predetermined throws, a quarterbacking no-no).

5. The Patriots the past two weeks have gotten effective defensive slot play from two unlikely sources: safety Patrick Chung and longtime boundary corner Brandon Browner.

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6. Can’t wait to see how New England attacks Detroit’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense. My guess: a lot of misdirection concepts, outside and inside. The idea would be to use the Lions’ exceptional speed against them.

7. The best cornerback in football this season has been Vontae Davis.

8. With Ahmad Bradshaw out, the Colts will have to turn to Dan Herron or find a running back off the street. For the past two years Trent Richardson’s film has looked every bit as bad as his numbers. Handoffs to him are essentially high-effort kneel-downs.

9. In Week 8 at Dallas, the Giants did not often double Dez Bryant, and he got the better of Prince Amukamara. If defensive coordinator Perry Fewell does things differently this time, it’ll have to be on third down. It’s tough to play two high safeties because of the Cowboys’ running game.

10. Atlanta’s struggling defense has been better the past two weeks, especially at linebacker.

For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit


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