3YPC Corner: Anatomy of a Play - Dolphins Setting the Tone on Defense
You may not have noticed it. You may not have appreciated it.
We are so results-oriented when it comes to judging the quality of a football play, it would be perfectly understandable if this 8-yard gain to start the Ravens-Dolphins preseason game completely escaped your attention.
But to borrow a phrase from Nick Saban, persona non grata though he be, the details matter.
And the details suggest that while some may look at this as an 8-yard gain given up by the Miami defense, perhaps it would be more accurate to account it as a 69-yard touchdown prevented by the Dolphins defenders.
It was 1st-and-10 on the Baltimore 31-yard line. The Ravens marched out what we refer to as 11-personnel; which is to say one (1) running back and one (1) tight end, with the remaining three skill position players all wide receivers.
To counter this personnel, as many teams would, the Dolphins brought out their Nickel package. More plainly, they brought five defensive backs onto the field.
For Miami, this meant Reshad Jones and T.J. McDonald manning the safety spots, with Reshad lined up in the box to the 'field' side and McDonald lined up in deep center field. It meant Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain playing outside as corners, and Minkah Fitzpatrick playing the slot defender position he so often manned for Saban at Alabama.
With the ball lined up on the right hash mark, Baltimore lined up two wide receivers to the 'boundary' side, with a tight end and a flanker to the 'field' side. Quarterback Robert Griffin was lined up in a pistol formation, with the lone setback behind him.
Miami defensive coordinator Matt Burke dialed up a blitz by slot defender Minkah Fitzpatrick coming off the boundary. This was an aggressive, albeit understandable call to make. The tighter spaces on the boundary can help limit the risks associated with aggressiveness.
However, the Baltimore Ravens offense had the perfect play dialed up.
We have to be careful, here. The Ravens coaches are not clairvoyant, nor did the offense dial up this play in response to anything shown by Miami pre-snap. This was a set play, and it happened to be a very dangerous one relative to Miami's defensive play call.
Baltimore executed a play-action screen to the slot receiver on the boundary, sneaking the ball to the wide receiver right behind the blitzing Fitzpatrick.
It was a great play design. The pistol formation is an inherently balanced alignment. The spacing is adequate to maintain the threat of outside zone hand-offs, but it gives the quarterback the ability to turn and dump the football quickly off the play fake as well. Having only one offensive lineman, in this case right tackle Orlando Brown, Jr., slip out to the play side to clear way for the screen recipient helped the offense to sell the outside zone play fake.
With Brown out in space hunting for defenders, wide receiver Breshad Perriman engaging boundary corner Xavien Howard, slot defender Minkah Fitzpatrick taking himself out of the picture on a blitz, the nearest safety T.J. McDonald sitting in the deep middle, and the ball squirting safely into the hands of run-after-catch specialist Janarion Grant, the Ravens had a severe advantage on the play.
On a still frame, and perhaps on a white board, this is a 69-yard touchdown. Burke dialed up an aggressive blitz, and the defense got caught with their pants down. Tough luck.
In the previous two preseason games against the Buccaneers and Panthers, this probably would have been a touchdown. The first string defense was very leaky against Tampa Bay, and though they played more solidly against Carolina, they showed a tendency to give up exactly this sort of big play.
But something funny happened against the Ravens.
Everyone did their job.
Knowing that Minkah Fitzpatrick was blitzing the boundary, and realizing this meant he would need to 'apex' out to the slot receiver in the coverage scheme, Raekwon McMillan did not bite on the outside zone play fake. This was critical. It would have been understandable to see McMillan a few steps out of position, biting on the run fake after Miami's well-documented problems defending the run against the Buccaneers and Panthers.
But had he gotten out of position, Orlando Brown, Jr. could have ignored Raekwon and sealed off Miami's last line of defense, T.J. McDonald. Instead, Raekwon showed his speed by beating Brown to his mark, forcing the ball carrier to slow down and attempt to leap over him as Miami's help defenders arrived.
Though Brown had done an admirable job selling the outside zone feint before releasing out to block on the screen, Miami left defensive end Cameron Wake showed a veteran's anticipation as well as his trademark agility and athleticism, retracing back up the field and taking away Baltimore's numbers advantage.
Meanwhile, boundary corner Xavien Howard attacked his block with the perfect blend of discipline and aggressiveness, denying Janarion Grant the sideline, while stacking Breshad Perriman and squeezing the ball into a narrow alley.
Left defensive tackle Akeem Spence, whose 1.67 seconds 10-yard split at the NFL Combine ranks in the 88th percentile among defensive tackles according to Mock Draftable's database, also showed some athleticism and discipline to get out to the sticks and limit Grant's choices.
Finally, as the last line of defense, deep center field safety T.J. McDonald did an ideal job getting to his mark on time, not over-pursuing, and cleaning up the tackle for an 8-yard gain.
It may have seemed very ordinary. It may even have seemed like a bad play, based on the results. But the quality of execution by the Miami defenders on this play foreshadowed what would go on to be a fine outing by the first string defense against the Baltimore Ravens. Within context of the game-by-game defensive improvement we have seen over the course of the 2018 preseason, it may bode well for the unit as it hits the regular season.