After exploring the depths of the Miami offense on Thursday, it's time now to look at what this Dolphins defense can do on Sunday afternoon. Miami runs a 4-3 scheme, and it plays a good mix of man and zone coverages on the back end. It's not a heavy blitz operation, but you're bound to see some exotic looks every now and again, especially in obvious passing situations. There's talent at all three levels, and there are a group of players in particular who Eagles fans should be aware of.
Everyone knows who Ndamukong Suh is, as the former Top 5 pick of the Detroit Lions signed the richest contract for a defensive player in league history this past offseason. While he may not have completely lived up to the hype yet in South Beach, his burst off the ball and natural power make him a disruptive force, capable of taking a game over at any point. Still, in the first play I'm about to show you against Houston, the offensive line left him unblocked for the sack. How did it happen? Let's take a look.
The Texans come out in an empty set. Just as defensive coordinator Bill Davis has done in the past, the Dolphins widen the front and put two defenders over the center in the A gaps. With just five blockers to block six potential rushers, Houston has to pick its poison. The left side of the Miami line featured Suh and fearsome edge rusher Cameron Wake, but you can't let free defenders come straight at your quarterback up the middle. Houston calls a four-man slide protection to the left. The right tackle keeps his eyes square on Wake off the edge, not wanting one of the most explosive pass rushers in the league to get to the quarterback. Only five men come, as the linebacker over the right guard drops out in coverage. The guard is unable to react in time to get to Suh, who explodes into the backfield and gets the sack.
Despite the fact that he was unblocked, you can see the explosive movement from a really large man. That's what you get with Suh. It hasn't all been peaches and cream since his arrival in Miami, and he's gotten moved off his spot in the run game a bit more than people may have expected back in the spring.
The Titans call a Power run play here, and Suh takes on a double-team at the point of attack and gets cleared out of the way. The tight end to the play side is unable to finish the block, but you can see the negative side of Suh. One of the most physically imposing defensive linemen in football, the Eagles' offense will have to be ready for his best shot on Sunday, especially with the Dolphins in "must-win" mode at this point in the season.
Now keep in mind, Suh also benefited on that last play from the presence of Wake on the outside. With Wake out for the season, Miami has come to rely on a number of other players along the line to contribute. Veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, while not really a true pass rusher, is one of its most disruptive players week in and week out on tape. He does a lot of things for that defense that don't always show up on the stat sheet. Derrick Shelby has stepped in for Wake, and while he isn't a spectacular edge rusher, he does some good things as well. Right now, their best pass rusher off the edge is likely Olivier Vernon.
On this play a couple of weeks ago on Thursday Night Football, watch Vernon wipe the hands of tackle Sebastian Vollmer and bring quarterback Tom Brady down for the sack. Vernon is explosive, has the flexibility to turn the corner and his athleticism help him to stand out both in coverage as well as getting after the quarterback.
Rookie defensive tackle Jordan Phillips has been disruptive as well. While he isn't a full-time player, the former Oklahoma Sooner has made an impact whenever he's taken the field. The team's second-round pick in April's draft, I wouldn't be shocked to see Phillips earn more playing time down the stretch, and that could start on Sunday against the Eagles.
At the linebacker position, Kelvin Sheppard is a strong run defender inside, but he only plays in their base packages. When they go to nickel, you'll see Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, one of the more athletic linebacking pairs in the NFL. Both players have great range for the position and are able to close in a hurry. Despite the fact that Miami ranks near the bottom in run defense in the NFL, the Eagles' offensive line will have to be well aware of where these two are at all times.
On this outside zone play from Tennessee, watch how quickly Jenkins closes on the ball carrier. He immediately reads that it's a stretch play to the perimeter, gets downhill quickly (instead of running parallel to the line of scrimmage, which is what the offense wants), penetrates and pulls the back down from the back side for a loss.
Here against Buffalo, you can see the short-area burst from Misi, who lines up in the A gap, reads the play and accelerates to get the tackle for loss to back the Bills further up against their end zone. This duo of Jenkins and Misi is explosive, instinctive and physical. They will be all over the field on Sunday, so it'll be up to the Eagles' offensive line to get up to the second level and keep them contained between the hashes.
In the secondary, Brent Grimes is the wily veteran back there who still makes a ton of plays for them. He's not the veteran he used to be, but Grimes is instinctive, scrappy and is known to make plays like this one at this point in his career. He does a great job shadowing the receiver in man coverage, matching his route and then undercutting the throw for an interception down near the goal line. Grimes will see most of his reps against Josh Huff and Nelson Agholor if he suits up.
My favorite player from this secondary, however, is safety Reshad Jones. An explosive hitter who has made some great plays in coverage as well, Jones is instinctive and consistently puts himself in position to make big plays. That was never more the case than in Week 5 against Tennessee.
Jones gets a pick-six on this play against rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. This is a packaged play concept, a play-design that takes both run and pass elements and combines them into one play call. Teams all over college football have been running schemes like this, and NFL teams run them effectively as well, because there are so many different combinations. Some of the most common versions are "Inside Zone Bubble" with an inside zone run and a bubble screen, but now you see so many different concepts come together. "Sweep Tosser," "Stick Draw," "Outside Zone Smoke," I could keep going. There are literally countless different combinations as long as you can marry up your team's favorite run play with a quick-game or screen-game concept. The quarterback reads one defender underneath, deciding if he's cheating more toward the run or back in coverage, and then makes him wrong by going the other way.
On this play (which was also broken down very well in a great column by Chris Brown of Smart Football), Tennessee is running "Inside Zone Tosser," or an inside zone run with double slants. Mariota is reading the linebacker to the back side. With the linebacker playing the run, the slant should be open, right? Not so fast my friend. This was a "tape study" interception because Jones saw it coming, jumped in front of the slant, made his way to the sideline and leaped into the end zone untouched. Why is this important? Because the Eagles are known to run plays like this, a handful of times per game in fact. They'll have to be wary of not just the read defender, but the other 10 players on defense as well, especially those covering those backside routes on some of these package plays.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.