Breaking Down the Miami Dolphins Big Play Defense
Even at 2-3, the Miami Dolphins are a team to be feared.
Their defense proved why against a Cincinnati Bengals offense that was expected to roll over this defense.
The Dolphins made one big stop after another, with their big plays coming in all shapes and sizes: from third-down stops to red-zone stops to stuffed runs to sacks to fumbles to pressures all the way to the game-ending interception by safety Reshad Jones.
They've been playing well all season long, but yesterday's performance gets the most attention because it resulted in a win.
In reality, their defensive prowess traces back to last year.
Let's take a look at this unit, piece by piece, to highlight the biggest plays from Sunday and what the ability to make those big plays could mean for the Dolphins going forward.
There is no singular play I can show you that sums up the Dolphins' defensive performance against the run.
The Dolphins turned in another signature performance, giving up just 80 yards on 19 carries, with 29 of those yards coming off one play.
It's been a team effort in holding opposing rush attacks to a measly 2.7 yards per carry—good for the best average in the league—with the defensive line doing their job by occupying blockers while the linebackers reciprocate by making the easy tackles.
Defensive tackle Paul Soliai and linebacker Karlos Dansby both get major kudos for their contributions to this defense. It was wondered what kind of an impact Soliai could have in a 4-3, as he was seen as primarily a 3-4 nose tackle. Dansby, on the other hand, has never played inside in a 4-3. The two have taken their talents to the new scheme and have transitioned beautifully.
There's nothing especially novel about this brand of run defense; the Dolphins were solid against the run last year as well, finishing third in the league in total rush yards and in yards per rush attempt.
A run defense as efficient as the unit the Dolphins have fielded for the past two years forces opponents to be one-dimensional. Where they were unable to capitalize on that last year, allowing a defensive passer rating of 83.7, they are giving up just a 75 passer rating this year, which currently ranks ninth in the NFL.
The Dolphins' dominant brand of run defense has facilitated improvement against the pass. Go figure.
The run defense has been borderline elite, but the pass defense has served a sufficient complement.
They got the ball rolling quickly with a six-yard sack of quarterback Andy Dalton on the Bengals' first offensive play of the game.
The Bengals wanted to get aggressive with play-action and looked like they were going deep to wide receiver A.J. Green, but the Dolphins were smart in coverage and forced Dalton to hang onto the ball for 3.8 seconds after the snap. As a result, the Dolphins were able to get the coverage sack with a vanilla four-man rush.
On the day, their defense gave up just 5.4 yards per pass attempt and a 63.5 passer rating to a quarterback who had been averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and just under a 103 passer rating prior to Sunday's contest.
The Dolphins pass defense is for real.
The Dolphins defense currently ranks sixth in the league in red-zone percentage, allowing touchdowns on just 38.9 percent of opponents' trips inside the 20-yard line. On Sunday, they gave up one touchdown in two such situations, and even that might deserve a pardon.
A back-shoulder fade dropped in over the top of both Green and Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith, placed perfectly in the back of the end zone with Green leaping to make the catch. I don't need to tell you why that's indefensible.
Oh, wait, I just did.
It's taken near-perfect execution from opponents to punch it into the end zone when they get inside the 20-yard line.
Considering they've been in those situations more frequently than most teams (3.6 red-zone trips per game is tied for eighth-most in the NFL, according to Team Rankings), their ability to play bend-don't-break defense when it matters most is vital to their ability to contend in football games.
Their backs against the wall with the ball on their own four-yard line, the Bengals lost three yards on the opening running play and threw two straight incompletions to finally settle for the field goal.
The coverage on both incompletions was impeccable. On the 2nd-and-goal play, Dalton was forced to throw for the end zone and over the head of wide receiver Armon Binns.
On the third-down play, Dolphins cornerback Jimmy Wilson made a great play on the ball, but the coverage across the board was once again air-tight. Nothing in this shot looks like a sure touchdown, and Dalton made the best choice possible.
Third downs were the specialty of the Dolphins defense on Sunday, as they have been all season. They allowed conversions on just 2-of-14 tries (14.29 percent) and have allowed a staggeringly low 26.32 percent conversion rate on third downs this season.
We have the example above from the Dolphins' early red-zone stop on 3rd-and-goal, but there were 11 other stops on the money down, each of which were vitally important to the team's win.
Without any one of those stops, who knows whether the Bengals' high-powered offense may have found their rhythm. Thanks to a consistent effort by the defense, that ended up not being the case.
One of the biggest third-down stops of the game came in the fourth quarter, with the Dolphins holding onto a 17-13 lead and the Bengals driving with the ball at Miami's 35-yard line.
The Dolphins already logged a coverage sack to start the game, but in this critical situation, they brought a six-man rush on Dalton this time around
The pocket collapsed around Dalton, and despite his best efforts to avoid the rush, he was brought down for a seven-yard sack. It's hard to tell without the All-22 whether the coverage was there or not, but regardless, the big play got the job done and forced the Bengals to punt when it looked like they'd come away with at least a field goal.
The Dolphins didn't blitz a lot against the Bengals—just 12 times per ProFootballFocus.com—so the decision to do so here says a lot about the confidence of coordinator Kevin Coyle and the rest of the coaching staff to make the play in the key situation.
As long as the defense is playing this well, there's no reason not to put the trust in them again and again.
How if Affects the Offense
It is clear that the Dolphins do not need to put a heavy burden on quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the defense playing this well. They couldn't have asked for a better situation.
The rookie is playing efficiently, though he isn't lighting up scoreboards. Their running game averages 136.2 yards per game through five games, ranking eighth in the NFL, and the Dolphins have scored the second-most rushing touchdowns in the league with nine.
This sounds a lot like the formula that the New York Jets rode to two consecutive AFC Championship Games from 2009 to 2010. In order to avoid the downward spiral the Jets are currently experiencing, their prowess in the passing game will have to improve at some point.
If and when it does, it looks like the defense will be ready and waiting.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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