It’s become as cliché and utterly useless a piece of football advice as couch potato fans shouting “catch the ball!” and “tackle him!” at their television sets. The advice? Pressure the quarterback.
Getting pressure on the quarterback has been among the most central priorities of every defensive game plan of every game played in the modern history of the NFL.
That said, getting pressure on this particular quarterback (Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden) bears the potential for higher rewards than most other quarterbacks in the National Football League.
A year ago, Pro Football Focus recorded Brandon Weeden as having an 83.1 passer rating when not pressured in the pocket. That was not bad for a rookie. What is bad for a quarterback of any experience level is the fact that his passer rating dropped down to 38.5 when pressured in the pocket, with a sack every 5.6 drop backs. The latter is not abnormal, but the former is definitely at the low end of the scale. Among the 38 quarterbacks who faced pressure on at least 50 drop backs in 2012, Brandon Weeden’s interception percentage was 7th highest in the league.
Even so, pressure is always a high priority. Therefore, it does not really constitute a piece of advice or a game plan.
Note: As usual, my articles and analyses tend to take full and thorough advantage of the wonderful collection of statistics offered by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). I highly recommend the resource. I will note when I am using Pro Football Focus' statistics, but I will not necessarily link the statistic every time. Much of what I cite involves my own number-crunching of raw data from Pro Football Focus, therefore has no specific link.
Crowd the Line of Scrimmage and Blitz
There are far too many reasons the Dolphins will want to enter the game with an aggressive game plan from a blitzing standpoint, and very few reasons to be afraid of the consequences. Let’s start first with some reasons the Dolphins should not be afraid of being aggressive:
- For one thing, with the Browns’ most dangerous wide receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for the game, and therefore cannot threaten Miami. The Dolphins would be better off daring the Browns’ receivers to beat them deep. Receivers Greg Little and Travis Benjamin are too inconsistent to be afraid of them.
- According to Pro Football Focus, Weeden’s passer rating dropped from 78.4 when not blitzed to 60.5 when blitzed. Blitzing affected him negatively even if the pressure did not get there, because it makes him impatient and predictable.
- One danger of crowding the line of scrimmage aggressively is the potential for a loss of gap control resulting in a tailback breaking into a second level which is largely vacant. However, that tailback is Trent Richardson, who does not possess great long speed. On the other end, Dolphins free safety Chris Clemons has true 4.3 speed. One of the best aspects of Clemons’ game over the years has been his ability to use his speed and range to limit the damage done when backs successfully break into the second level.
So we have three reasons not to fear an aggressive game plan. How about three positive benefits associated with crowding the line of scrimmage aggressively and blitzing?
- There are opportunities to be had in certain places along the Browns’ offensive line in terms of creating indecision.
- The Browns will prioritize the establishment of the ground game. An aggressive game plan crowds the running lanes with a lot of bodies, making this difficult.
- The more you show you blitz pre-snap, the more you can induce the Browns into max protection. This is a good thing. Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner has a history of having his quarterbacks throw 12 to 15 passes to the tailbacks every game, using them to attack the underneath coverage and put pressure on the linebackers to make open field tackles when the corners are in man coverage. Max protections keep those backs inert. Keeping tight end Jordan Cameron in for coverage would be a nice added bonus, if possible.
Take Advantage of the Browns' Right Guard
The Browns may have an even bigger hole at right guard than the Miami Dolphins. Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston were set to battle for the right to start, however both players are ailing and the Browns are stuck moving right tackle backup Oniel Cousins inside. Cousins is a weakness, and it showed in the preseason.
There will be plenty of opportunities for penetrating defensive tackles like Randy Starks and Jared Odrick to match up with Oniel Cousins and take advantage of him. However, the thing to remember is that a team enters a game with the full intention of covering its weaknesses.
Center Alex Mack is going to be baby-sitting Oniel Cousins for the entire game, attempting to bail his water in zone protection. The Dolphins would be wise to take advantage of this, not by sending players at Oniel Cousins, but by sending players at center Alex Mack.
On the play above, you see the Colts sending two inside linebackers in succession right up the middle. There is a nose tackle lined up head-on with Mack at the start of the play, but the player slants over toward left guard, fooling Mack into thinking he has the luxury of helping to bail Oniel Cousins’ water in the protection scheme. Mack is so focused on this that he doubles the blitzing linebacker right as another blitzing linebacker screams right up the gap to Mack’s left.
In this case, the Browns have a tailback in the backfield to help with the protection, so Brandon Weeden should be fine on the play. However, there are two points to be made here.
For one thing, a tailback is often at a disadvantage matching up with a blitzing linebacker like this, especially if you have talented blitzing linebackers. Much was made of the Miami Dolphins’ acquisitions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in the offseason, as both players had a reputation for successful blitzing. This would be an excellent opportunity to prove their prowess by beating these backfield speed bumps and pressuring Weeden.
The second thing to note is what we talked about before: Brandon Weeden has shown a history of being weak to the blitz. He tends to back up and rush his throws in anticipation of the pressure. On the play shown above Weeden did exactly that, and this was not a play from his rookie year. This play happened during the Browns’ third preseason game, which is the game teams treat as a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. Weeden backed up in anticipation of the pressure up the middle, and rushed a throw to a predictable hot target who was quickly bottled for only a two yard gain.
Be Physical with Tight End Jordan Cameron
Browns tight end Jordan Cameron is one of the few mismatch advantages that could work in their favor when they are on offense. The Dolphins need to figure out ways to neutralize him. An added bonus would involve the Dolphins finding opportunities to take advantage of Cameron’s weaknesses.
Why is Jordan Cameron a potential mismatch against the Dolphins? Cameron is a 6’5” former wide receiver that runs the 40 yard dash in the 4.5’s. One of middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe’s weaknesses as a Baltimore Raven prior to coming to Miami was his coverage up the seam and while detached from the line of scrimmage. The simpler you keep his coverage responsibilities, the better. If he has to turn and run with a tight end up the seam or get too far from the line of scrimmage in zone, an offense can take advantage of him.
Back when linebacker Jarret Johnson played for the Baltimore Ravens, he made a living matching up singly on tight ends and physically oppressing them, often not even allowing them off the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins will need to have linebackers Phil Wheeler and Koa Misi channel their inner Jarret Johnson during the game. They might even consider setting rookie Dion Jordan to the task at times. Cameron is a talented player, but he is unproven at dealing with the physicality one finds in NFL starters around the league. The Dolphins would be wise to test him this way.
One added bonus that could come along with this strategy would be forcing Cameron to stay in and block in max protections. Any time you successfully do this, you take one of the Browns’ most dangerous receiving weapons off the table. It won’t happen often, as according to Pro Football Focus Cameron was only held in to pass protect on two plays this preseason. However, the tactic of shadowing a physical player on Cameron like the Ravens used to do with Jarret Johnson may induce this more often than the Browns intend. And when it does happen, you can also take advantage of it by bullying a weaker player in pass rush as the Colts did on the play below:
As you can see above, Cameron got caught pass protecting a blitzing linebacker and was thoroughly taken advantage of en route to a pressure on quarterback Brandon Weeden which forced an early, uncomfortable throw intended for receiver Josh Gordon. The ball was off target and went incomplete.
Keep the Browns’ Nickel Defensive Line Honest
To an offensive coach, advising the offense to stay ahead of schedule is as obvious as telling a defensive coach he must pressure the quarterback. There’s nothing ground-breaking there, so I will not waste page space advising it.
However one way or another, the Miami Dolphins have to keep the Browns from getting into their nickel package and allowing their pass rushers the opportunity to rush the passer with reckless abandon.
Tape study has shown me that the Browns’ defensive front in the nickel is vicious when it comes to rushing the passer. This is a defensive front that was built to play well in the nickel as it is full of nickel specialists. The Browns spent a considerable amount of money on nickel rush specialists Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, and they have the luxury of combining them with the likes of Ahtyba Rubin and Jabaal Sheard, or perhaps even sixth overall pick Barkevious Mingo.
The issue here is the Dolphins have a potentially big hole at right guard, not unlike the Browns. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin is more than capable of taking advantage of such weakness. As shown below against the Indianapolis Colts in preseason:
Not unlike the Browns with their right guard problem, the Dolphins will have to have Mike Pouncey bail John Jerry out in zone protection. This will put a lot of pressure on Richie Incognito to handle Desmond Bryant in pass protection, which in turn will put a lot of pressure on left tackle Jonathan Martin to handle Jabaal Sheard and potentially Barkevious Mingo in pass protection. On the other side, right tackle Tyson Clabo will have his hands full with Paul Kruger.
The Dolphins need to keep this front honest by either keeping them off the field in this form, or staying ahead of schedule.
Run the Ball at Paul Kruger
The Browns have the makings of a very good run defense when they have their base personnel on the field. However, they do have one significant weakness. Paul Kruger’s background in Baltimore was as a player in the defense’s nickel personnel packages. He was forced into more action in 2012 by virtue of a combination of injury to Terrell Suggs and disappointment from rookie Courtney Upshaw. The Browns gave him such a big contract that they have a difficult time justifying him as just a nickel player, yet he has some of the weaknesses that would make you uncomfortable with him as a base package outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.
Here we have an example of Kruger’s poor read and recognition abilities as a linebacker defending the run. The Colts ran an end-around to receiver Darius Heyward-Bey, who lined up fairly tight to the formation pre-snap. Kruger initially backs up and slides inward a little, and by the frame in the top-right corner you can see him reading the action in the backfield as the quarterback stuck the football out and handed off to Heyward-Bey. The problem is how slow Kruger was to react to the play. By the frame in the bottom-left corner, Kruger has continued backing up and sliding to the inside even though Heyward-Bey has had the football and taken at least three or four steps since the point at which the end-around was revealed. By the frame in the bottom-right, Kruger is essentially out of the play and it is up to others to stop Heyward-Bey for a 6-yard gain. This indecision and inability against the run is not unique to end-around plays, though. On the very next play the Colts ran Vick Ballard off-tackle to Kruger’s side for 15 yards as Kruger blew containment.