Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline just finished what may be the second-best game of his five-year career. The best game of Hartline’s career came in 2012 when the Dolphins faced the Arizona Cardinals defense, which was coached by defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
If that name sounds familiar from this weekend, it is because Horton became the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator during the offseason. Horton’s defensive coverage schemes are now responsible for Hartline’s two best games of his career, along with both of Hartline’s touchdown receptions in 2012 and 2013.
Knowing that Hartline would face the same defensive coordinator who helped him produce a career day in 2012, I decided to give some of my readers and followers some tips about what to expect in a rematch with Horton’s defense.
We are left with the task of figuring out what it is about Horton’s defensive scheme that provides opportunities to a receiver like Hartline.
After extensive analysis, three factors contributed heavily to Hartline’s success against the Browns this past Sunday:
- Consistent lack of safety support over top of Hartline
- Joe Philbin’s slot receiver philosophies
- Horton’s off-man tendencies with some tight man mixed in
You will see the interplay of these three factors over and over again throughout the still frames of attempts that went in Brian’s direction.
Before We Start
One particular factor that provides a nice setting for Hartline to show his skills is the kind of off-man coverage you see in Horton’s defensive scheme. You’ll find a useful primer video here reviewing off-man coverage produced by Fox Sports. I recommend the short watch as it is very good information and gives context for the plays we’re about to see.
Now for the Film
Let’s begin with something relatively simple. On this play, you will see that Hartline is lined up alone to the left of the formation. He is facing a form of off-man coverage from the defensive back. What the Dolphins do against this coverage shows how they think about the passing game in relation to the ground game. This play is essentially pitch-and-catch.
The corner has inside leverage, and if you recall from the video above, one of the goals of off-man is to take away the easy slant.
This off-man corner with six yards of cushion is going to give up the room for Hartline to run his out route, but he will focus hard on not allowing any run-after-catch. If you feel confident in the chemistry between your quarterback and receiver, then this play is an extended run play.
Alternative Run Plays
Let’s again keep it pretty simple for now. This is a little bit of a different look from the defense, but the same factors make this play so appetizing.
Despite the safeties being deep in a shell, both corners are playing off-man again. Hartline, once again, decides to run a speed out and plays some simple pitch-and-catch with his quarterback for what is essentially an extended run play.
Remember, the key is with the corner sitting in off-man; he is presenting toward the quarterback with his eyes, reading the quarterback’s drop, maintaining inside leverage and looking to take away the slant.
Breaking short and to the outside is not something that concerns them, so long as they can limit your yards after catch. Ryan Tannehill and Hartline are not concerned with that. With no ground game to speak of, they’re more interested in taking the quick, high-percentage five or six yards, which is what they would have been hoping to do with the ground game.
Joe Philbin’s Plans for the Slot Receiver
Now let’s take a look at a slight modification that introduces a new factor that helped Hartline have such a good day. You’ll notice here that there’s a slot receiver out to Hartline’s side. The slot receiver in a Philbin offense is not necessarily typical among other teams.
I explained why in this piece. Philbin likes to use his slot receivers to challenge the seams and middle of the field physically and vertically. Therefore, the safety has his eye on him regardless of the tight man coverage Gibson faces. The safety has to protect the hash mark or the defense is ruined.
The benefit for Hartline is that he continues to be left alone in off-man coverage. Will he capitalize on every opportunity against off-man coverage with no help? Not necessarily, just as, ultimately, Hartline failed to catch a contested ball on the above play. But generally speaking, this play will be successful in these circumstances.
This play is pretty much exactly like the previous play. Except this time, Hartline does catch the football.
Interaction Between Slot and Perimeter
Looking at the frame above, on occasions, when there’s a man in coverage at the line of scrimmage on the slot receiver and a safety behind, I imagine slot receiver Brandon Gibson is going to usually run a seam route into the hole between the underneath coverage and the safety.
This has an added benefit of preoccupying the safety, while someone like Hartline is able to easily get open in tight man or off-man coverage.
However, on the following plays, we start to see a little more interaction between the two receivers, Hartline and Gibson, because the Browns gave them a different look on defense.
As you can see, there is no slot corner up on the line facing Gibson. There are two corners ambiguously playing off. They could be in man, or they could be in some kind of zone. The Dolphins actually have contingencies for both.
If it’s off-man, then Gibson needs to speed into his out route as quickly as he can, maximizing the window he has while his off-man coverage has to cut through traffic to get to Gibson underneath.
Meanwhile, the mesh point of the routes crossing one another creates a little extra space from his off-man coverage, and Hartline can take advantage of that by cutting inside just as Gibson’s coverage clears the passing lane, leaving a window for Tannehill to throw the ball.
On this particular play, Tannehill threw off-target and the ball went incomplete. But they did better on the next go-around.
The only difference between what happened on the former play and this play a few plays later is that, instead of Gibson running a speed-out, he faked it and then turned sharply inward. I actually think Gibson made a bad sight adjustment based on the coverage.
Luckily, the gaffe did not cost the team anything because Gibson starting his route as a speed out was enough to get his off-man corner crashing down through traffic after him. This created the window Hartline needed to catch the football once he executed his square-in.
A Change in Tactics
After figuring out that Hartline was going to eat against off-man coverage all day, the Browns tried a little bit of a change of pace. This is where Hartline starts to show some of his versatility. He’s now facing tight man coverage on the outside.
Lucky for Hartline, he excels on certain routes against tight man coverage because he’s a versatile route-runner. His best route in man is the deep comeback. His body control and quickness are ideal for it. On this play, he easily created the opportunity for a big catch.
Now that the Browns have made an adjustment to where they’re trying to cover Hartline in tighter man coverage (while still not putting any safety help over him), we are going to see how that change completely backfired on Cleveland.
The corners facing Hartline (in this case, Buster Skrine) have been nickel and dimed by him all day. They’re in off-man most of the time and unable to do anything about the catches he makes on those dinky little speed-outs.
Now Skrine is in a tighter press position. What does Hartline do? He uses a great shoulder fake to convince Skrine that he’s, once again, going for the quick out route that has been driving everyone crazy. Is it any surprise that Skrine bit on the fake to the outside, which allowed Hartline to produce vertical separation? The play results in a touchdown.
A Bonus Play
This play does not necessarily fit into the above narrative, but I wanted to bring it up because it really speaks to Hartline’s versatility as a route-runner. Hartline had beaten Chris Owens a few times during the game, but he is still the better corner between him and Skrine.
It’s hard to say if Hartline ran the deep comeback because he was supposed to or if he chose it based on the progress of the route. Hartline gets out about five or seven yards and fakes a quick out, which is something the off-man coverage depicts weakness in. However, he only uses a shoulder fake to get a reaction from the corner, then continues running vertically.
From there, did Hartline stop running vertically because Owens had recovered off the fake too well? Or was he supposed to run the comeback the whole time? I do not know. But either way, this route needed two distinct moves to work, and Hartline executed it beautifully.
Much of what was seen in the coverage against the Cleveland Browns in 2013 was also seen in the coverage of the Arizona Cardinals in 2012. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton is not the only defensive coordinator who will rely on a lot of off-man and tighter man coverage.
Brian Hartline can be expected to excel when faced with that kind of coverage. However, his run-after-catch abilities are still lacking, and he will have to spend the better part of games setting up his deep opportunities the way he did against the Browns.
He is the perfect weapon for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to have at his disposal. He excels on all of the routes Tannehill throws best. His game lends itself toward Tannehill's tendency to want to quickly release the ball. He should continue to gain yardage because of his versatile route running, but scoring touchdowns will continue to be the big question.