The Miami Dolphins return home against the Atlanta Falcons for the first time this season after two consecutive road victories against the Cleveland Browns and the Indianapolis Colts. The game promises to be the Dolphins’ biggest test thus far, as the Falcons lost a mere four games in 2012. That includes a loss in the NFC Championship Game.
In this piece, we will break down the offensive and defensive game plans for the Dolphins, focusing on key advantages and tendencies the team must exploit in order to emerge from this game victorious.
Position by Position
Matt Ryan throwing to a receivers unit that features Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez provides the Falcons with the biggest advantage on offense versus Miami. This is an extremely dangerous unit that the Dolphins will need to find a way to keep bottled.
On the other hand, the injury to tailback Steven Jackson combined with the resurgence of Lamar Miller a week ago provides Miami with the advantage on the ground. The Dolphins will need to take advantage of this edge, especially in order to keep the Falcons’ passing offense off the field.
To Blitz or Not to Blitz
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), quarterback Matt Ryan completed 19 of 24 passes for 347 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions when blitzed over the first two games of 2013. He was sacked three times as well. The passing numbers are good enough for a 132.6 passer rating when blitzed. When not blitzed, Ryan’s passer rating was 93.5 during those two games.
Film review of the Dolphins' opponent last week, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts, suggested the team should dial back the all-out-blitz attack it executed against quarterback Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins chose not to do so.
Once again using data from Pro Football Focus, we see that the Dolphins actually rushed an average of 4.55 defensive players per pass snap against the Colts, whereas they rushed an average of 4.50 players per pass snap against the Browns. Arguably, the defense paid a price for the tactic, especially through the first three quarters of the game.
Andrew Luck compiled a 98.6 passer rating when blitzed by the Dolphins, but only a 64.8 passer rating when not blitzed.
Abandoning the blitz altogether is rarely wise. It has its place in a defensive game plan. Particularly when the Indianapolis Colts got behind on the scoreboard and were forced to pass the football in order to try and win the game, blitzing became far more appropriate and useful.
This was truest on Andrew Luck’s final 4th-and-10 play in the closing minutes of the game. The Dolphins blitzed linebacker Philip Wheeler, and his sack of Luck effectively closed out the game and a Dolphins victory. This is an example of a situation in which a blitz call should be nearly automatic.
One year ago against the Arizona Cardinals, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle took deserved criticism in a similar situation for not calling a blitz on 4th-and-10 from the Dolphins’ 15-yard line.
With only four players rushing quarterback Kevin Kolb, and one of those four being an ineffective rookie pass-rusher, Kolb was able to sit back in the pocket and find wide receiver Andre Roberts for the tying score with seconds remaining on the clock.
If the Dolphins defense is able to put Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in a similar situation, they need to blitz him regardless of the success he established against the blitz in the first two games of the season.
The most interesting aspect of Ryan’s success against the blitz this season is the fact it provides such a stark contrast to his previous seasons. Once again according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan had passer ratings of 93.9 and 86.5 in the 2012 and 2011 seasons, respectively, when blitzed. He had passer ratings of 101.1 and 94.9, respectively, when not blitzed.
The sack tendencies during those seasons may provide a clue to the mystery. Ryan was sacked on 4.7 percent of dropbacks when not blitzed, but only 3.2 percent when blitzed. This suggests that with the added pressure of extra pass-rushers coming, Ryan made a conscious effort to get rid of the football very early and this detracted from his passing efficiency.
When the defense sat back and rushed only four players, Ryan took more time to find his ideal targets, and as a result he threw more effectively but also was sacked more often.
This season, those tendencies have flipped. Ryan was sacked on 3.3 percent of dropbacks when not blitzed, and 11.1 percent of dropbacks when blitzed. Ryan is passing the football more aggressively down the field against the blitz, especially to his favorite wide receiver Julio Jones.
When Atlanta Has the Ball
On film, blitzes tend to have the best effect on Matt Ryan when accompanied by aggressive, physical man coverage on his receiving targets. The Dolphins should look at executing along those lines during situations that call for high pressure.
That puts a lot of pressure on the Dolphins to cover dynamic wide receiver Julio Jones in aggressive man coverage. Though the Dolphins have not shown this tendency this season under defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, they should consider making an effort to handcuff corner Brent Grimes to Jones during the game. Jones is by far the Falcons’ most dangerous receiving weapon, and Grimes has been by far the Dolphins’ most effective cover corner.
Under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons show on film a tendency to overuse the screen game. They throw a lot of wide receiver screens as well as running back screens. The Dolphins must stay disciplined yet aggressive, and corners Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson (if he plays) must be willing to stick their noses into developing blocks in order to shut these plays down. The team should regularly key defensive linemen on the Falcons' tailback during pass rushes.
Their defensive ends must be athletic enough to spill out to the perimeter when Ryan throws the football quickly on a wide receiver screen.
The most athletic defensive end on the Dolphins roster only played seven snaps a week ago, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Dolphins will need rookie Dion Jordan to take a larger role in the game for a number of reasons. His linebacker-like athletic ability can help him keep containment on the Falcons’ screen game. Left tackle Sam Baker shows problems in pass protection when faced with defensive ends with a high level of athleticism. Jordan is also the most effective defensive lineman at dropping back into a zone coverage.
Speaking of which, Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle should consider getting a little less cute with his defensive linemen in zone coverage, other than perhaps the rookie Dion Jordan. According to data gathered from Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins dropped defensive linemen other than Jordan into coverage 20 times during the first two games.
These players have collectively been targeted three times by quarterbacks Luck and Weeden, with three completions for 74 yards.
All three completions were to the teams’ tight ends. The Dolphins will face one of the best tight ends to ever play the game this weekend in Hall of Fame candidate Tony Gonzalez. Matt Ryan is perfectly capable of finding Gonzalez when covered by a slow-footed defensive lineman.
On film, the Falcons have a tendency to spread the field by emptying the backfield. When this happens, there is a temptation for the defense to pin its ears back in pass rush, as there is no backfield protector available to protect Ryan. However, Ryan’s tendency on these plays is to get the football out extremely quickly on one-step or three-step timing.
When the defensive line sees an empty backfield, the defensive linemen need to focus on spilling into the likely passing lanes and getting their hands in the air rather than an all-out pass-rush. The defense can send a blitzer simultaneously to make sure Ryan does not have all day to throw the football.
A week ago, Dolphins linebackers Koa Misi, Phil Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe had a little bit of difficulty minimizing the run-after-catch of tailback Ahmad Bradshaw and fullback Stanley Havili as they caught outlet passes out of the backfield. The two players combined for 45 yards after the catch on five receptions. Those linebackers will need to tighten up their pursuit angles because on film Matt Ryan has an established tendency to utilize his backfield outlets in the passing game.
When Miami Has the Ball
The Atlanta Falcons defense will limp into this game with a number of significant injuries. These injuries should dominate the themes of Miami’s offensive game-planning.
Corner Asante Samuel has yet to play a game this season. Hybrid defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann is out for the remainder of the season. Though he does not appear on the official NFL injury report this week, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) linebacker Stephen Nicholas has played a total of four snaps this season. Defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon was recently placed on injured reserve and will likely be replaced by rookie former undrafted free agent Joplo Bartu.
With the injuries at linebacker, the unit could make for a vulnerable target. The Miami Dolphins can test their communication in a number of ways. The team can speed up the offense by going no-huddle, which would give the Falcons less time between plays to make their defensive calls. The offense can also engage a series of formation shifts prior to the snap. It can put players in motion at the snap.
All of these things would test the speed, effectiveness and accuracy of the Falcons’ communication with one another.
Communication aside, the unit’s chemistry could also be tested against both the run and pass. The easiest method of testing a young player like rookie linebacker Joplo Bartu is through misdirection. Counter plays could be effective in the run game. Fly sweeps and option plays could put the linebackers out of position.
Play fakes will tend to specifically test linebacker discipline in pass coverage. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is an effective play-action passer.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he had the second-highest passer rating in the NFL during the 2012 season when throwing the football off play-action. His play-action passer rating in 2013 continues to run higher (101.0) than his passer rating on plays with no play fake (92.4).
With the injuries to the Falcons’ linebackers unit, the Dolphins might want to increase their play-action tendencies for this game. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), despite having the second-highest passer rating among qualified passers on play action, the percentage of Tannehill’s passes that came off play fakes was fourth lowest among the 27 qualifying quarterbacks. This year, Tannehill’s percentage ranks No. 15 out of 31.
If there were ever an opponent that could be more susceptible to an increase in play-action tendencies, the Atlanta Falcons in their first game playing without defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon may be that opponent.
The Atlanta Falcons have not pressured the passer well this season. In their last game against the St. Louis Rams, the Falcons jumped out to a quick 21-0 lead within the first 19 minutes of the ball game. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford dropped back to pass 57 times during the game. This was a perfect recipe for a defense to pressure the passer.
Despite these advantages, the Falcons walked out of the game without a single sack. This provided the Rams the opportunity to bring the game back to within a touchdown four minutes into the fourth quarter.
The Dolphins have had a lot of trouble protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill this season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has a pass-protection statistic they term “Pass Blocking Efficiency.” The statistic is a simple function of Pro Football Focus’ tallies of quarterback sacks, hits and hurries allowed by offensive linemen as a percentage of offensive lineman snaps in pass protection.
Among offensive linemen, Miami left tackle Jonathan Martin ranks No. 49 of 63 qualifying tackles. Miami right tackle Tyson Clabo ranks No. 55 of 63. Miami right guard John Jerry ranks No. 48 of 59 qualifying guards.
On the bright side, Miami left guard Richie Incognito ranks No. 6 out of 59 qualifying guards in this measure. Miami center Mike Pouncey ranks No. 9 out of 30 qualifying centers.
Given the Falcons’ ineffectiveness rushing the passer, this should be a game in which the Dolphins offensive linemen have a chance to get their pass protection righted.
A week ago, as I wrote in this analysis, the Dolphins significantly shortened wide receiver Mike Wallace’s route depth. They broadened his route selection in order to feature him. If the pass protection holds up against Atlanta’s largely ineffective pass rush, the Dolphins may be able to take advantage of Wallace’s speed by having him run more of the deeper routes they failed to take advantage of against the Cleveland Browns.
These routes may take longer to develop, but they can also be more rewarding.