The Miami Dolphins defense has had a weakness in backs catching the football for the entire 2013 NFL season. No game was this exploited more thoroughly than their Monday Night Football match with the New Orleans Saints.
Here we will take a look at some of the reasons why the defense has been weak to backs out of the backfield, exploring how the Dolphins might fix the leak in time for Sunday's Week 5 contest with the Baltimore Ravens.
In the NFL, the film study and advance scouting processes evolve each and every week. Toward the beginning of the season when there is not much tape of teams available, the process of identifying and exploiting weaknesses can start off a little dull and unfocused. As teams continue to play, it sharpens.
Below you will find the damage done by backs out of the backfield against the Dolphins defense, week by week, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required):
Pro Football Focus
The ability for backs in particular to pull in yards after the catch against Miami's coverage sharpened each week during the month of September, until the dam finally broke against the Saints on Monday Night Football.
Some teams do not throw the football to the backs out of the backfield very many times in the game. It is just not part of some teams' game plan. For example, the Miami Dolphins have thrown only 15 passes to backs out of their backfield over the course of the 2013 season, an average of under four times per game.
The Baltimore Ravens are not the kind of team that will consistently ignore the backs coming out of the backfield. They do not necessarily feature them in the game plan as often as a Norv Turner, for example. However they will utilize the backs when the advance scouting calls for it. This is especially true when Ray Rice is healthy and playing.
Given what New Orleans was able to do against the Dolphins, and given Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh's stated intention to get Ray Rice going any way they can—including the passing game—one can bet on the Ravens featuring backs in the passing game.
The last time they did this in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos, they threw to the backs 15 times with 11 catches for 47 yards, including 58 yards after the catch and a touchdown. Ray Rice in particular caught the ball eight times.
The primary weakness the Dolphins have at times is due to the team's disguise tendencies and pre-snap alignment.
Below is an example against the New Orleans Saints. This play happened on the Saints' very first drive of the game.
Strong safety Reshad Jones has man coverage responsibility on Darren Sproles, who has come out of the backfield and lined up in the slot to the left of Drew Brees. The Dolphins are in the midst of a disguised blitz look intended to overload the left side of the Saints offensive line.
The problem starts before the ball is even snapped. In order to disguise the defense's coverage, Jones stays deep in a Cover 2 look. This does not fool a quarterback like Drew Brees, who excels at reading the defense after the snap. All it does is assure that Jones has to take an atrocious angle to cover Sproles as he executes his wheel route.
Below we see another example of disguise issues creating bad angles before the ball is even snapped.
On this play, the Dolphins show one of their favorite and most common pre-snap looks. They have both Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler up on the line of scrimmage pressing the two "A" gaps, threatening to blitz. Miami will often blitz one player and pull the other back into coverage. Sometimes they blitz both players. Sometimes both players will pull back into coverage.
In this case, both players pull back into coverage. However the problem is Wheeler's assignment is Darren Sproles out of the backfield. The pre-snap spacing between Wheeler and Sproles gives Wheeler an automatic disadvantage covering Sproles if he sprints out to the sideline, which he does.
This is another example of how defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has in many ways set linebacker Philip Wheeler up for the tough season he is having in coverage. This play gains nine yards for the Saints, and the Dolphins are lucky it did not gain more.
Miami does not always shoot itself in the foot with respect to covering backs out of the backfield. Sometimes they line up with players in proper position to defend the plays.
Here is an example of how a proper pre-snap alignment can put a player with a tough assignment in position to achieve relative success.
On the above play, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has man coverage on Sproles out of the backfield. However, instead of showing a fake blitz prior to the start of the play, Ellerbe lines up with good spacing over the back in the backfield.
Ellerbe does not hesitate in taking flight to cover Sproles on his route. Sproles had just hit the Dolphins up for a 48-yard gain on the previous play, and Ellerbe is keyed on him. Because on this occasion, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle put his player in the best possible position to do his job, Ellerbe was able to hold Sproles to merely a 4-yard gain on the play.
Below is an example of how the Baltimore Ravens might attempt to spring Ray Rice loose for gains in the passing game this Sunday.
As you can see, the Ravens start out with Rice in the backfield and then motion him out to the perimeter. This helps quarterback Joe Flacco identify the kind of coverage Rice is drawing, in this case man coverage.
Rice also lines up in a stack behind a wide receiver. This keeps the man coverage from being able get an aggressive pre-snap alignment against Rice, and also keeps him from engaging Rice too early on the route. The alignment itself springs Rice open for what turns out to be a decent 7-yard gain that could have been higher if Rice had broken a tackle.
Given the Ravens' own ability to use alignment to create advantages for their backs coming out of the backfield, the Dolphins need to be careful with their pre-snap disguise tendencies which tend to put their defenders at an alignment disadvantage in their coverage assignments.
If they do not pay heed to this, they could easily get hit for another long day trying to cover backs out of the backfield. And if that happens, it could open up other players for the Baltimore Ravens.