The Miami Dolphins have one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL: Cameron Wake. They also selected a rookie pass-rusher with the third overall pick this year: Dion Jordan. Yet a little-known, under-the-radar defender has more sacks than the two of them combined.
Meet Olivier Vernon—the second-year defensive end out of Miami, the Week 13 AFC Defensive Player of the Week and, if he continues to play at the level he's shown over the course of the season, a blue-chip building block for the defense.
He has emerged through an array of talents and has been given an opportunity to display them by the Dolphins coaching staff, which has shown a willingness to use him in a variety of ways.
Let's go to the tape to get a feel for his skill set and find out why Vernon has come on so strong in 2013.
Athleticism and Pursuit
The first time was for a seven-yard sack. What impressed me the most about this play was Vernon's hustle. He was initially blocked on the play, but he powered through the offensive guard and eventually worked his way around the blocker. He wasted no time in chasing after Newton in pursuit and brought down the elusive quarterback from behind for the sack.
Vernon was only just getting started.
Later in the first quarter, he found himself in a tricky spot once again. He'd been blocked by the offensive tackle, but with his arms inside the chest plate, he was able to keep his eyes on Newton. Vernon changed directions the instant he saw Newton break the pocket, picking his way through the tackle and guard to get to the perimeter before Newton could get there.
He was able to stop Newton short of the first-down marker, forcing a punt.
One thing that jumps out at me when watching Vernon is his active hands. He is always using them in different ways to ward off blockers.
On this sack of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, Vernon caught left tackle D.J. Fluker off-guard and got him off-balance with a combination of hand technique and quick feet. He swiped his hands in opposite directions—his left hand up and his right hand down. This prevented Fluker from getting his hands into Vernon's chest but also allowed Vernon to get some leverage with his left hand under Fluker's right breast plate.
What Vernon did next can only be described as a clowning of Fluker, as he quickly shifted his momentum to the inside while pushing Fluker with one hand. This knocked Fluker off-balance and into the lap of Rivers for a key third-down sack in the fourth quarter.
Vernon flashed an interesting skill in earning the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for his three-sack performance against the New York Jets in Week 13. He registered two of his three sacks on plays where he lined up in a two-point stance and rushed the passer through the A-gap like a linebacker.
On the first of those two sacks, Vernon and defensive tackle Jared Odrick did a little loop that created some confusion on the Jets offensive line. Three linebackers—Vernon, Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe—were all creeping up to the line and showing a blitz. Vernon and Ellerbe came on the rush, while Wheeler dropped into coverage on the running back.
With Vernon and Odrick switching spots, no one on the Jets knew which one to block. As a result, both Odrick and Vernon got free, but it was Vernon who got the sack of Jets quarterback Matt Simms.
Vernon was not yet done and was used in the same role once again. This time, there was a little less illusion to the rush—there were three down linemen and three up linebackers, with Vernon creeping up to the line before the snap.
With similar quickness to what he usually uses to get around offensive tackles, Vernon bypassed the offensive guard with a nifty double-move. He started toward the outside shoulder but planted his right foot and shifted back inside.
Once the guard responded to that motion, Vernon redirected to the outside and used his left arm as a shield as he worked his way around the guard and into Simms' back.
Defensive coordinators love to have a good all-around pass-rusher who can be used like a chess piece. The Dolphins can move him around to different spots depending on the situation and create some pressure regardless of where he lines up.
Setting the Edge
Vernon has earned a lot of publicity for his pass-rushing abilities, but defensive ends have more than one responsibility. If you can't anchor against the run, you can expect teams to run straight down your throat.
The Patriots probably thought they had a great play called when they had running back LeGarrette Blount take a stretch run off left tackle. With the 6'8", 320-pound Nate Solder leading the charge against the 6'2", 260-pound Vernon, the opportunity seemed ripe for a big run in that direction.
Instead, Vernon took the opportunity to prove that he's more than just a hard-charging pass-rusher by winning leverage on Solder and keeping his eyes in the backfield. With his arms inside Solder's chest pads, Vernon drove the offensive tackle backward, extending his arms and pushing Solder away. Blount was flushed back inside by the presence of Vernon, and defensive tackle Jared Odrick eventually tackled him for a two-yard loss.
It all started with Vernon's show of strength.
Who Does Olivier Vernon Compare To?
An informal Twitter poll turned up a few interesting names: James Harrison, Elvis Dumervil, Robert Mathis and others.
When watching film of Olivier Vernon, though, it's hard not to compare him to Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
The two are nearly the same size. Both stand 6'2", while Vernon is eight pounds heavier. Heck, they both wear the same number (50).
They are versatile players. The Patriots moved Ninkovich around between different spots in the front seven quite a bit earlier in his time with the team and have used him in various roles this season (3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 defensive end).
Vernon is the more explosive player; Ninkovich may be a little more stout against the run than Vernon at this stage of his career, but their trajectory in that sense is similar. Both were/are considered less than stellar against the run and have had to work to improve that area of their game.
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Pro Football Focus
And, much like Ninkovich, while Vernon isn't having his name called on every series, he is finding ways to show up in the bigger spots—third downs, red zone, etc.
Vernon has all the tools for long-term success in the NFL and promises to be a key component of Miami's defense for years to come. He's not the flashiest player on the team, but his steady production has earned him the recognition he deserves.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.