Well, Dolfans, we’re just three weeks away from the start of training camp. Every morning I wake up and feel the heat and humidity and look out at the morning haze. I can’t help but reminisce about the July mornings getting ready to go to lifting and conditioning with a 7-on-7 league sprinkled in here and there. The dog days of summer are nearly upon us, and that means football is almost back!
For those that have followed me to DolphinsTalk from Locked on Dolphins and the Phinalysis at Welcome to Perfectville, you may remember that I started analyzing the Dolphins on a message board, ThePhins.com. One of my annual traditions there was to post a Defensive Preview. I wanted to bring that to DolphinsTalk.com this year. But, I wanted to add a new twist to it.
I know many fans tend to get caught up in the 3-4 vs. 4-3 battle. That’s antiquated. I wanted to bring to bear more modern nomenclature for Miami’s defense. To illustrate this, I will provide a positional “guide” for you to use to learn about the role for each position, and I’ll do a defensive depth chart for as many of Miami’s personnel packages as I can readily identify. I will add a screenshot where possible to illustrate each package.
I get asked about this a lot, so I feel like I should address it first. Oftentimes people will say that Miami plays a lot of 3-4 fronts when they use “base” (I use that term loosely) personnel. Aren’t they a 3-4 defense? Yes, Miami will at times play a 3-4. Yes, they list that on their team website as their official depth chart. The NFL mandates teams post their depth charts in 4-3 or 3-4 format. To this, I say, don’t be a sheep. Watch the tape.
My response is that Miami’s in a sub-package, meaning nickel, big nickel, dime, quarter, or half dollar more than 75% of the time. How can it be a 3-4 when that’s the case?
I will say that many of Miami’s packages, especially their fronts, incorporate principles of the Bill Belichick 3-4 style defense he used under Bill Parcells in the 1980s when they were with the New York Giants. Some of these principles include playing 2-technique, 4i-technique, 4-technique, 4i with an OLB as a 5 or 6-technique on the same side, two off-ball LBs between the DEs, etc. For examples of these techniques, consult the chart below.
Overall, in terms of philosophy, Miami wants to be amorphous – without a distinctive clear look – on a weekly basis.
These are the identifiable roles in Miami’s defense. Included is a brief description of each, with a quick look at guys I expect to contribute in each spot this year. Keep in mind that players will likely have multiple roles, and those roles can be different from package to package.
Rush End – The player in this role generally plays a 5/6/7/9 technique look but can sometimes squeeze down to a 4 technique, typically when an Edge LB is also in the game. This is primarily a weakside or open-side defender, meaning there’s no TE to his side, and/or he’s away from the offense’s strength. Emmanuel Ogbah and Jaelan Phillips should both see plenty of snaps here.
1-Tech/NT –This position plays primarily as a shade or 1-technique but can also line head-up on the center in a true 0, NT technique. In Miami’s defense, they will play several even front packages, and the NT ends up being a 2-technique, head-up on the guard. Raekwon Davis should feature in this role, with John Jenkins getting used situationally. Think of the 2018 Patriots combo of Malcolm Brown and Danny Shelton.
3-Tech/Multi –This position plays up and down the line, mostly as a 3-technique, but can play 0, 1, 2i, 2, 4i, 4, and 5 techniques. Christian Wilkins features in this spot, and I expect Adam Butler to be his primary backup, with Zach Sieler seeing reps here as well.
Big End –This role mostly plays in a 5/6 technique front but can extend out to a wide-5, 7, or 9 technique. Ogbah was also able to reduce inside to play in a 4, 4i, and 3-technique in some packages. I know this is a bit of a shock, but I think Zach Sieler has earned a considerable look here – he might even be the starter here to begin the season. Emmanuel Ogbah played this role last year and will likely get snaps here. I expect Jason Strowbridge will get limited snaps if he makes the roster. Look out for Christian Wilkins here too.
Edge LB – This position is similar to the Rush DE and is essentially a stand-up DE, mostly playing in 5, wide-5, and 7/9 technique looks. There are minimal coverage assignments, so its basic function is to set the edge against the run and to rush or be involved in a rush game against the pass. However, this has not been a full-time position for the past two years. Miami incorporated this more into 4-man fronts toward the end of the year, with Zach Sieler playing Big DE next to Andrew Van Ginkel, with Ogbah being the open-side player opposite. I expect we see that trend continue this year, with Van Ginkel being the primary guy. Brennan Scarlett can fill this role as well. Vince Biegel played this role in 2019, and if he makes the roster – might be a big *If* – he should be the backup here.
ILB/Will – One of the primary LB spots Miami fields most every down. This role is interesting because it can be played as a traditional off-ball Will LB in 4-man fronts, or on the LOS on the open side in 4-3 extended fronts and 3-3 fronts on the open side, as well as being the protected ILB in 3-3 Bear fronts. More on those in a bit. It’s primarily a coverage role with some run-and-hit capabilities in the Bear front. Jerome Baker featured in this role last year, and it’s possible we see Duke Riley get some specific packages in this role like Kamu Grugier-Hill did last year.
MLB – Primarily a B gap-to-B gap run defender whose primary job is to stop the run. Elandon Roberts played this role in 2020 and was re-signed. This role is typically only on the field in 4-3, 4-3 extend, and 3-3-5 fronts. Elandon Roberts filled this role last year and seems likely to stick in 2021. Benardrick McKinney may get snaps here in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
OLB/Sam – This role varies from the Edge LB position in that it encompassed nearly 30% of the snaps being off-ball. It plays as an off-ball LB at times in 4-2-5 packages and plays as an on-the-LOS spot in 4-3 extend, under, 3-4, and 3-3-5 packages. Kyle Van Noy was entrenched in this role last year. I guess that we see Benardrick McKinney play here in some packages and moving to more of an off-ball MLB in others. That leaves Brennan Scarlett as the likely backup here. However, the wildcard to this role is Jaelan Phillips. I believe he’ll earn some time here, in addition to snaps at DE.
Left & Right CB – Self-explanatory here. Miami primarily used Xavien Howard and Byron Jones at the left and right corner, respectively, last season, with Noah Igbinoghene filling in for both at various points in the season. This position requires players to play a lot of man, both press and off-man, and various zone coverages that look somewhat like man coverage or playing disguised as underneath defenders such as Cover 3, Cover 5, Cover 6 and Cover 6 Buzz. I would imagine Howard, Jones, and Igbinoghene play here. Obviously, the situation with Howard needs to work itself out, but Miami has a player with potential in Igbinoghene to plug in if things go south. Keep an eye on UDFA Trill Williams here as a depth piece as well.
Nickel – You can label this as a slot corner, and that explanation would suffice. This position primarily operates from the slot, but every so often, we saw Xavien Howard shadow a receiver into the slot and the nickel corner, Nik Needham, play outside. Miami brought in free agents Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty, and we’ve seen some indications that Noah Igbinoghene may get a shot here as well. This is the hardest spot for me to pick a favorite, but I’m inclined to go with Justin Coleman being the primary guy unless Nik Needham takes a big step forward. It may not be from day one, but I think Coleman ends up taking over and ends up with more total snaps. I should note that there are formations where Miami will play with two slot corners on the field.
Big Nickel/Slot Safety – This is a safety that is capable of playing in the slot or on the LOS. For years in New England, this was Patrick Chung. For Miami last year, it was Brandon Jones. I think Jones gets the majority of the snaps in this role as he proved pretty capable last year. We could also see Jevon Holland or Jason McCourty take some snaps here in coverage situations. I think Jones takes the snaps where you’re using this safety as an edge defender, overhang player, or blitzer from the slot against 12 or 21 personnel.
Free Safety/MOF – This role is a deep centerfield free safety role. If you’ve listened to my podcast, you’ve heard me refer to this as the Devin McCourty position. This players sets the coverage and makes the calls to roll the coverage or set double teams. All indications point to Jevon Holland being this player for the Dolphins in 2021, and that was reinforced by the team’s release of Bobby McCain shortly after the Draft. Holland should prove to be a better run defender than both McCain and Devin McCourty are, and his length and athleticism are both better than McCain’s. It’s the between-the-ears aspect that we don’t know about. One additional plus with Holland is that you can use him as a matchup player in the slot or as a cloud defender on double-teams. Jason McCourty seems the likely backup here, a savvy vet to get in the ear of Holland.
Strong Safety – In Miami’s defense, this has become more of a TE coverage specialist than anything else. In other words, this isn’t a role that you would’ve seen Reshad Jones, John Lynch, Steve Atwater, or James Washington filling. Eric Rowe has manned this position for most of the past two seasons, and I don’t see that changing this year. Brandon Jones has played some split safety for Miami, which is similar, so he’s the likely backup. Perhaps Clayton Fejedelem or Nate Holley hangs on as a special teams backup here too.
Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Alright, I suppose it’s time for the moment of truth, relatively speaking. Predicting a depth chart, or at least a defensive depth chart, at this point in time, three weeks before Training Camp Starts, is a bit of a fool’s errand. But let’s do it anyway. Based on the roles above, my overall depth chart looks like this:
Big DE Zach Sieler Jason Strowbridge
1T/NT Raekwon Davis John Jenkins
3T/Multi Christian Wilkins Adam Butler
Rush DE Emmanuel Ogbah Jaelan Phillips*
Edge LB Andrew Van Ginkel
ILB/Will Jerome Baker Duke Riley
MLB Elandon Roberts
OLB/Sam Benardrick McKinney Brennan Scarlett
RCB Byron Jones
$CB Justin Coleman Nik Needham
FS Jevon Holland Jason McCourty Jamal Perry
SS Eric Rowe Clayton Fejedelem
$$ Brandon Jones
LCB Xavien Howard Noah Igbinoghene
* Note – you could list Jaelan Phillips at OLB in my book. I’ve got him at DE as that’s where I think he’ll see the largest chunk of snaps early on, but once he gets more experience, we could see him doing what Kyle Van Noy was doing a year ago.
Obviously, this assumes that Xavien Howard’s contract situation gets sorted out. I wish I could tell you one way or the other if I think it will, but I truly don’t know. I do know there are several factors at play, not just guaranteed money for 2021 and beyond.
I also know I’m going to get questions about cutting Vince Biegel, so I’ll address that here. It’s pretty clear that Andrew Van Ginkel is the better player in the Edge LB role. So, that eliminates Biegel from being the “starter” there. I also don’t think there’s much, if any, the difference between how he and Brennan Scarlett set the edge against the run, so I gave Scarlett the nod for his special teams’ value. Plus, Miami is currently cross-training Jaelan Phillips as both a DE and OLB, so he’s likely to get some reps as well. Given the versatility Miami also possesses along the DL. In the Secondary, I felt like I could get away with six true LBs because I also can account for Phillips getting reps there. I also suspect Miami will play a lot of Big Nickel, meaning Brandon Jones gets on the field quite a bit as an edge or overhang defender, and Miami will roll with two off-ball LBs, using two of Baker McKinney and Roberts. To me, unless Vince Biegel really demonstrates some pass-rush prowess, the value just isn’t there.
Finally, keep in mind that players will play multiple roles other than the positions I’ve listed them at. Zach Sieler will get snaps at DT, Christian Wilkins will likely get snaps at DE, and Jaelan Phillips will play OLB, and so on.
Package Depth Charts
This year, I wanted to look at what Depth Charts looks like across Miami’s different personnel packages. I want to highlight what I mentioned above that players would have different roles across formations. The 11 starters won’t necessarily be starters, depending on the look Miami opens a game with defensively.
It’s also a good bet that in most packages, the members of the secondary will be pretty entrenched in their roles. Miami’s defense is heavily predicated on playing a lot of Cover 0 and especially Cover 1 (man-to-man), so there’s not much fluctuation at the outside CB and FS/SS spots. Because of that, I won’t list those players in formations unless there’s something noteworthy. I’ll point that out for each package.
Below I’ll post a screenshot of each package I can find the Dolphins run and its specific depth chart.
I apologize in advance for any formatting issues below. The copy & paste from Word to WordPress isn’t as smooth as I’d like it to be.
*Note – what’s pictured above is a 4-2-5 Heavy, as Miami is operating with 3 safeties. It’s hard to discern because Jacksonville is in a tight formation, but Baker and Van Noy are the 2 LBs, and Rowe, Brandon Jones, and Bobby McCain are the three safeties. Noah Igbinoghene at RCB (you’re left as you look at this) is standing behind Shaq Lawson because of the receiver’s motion. He typically wouldn’t align here.
4-2-5 Normal 4-2-5 Heavy
DE Ogbah DE Sieler/Phillips
DT Sieler DT Davis
DT Wilkins DT Wilkins
DE Phillips DE Ogbah
LB Baker LB Roberts
LB McKinney LB McKinney
$CB Coleman/Needham $$ Brandon Jones
*Note – this is actually a Jack Heavy, as there are 3 safeties. Normally it’s played with 2 safeties and a nickel corner.
3-3-5 Tite/Bear or known as a Jack Front
DE Sieler Butler
DT Davis Wilkins
DE Ogbah/Wilkins Strowbridge
OLB Van Ginkel Scarlett
ILB Baker Roberts
OLB McKinney Phillips
$CB Coleman Needham
DE Ogbah/Van Ginkel
*Note – the Ruby look is essentially the same as the Odd Mac 0 front pictured below, but both LBs are lined up off the LOS.
Odd Mac O/5-0
DE Ogbah/Van Ginkel
ILB Baker/Van Ginkel
*Note – this is the 4-3 extend. To make this an Under, the weakside OLB would be off the ball, and the strongside player in a 2-tech would shift inside to a 1-tech.
4-3 Extend 4-3 Under
OLB Van Ginkel DE Sieler
DE Sieler DT Wilkins/Butler
DT Davis DT Davis/Jenkins
DT Wilkins DE Ogbah/Strowbridge
DE Ogbah WLB Baker/Riley
OLB McKinney MLB Roberts/McKinney/Baker
ILB Baker/Roberts SLB McKinney/Phillips/Van Ginkel/Scarlett
OLB Van Ginkel/Scarlett
As you can see from the screenshots and depth charts, Miami has options. Lots of them. This likely helps Brian Flores and Josh Boyer to gameplan better based on opponent’s tendencies and how they want to deploy their looks. These are not “guarantees,” but merely using last year’s scheme, personnel, and historical tendencies to formulate projections. For example, I think we see Jaelan Phillips primarily as a left-side player on defense, given that that’s where he spent the majority of his time at UCLA and the University of Miami. Emmanuel Ogbah, while having played predominantly on the left side for Miami last year, has experience playing both sides, and I think that will factor into keeping him on the field more.
Benardrick McKinney also has experience playing off-ball and on the LOS. Brian Flores hinted earlier this offseason that he might be directly replacing some of Kyle Van Noy’s snaps. One thing to remember is that in New England in 2018, Van Noy played 44% of his snaps off-the-ball. That project fits McKinney to a tee. Van Noy played a lot more on the edge last year, which historically isn’t the strongest suit of McKinney’s. He’ll be another interesting player to watch move around the defense.
There will also be opportunities to move around guys like Adam Butler and Zach Sieler, and to a lesser extent, Andrew Van Ginkel. For the record, I expect Van Ginkel’s role to remain largely the same as last year, just with an uptick in snaps.
Hopefully, this serves as a good primer for you as we gear up toward the regular season. I would heavily caution you, the reader, not to get caught up in where people are played during preseason games. The defenses Miami is likely to deploy there is just a shell representation of what they’ll actually be doing in live-action.
As always, please give me a follow on Twitter at @KevinMD4, and subscribe to the DolphinsTalk Weekly podcast on iTunes or Spotify. Until next time Dolfans, FinsUp!