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Miami Dolphins defense evolution: What to expect in 2021

Much of the preseason buzz surrounding the Miami Dolphins has revolved around the team’s offense, so it’s easy to forget how elite its defensive unit was last season. 

Miami’s defense allowed the sixth-fewest points per game last year, according to Pro Football Reference, and the team led the NFL in takeaways with 29 total. The unit stepped up in key situations, too, allowing the lowest third down conversion rate in the league. 

However, defenses tend to be volatile year to year in the NFL. While offensive success tends to carry over, it’s not uncommon for a top-ranked defense to fall to middling or worse the next season, much like how the Minnesota Vikings tumbled last year.

Head coach Brian Flores will need to continue to evolve his side of the football if Miami hopes to remain a top-10 defense this upcoming season. New defensive ideas are being pushed to the forefront thanks to innovators like Vic Fangio of the Denver Broncos and Brandon Staley with the Los Angeles Chargers, but Flores has run his defense differently from other teams since he became head coach two years ago. 

Here are a few of the ways we could expect to see his system tweaked in 2021.

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Embrace a more traditional pass rush

Aug 21, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins linebacker Jaelan Phillips (15) stands with teammates in the tunnel during the national anthem prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle stole much of the spotlight as the Dolphins’ first draft pick this offseason, but their next first-round selection Jaelan Phillips could have huge implications for the other side of the ball. 

The edge rusher from the University of Miami could be the piece the Dolphins have been searching for to allow for a more traditional four-man pass rush. 

Thus far, Miami’s pass rush has been anything but traditional. 

Miami blitzed at the second-highest clip last season, behind only the Baltimore Ravens, according to The Athletic’s 2021 NFL Playbook. Not only that, but the team also called Cover-0 blitzes – meaning blitzes with no safeties playing zone to help in the passing game – more often than any other team last season. 

The varied blitz packages help keep offenses on their toes, but it leaves Miami vulnerable to big passing plays. The team was middle of the pack in yards given up per drive, but an exceptional red zone defense in passing situations helped it finish fifth in points given up per drive. 

You can’t count on things like red zone defensive success carrying over year to year, however. Per Football Outsiders, Miami’s defense was the most efficient team in the league on third and fourth down by a large margin. It was the second-best team defending the pass on these downs. 

Even still, its defensive success didn’t come through sacks and pressures. Miami ranked 21st in pass rush win rate, according to ESPN Analytics

So if the Dolphins want to sustain their fantastic third and fourth down passing defense, the team will likely need to keep one or two extra defenders in coverage to take some weight off its corners.

That’s where Phillips comes in. If he reaches his full potential, Miami can finally generate legitimate pressure with just four rushers, something the team has shied away from in the past. The Dolphins rushed four on just 55% of defensive snaps, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, which ranked the team 31st in the league. Meanwhile they rushed six or more at the eighth-highest rate in the league. 

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More dynamic safety looks and packages

Miami Dolphins defense evolution: What to expect in 2021
Dec 26, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Miami Dolphins safety Eric Rowe (21) against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Not to put too much pressure on Miami’s 2020 draft class, but the team’s next pick after Phillips could make waves in the team’s secondary. 

Free safety Jevon Holland out of the University of Oregon is the swiss army knife Flores may look to for a litany of roles over the next few years, starting with this season. 

For one, with a safety squad consisting of Brandon Jones, Eric Rowe and Holland, I expect to see more three-safety looks from the Dolphins in 2021. Holland has the versatility to play both as a free safety or a slot corner, which gives Flores the chance to keep offenses on their toes about how he might be used, similarly to how his amorphous defensive fronts prevent opposing quarterbacks from being able to predict who’ll be blitzing snap to snap. 

In fact, all three safeties have jack-of-all-trades skill sets, allowing any of them to fill different roles between plays. From the outside looking in, it makes sense to use these three as part of a base defensive package. Miami isn’t deep at the middle linebacker position, so why not utilize safety depth instead?

This isn’t a huge departure from what Miami has already been doing. 

Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, Miami was in dime personnel – meaning there were two additional defensive backs on the field – on 24% of defensive snaps last year. Miami’s defense allowed just 5.4 yards per play with this personnel package, which was better than its yards allowed in base or nickel last year. 

This plan would also align with a league-wide shift to more two-high safety looks, which helps eliminate big plays in the passing game. The scheme was brought forth by Fangio with the Chicago Bears and popularized by Staley last year with the Los Angeles Rams. I’d anticipate Flores at least adopting some of those principals, if not to at least test the waters. 

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Rely on an improving defensive line to stuff the run

Miami Dolphins defense evolution: What to expect in 2021
October 11, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (94) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins secondary — led by star corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — held up week after week, but the team’s front seven struggled to stop the run. It may have been part of the reason Miami felt forced to blitz so often

According to RBSDM, the Dolphins were the 10th-worst defense in expected points added (EPA) per rush in 2021, meaning the team’s defense was far below average in holding opposing rushers below their expected gains. According to Football Outsiders, the team ranked 16th in run stuff rate. 

As a result, the team felt forced to bring a safety into the box. Miami played Cover 1 defense – meaning it had just one safety protecting the deep part of the field – more than any other defense in the league last season, per the Athletic. It was the team’s most popular coverage. 

If Miami wants to play more two-high coverages, that’ll mean the team’s defensive line will need to do a better job stuffing the run without help. 

Thankfully, defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis and Zach Seiler made good strides in doing just that in 2021, especially as the season went on. 

Per Football Outsiders, Wilkins, Davis and Seiler had run stop rates of 77%, 70% and 76% last year, respectively. That was good enough to rank them 39th, 60th and 45th. 

These aren’t phenomenal rankings, but Miami’s run defense did improve as the year went on. The team’s defense ranked 30th in rushing DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) from weeks one through nine, but 15th from week 10 and on. 

The defensive linemen listed above played a large part in that improvement. Wilkins has embraces a role as a two-gap run stuffer, which largely makes up for his deficiencies as a pass rusher. Davis, meanwhile, flashed as a rookie nose tackle last year. There’s room for improvement, but if both he and Wilkins can take another step forward, it’ll sure up Miami’s run defense. 

Their ability to two-gap and let edge rushers work the outside could go a long way in letting Miami take a safety out of the box and play with more two-high looks. 

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