There is no rush to say the Miami Dolphins have a good defense. Through five weeks, the Dolphins rank 26th in defensive DVOA, sandwiched between the New York Jets and (surprisingly) the Buffalo Bills. Their drive success rate ranks 24th in the league, while their points per drive comes in right around average at 15th. Everything about Miami's defensive profile is average to slightly below -- for now.
While there are still kinks to be worked out, head coach Brian Flores' defense showed signs of legitimate promise against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was slightly hampered by an ankle injury, but the Dolphins' success was not just due to Garoppolo missing on throws. The Dolphins defense, through a number of avenues, was forcing those missed throws or even bringing Garoppolo down in the pocket. Against arguably the league's sharpest offensive playcaller, Kyle Shanahan, Flores' squad always seemed to have an answer, at least in the passing game.
In fact, the Dolphins produced Garoppolo's worst start of his career. By a lot. Per Pro Football Reference, Garoppolo's -0.76 adjusted yards per attempt was the worst start of his career by more than 5 yards per attempt. It was the worst performance of any 49ers quarterback this year, too. Garoppolo's -129 DYAR from that game was worse than Nick Mullens' -127 DYAR from the Week 4 Philadelphia game. Bum ankle or not, Garoppolo did not have anywhere to go with the ball for most of the game even if he wanted to. Garoppolo was benched at the half in favor of C.J. Beathard, who was not a whole lot better.
One staple of the Dolphins' success was how effectively they maximized their front seven, particularly with respect to adding or subtracting pass-rushers. Miami's front was mixing around all of their pressure and non-pressure looks all day. The 49ers offensive line was in constant disarray. Miami's off-ball linebackers, in particular, were a nuisance for San Francisco.
Here the Dolphins are in a TNT front with two 3-techniques and a true zero over the center. Linebacker Elandon Roberts (44), Miami's premier blitzer, is lined up directly stacked over Christian Wilkins (94) in the offense's right B-gap. Wilkins fires off into the B-gap at the snap, while the nose crosses the center's face the opposite direction. In theory, Roberts should get to run right through and be one-on-one with the back. To San Francisco's credit, the center gets a piece of Roberts to help the running back, but Miami's nose working back inside the left guard causes a pile-up, freeing Roberts up late in the down to bring down Garoppolo.
The Dolphins sent some slight variation of this pressure at least four or five times in the first quarter alone. On the 49ers' second drive, for example, the Dolphins opened with this pressure from Roberts behind a TNT front on the first two plays. On the first, Roberts shot through the line of scrimmage on a run play and just barely missed the tackle in the backfield. On the following play, a pass, Roberts put some heat on Garoppolo and helped force an incompletion.
Roberts also got home later in the half with a delayed pressure on a "green dog" assignment against one of the 49ers' play-action concepts. In short, a green dog assignment for (usually) a linebacker means they are man-to-man with a running back or tight end, but will rush the passer if their assigned player sits back in pass protection. The point is to not just have that linebacker sitting around doing nothing while the running back or tight end provides a numbers advantage in pass pro.
Roberts triggers on the run action right away. Between the fullback's late shift and the center immediately getting horizontal, Roberts reads outside zone and takes off. While doing so, though, Roberts does an excellent job eyeing the running back's rib cage to see whether or not he actually takes a handoff. The linebacker quickly realizes that the running back does not have the ball and that the fullback is cutting back across the formation to block. Roberts wastes no time in converting his momentum into being a pass-rusher.
While Roberts does not get to Garoppolo in time for the sack, he does get there fast enough to make Garoppolo a bit uneasy, forcing him to short-arm this throw a bit in an effort to shield himself from a hit. Garoppolo's throw ends up well short of the target and nearly gets picked off by Miami's under-cutting cornerback.
The Dolphins defense was not go-go-go all the time, either. Flores made sure to mix in looks that presented an aggressive hand before dropping back potential pass-rushers into coverage. Linebacker Jerome Baker, rather than Roberts, was the key puzzle piece for these plays. Garoppolo's first interception of the day was a great example of the Dolphins showing misleading pressure looks.
To the offense's left, Baker (55) is lined up over the guard. Five other Dolphins defenders also reside on the line of scrimmage, presenting the 49ers with a fairly aggressive six-man pressure look. At the snap, Baker takes a step forward to sell the blitz, but then steps off and turns to run with the running back. The running back wants to run up the seam just outside the hash, but because of the angle Baker takes to approach him, the hash area is cut off and the running back is forced to widen his vertical route outside the numbers. Baker does a fantastic job running with the vertical route, so much so that he could have defended this himself if need be. Alas, Garoppolo chucked up a duck after the pocket got muddied a bit and free safety Bobby McCain (28) swooped in for the interception.
Miami even started off the day's pass defense clinic with a simpler take on this idea of faux pressure. San Francisco got into a third-and-5 after two consecutive runs, and Flores took the chance to put Garoppolo's brain in a blender.
This time, the Dolphins are in a standard four-man defensive line front with their two linebackers peppering the A-gaps. Bill Belichick loves doing this, so it is no surprise Flores has carried that over. However, with a lot of double A-gap looks like this, the linebacker opposite the side that the center opens up to will blitz. It is supposed to create a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation for the middle of the protection. Both linebackers drop on this play, and Baker (top) sinks right into the hook/hash area the 49ers so deeply love to target tight end George Kittle around. Garoppolo then wastes too much time seeing and accepting that the linebacker did not blitz and has covered Kittle, leaving him to try a late throw to a well-covered running back on the boundary.
When you take a peek at the Dolphins' defensive depth chart, there is not a whole lot that pops off the page among the front seven. Wilkins is a 2019 first-round pick and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy is a well-paid free agent from the Patriots, but there is not a whole lot of star power. Their success in generating pressure and forcing errant throws instead comes from Flores maximizing each player's skill set and keeping the defense's front fresh in a way that never lets offenses settle in against particular looks. Flores puts players in a position to win.
Finding that same magic in the run game is still on Flores' to-do list. The Dolphins rank dead-last in run defense DVOA and constantly get gashed by their opponents, particularly because their defensive line struggles to maintain the point of attack. That being said, it is an encouraging sign that the Dolphins' front has generated moderate success against the pass to this point in the year.
A new batch of additions in the offseason will probably be required to really put this defense over the top, but for the time being, Flores is laying the right foundation for this unit. For a rebuilding franchise, that is more than enough to get excited about.