Will Emmanuel Ogbah Miss Brian Flores?
NFL Preseason Week 1 - There has been a lot of chatter about the Miami Dolphins this offseason, and for good reason: there's a lot to talk about! Owner Stephen Ross has been suspended following tampering allegations that cost the team next year's first-round draft pick. Their old coach, Brian Flores, is suing the team; their current coach, Mike McDaniel, is installing a new offense. That offense is being built around the trio of Tua, Tyreek, and Terron: an enigmatic quarterback, a mercurial receiver, and a big-money tackle. But nobody's talking about the one thing Miami did better than anyone else last year—pressure opposing quarterbacks—and whether they'll be able to do that without Flores in 2022.
The Dolphins pressured opposing quarterbacks a league-high 34.3% of the time in 2021, making the top five in total sacks and adjusted sack rate, and Flores' scheme had a lot to do with that. Emmanuel Ogbah led Miami with 9.0 sacks, a total that didn't make the top 20 in the league. But he was one of six Dolphins defenders to collect 4.0 sacks or more, a figure matched only by Carolina. Ogbah's 40 hurries put him in the top 10 in that category, but Miami's success there was still a group effort: the Dolphins were the only defense with six players in the top 100.
Flores got so much production out of so many players by keeping opposing offenses guessing. The Dolphins had a nearly even split between base personnel, nickel packages, and dime formations. (That may sound like a balanced attack, but in today's NFL it's a case of great extremes: Miami ranked first in using dime sets and second in using base, but dead last in using the nickel.) So offenses already had their hands full trying to figure out who was on the field, and Flores then confused them further by blitzing everyone. The Dolphins used exactly five pass-rushers 28% of the time, second only to Washington. They used big blitzes of six or more pass-rushers 11% of the time, second only to Kansas City. And their total blitz rate of 39% was second to none.
And with all those dime formations, it's only natural that a lot of those blitzers came from the secondary. The Dolphins blitzed a defensive back 22% of the time. Only two teams in the last decade (Wink Martindale's Ravens in 2019 and Rex Ryan's Jets in 2012) blitzed DBs more often. Brandon Jones led all defensive backs with 5.0 sacks, and Jevon Holland added 2.5 more. And it was Holland leading DBs with 11 hurries, while Jones and Eric Rowe chipped in with seven apiece.
And as a result of all that pressure, Miami's defense was … OK? The Dolphins made the top 10 in pass defense DVOA, but their -77.7% DVOA when getting pressure was in the middle of the pack. And when they didn't get pressure, their DVOA climbed to 41.1%, eighth worst, as their lack of cornerback depth behind Xavien Howard and Byron Jones was exposed. Miami made the top 10 in DVOA on throws to No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers, as well as running backs, but ranked 30th in coverage against both "other" wide receivers and tight ends.
We might expect similar results from the Dolphins this fall, because they saw little change in coaching or personnel. McDaniel retained Josh Boyer, who was Flores' defensive coordinator last season. And 14 of their top 15 players in defensive snaps will return, with the lone exception being Adam Butler, a defensive tackle who played about half the time last year but is currently unsigned. In free agency, they added Melvin Ingram, who will work into a deep rotation of edge rushers with Ogbah, Jaelan Phillips, and Andrew Van Ginkel. Ingram only had two sacks in 15 games with the Steelers and Chiefs last year, but he added two more in Kansas City's postseason. Third-round rookie Channing Tindall projects as an off-ball linebacker, but he also showed some pass-rush ability in college, collecting 12 sacks in four seasons in Georgia.
So yes, Terron Armstead will keep defenders away from Tua Tagovailoa, who should hit Tyreek Hill for plenty of touchdowns. But it's their ability to generate pass rush that could determine whether or not they return to the playoffs.
Atlanta Falcons: Worst in Nearly a Decade
While the Dolphins were at the top of the pressure rate tables in 2021, the Atlanta Falcons were at the bottom. In fact, Atlanta's pressure rate of 18.4% would also have been the lowest in 2020 … or 2019 … or any other season dating back to 2013. They were also last in total sacks and adjusted sack rate. Grady Jarrett, an interior lineman, led the Falcons with 24 pressures but failed to make the top 50 in the NFL. Only three Falcons hit double digits, fewest of any team in the league. Dante Fowler led Atlanta with 4.5 sacks, a total that was surpassed by Chandler Jones in Week 1 and matched by Myles Garrett in Week 3.
Not surprisingly, the Falcons blew up their edge rusher depth chart over the offseason. Adetokunbo Ogundeji, a fifth-round rookie who had one sack last year, will return, but Fowler, Steven Means, and James Vaughters were all allowed to leave in free agency. Atlanta replaced them by signing Lorenzo Carter, who had five sacks and 20 hurries for the Giants in 2021. They also added a trio of rookies with various degrees of pass-rush potential in the draft. I'm going to be
lazy resourceful and quote Bryan Knowles from his Atlanta chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2022 concerning their prospects:
Arnold Ebiketie (Penn State, drafted 38th overall): "[Ebiketie] didn't play a full season until his fifth year in college. It was worth the wait; he bulked up and led the team with 9.5 sacks, 18 TFLs, and two blocked kicks in 12 games."
Troy Andersen (Montana State, 58th): [Andersen] was a high school safety in 2016, a college running back in 2017, a quarterback in 2018, a part-time linebacker in 2019, and a full-time linebacker in 2021. You don't need to watch a second of his tape to realize that a) he's an athletic stud, and b) he still has lots of work to do as he finds his role on the field. If he develops, he'll be one of the best linebackers in the league in space. And if not, there are four or five positions he hasn't tried yet."
DeAngelo Malone (Western Kentucky, 82nd): "[Malone] is undersized as an edge rusher, making up for it with speed and athleticism. He probably caps out as third-down pass-rush specialist unless he can bulk his frame up. He has five years of college experience, which means he's fairly polished but probably doesn't have that much more room to grow, all things considered."
Buffalo Bills: Leaning on Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer
While it's true that every defense plays better when it gets pressure (duh), it's also true that every defense fails to get pressure most of the time. That makes DVOA without pressure an important stat, and no defense in 2021 was better without pressure than the Buffalo Bills, whose non-pressure DVOA of 1.9% was the best in the league. That strongly suggests the Bills had the NFL's best secondary, and that's even with Tre'Davious White tearing his ACL in Week 12.
With White out for one-third of the season, it was the league's best safety duo, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who were the biggest stars here. Hyde was tied for first amongst safeties in defeats, while Poyer was tied for third. The Bills' backfield was so dominant they practically removed the deep ball from opponents' playbooks. Buffalo's DVOA against deep passes was -68.5%, the best in our DVOA database, surpassing the -54.8% mark of the 2007 Colts. (Indianapolis' two safeties that season, Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea, both made the Pro Bowl.) It has been a rough training camp for Buffalo's safeties—Hyde suffered a scary looking injury that turned out to be a minor hip bruise, while Poyer has missed practice with a hyperextended elbow. (Poyer has also been stuck in upstate New York while his wife, Rachel Bush, has been gallivanting around Spain in microscopic bikinis. Poyer is seeking a new contract, and we can't blame him—those flights to Ibiza aren't cheap.)
Though White will return at cornerback, Levi Wallace will not, having signed with Pittsburgh in free agency. The Bills traded up in the draft to take Florida's Kaiir Elam 23rd overall to replace Wallace. Elam has impressive size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) and speed (4.39s 40-yard dash) and has earned rave reviews from Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
Baltimore Ravens: Next Man Up … and the Next … and the Next…
The Baltimore Ravens had the league's worst DVOA without pressure, which is no surprise considering they suffered the most adjusted games lost at defensive back last season. (They were also in the top six at both defensive line and linebacker.) Marlon Humphrey missed five games, DeShon Elliott missed 11, and Marcus Peters missed the entire season. By Week 15, the Ravens were missing nine defensive backs, including all four projected starters.
Baltimore can't help but be healthier next year. Peters and Humphrey will return at corner, joined by Kyle Fuller, a long-time starter in Chicago who was mostly a nickelback in Denver last year. He has missed one game in the last five years, a reassuring stat considering the state of the Ravens secondary in 2021. Elliott is now in Detroit, so Baltimore signed Marcus Williams (who started 76 of New Orleans' 81 games in the last five seasons) to line up next to Chuck Clark (who somehow missed just one start the last two seasons).
Full NFL Results
|NFL Defenses and Pressure Rate, 2021|