FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons' offense remains among the best in the NFL, but it has been tested by some of the league's better defenses to start the season.
Three of Atlanta's first four opponents are currently ranked in the top 10 in either total defense or scoring defense:
- Week 1: Chicago Bears – No. 6 total defense
- Week 3: Detroit Lions – No. 10 scoring defense
- Week 4: Buffalo Bills – No. 1 scoring defense
Even the Green Bay Packers are No. 11 in total defense, nearly giving the Falcons a clean sweep in facing top-10 defenses.
On Sunday, the Falcons will face another stout defense and the Miami Dolphins (2-2) may present the most balanced unit we've seen yet. Fresh off a 16-10 win over the Tennessee Titans, the Dolphins are No. 8 in total defense, allowing 309.5 yards per game, and No. 4 in scoring defense, giving up just 16.8 points per game.
When digging a little deeper, it's clear that the Dolphins' run defense is the team's major strength. Surrendering 75.5 rushing yards per game and 3.15 yards per carry, Miami is ranked Nos. 4 and 3 in those categories, respectively. Per Football Outsider’s DVOA – which measures offensive and defensive success against a league average of 0 percent (positive numbers represent scoring and favor the offense while negative numbers indicate a strong defense) – the Dolphins’ run defense is No. 2 in the league with a -33.6 percent DVOA.
"We've just got a bunch of guys doing their job," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. "I think that's the biggest change that we've had. Last year, we weren't on the same page and this year we've got a group of guys that are working together. I think having some veteran players, especially at the linebacker position has really helped us. I think having Reshad Jones back really helps us. I think the young corners are doing a good job of not missing tackles, they're coming up and being effective in the run game."
In today's After Further Review, we'll take a look at how the Dolphins are built to defend the run; the cohesion they have between the first and second levels of the defense and some of the ways teams have gained yards on the ground against them.
'It starts up front'
Any evaluation of Miami's success against the run has to start with the defensive line. The Dolphins' defensive line has been superb in limiting opposing running backs, but they've done so without sacrificing their ability to rush the passer.
"They have a really active front," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "All the way through to the tackles with the defensive ends. They really do a good job of setting the edge.
"I'm not surprised that statistically they're playing well. When you see the scheme, it's really sound, and the guys are now into it for a second year and have a full understanding of it. I'm not surprised that they're playing well in the run game. When I look at their tape, it starts up front."
Miami runs a 4-3 defense, meaning it utilizes four down linemen in a majority of its packages. Against the Titans, the Dolphins started Cameron Wake and Andre Branch at the defensive end positions with Ndamukong Suh and Davon Godchaux on the interior.
As is common with the 4-3 scheme, the Dolphins have bigger, stronger players at defensive tackle while speed and quickness are valued off the edge. Thus far, most of the defensive linemen have excelled against the run, which goes a long way towards creating an effective unit overall.
Suh is the most well-known player on this defensive line, and so far, he's lived up to his dominant reputation. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound tackle has 12 total tackles on running plays, including two tackles for a loss, and his Pro Football Focus run defense grade of 91.9 is the best among all interior defenders.
The eight-year veteran isn't the only one pulling his weight against the run, however. Check out these PFF run defense grades:
- 76.2: Wake has eight total tackles on run plays, including three for a loss
- 78.5: Defensive tackle Vincent Taylor has nine total tackles on run plays
- 88.1: Defensive end William Hayes has six combined tackles against the run
- 73.6: Godchaux has five total tackles against the run
All of that is just a confusing way of saying: Each of Miami's primary contributors on the defensive line is good-to-great against the run.
The play below is a good example of how each member plays a part in making life hard on opposing ground games. Backed up at their own 11-yard line and facing second-and-5, the Titans line up in the I-formation with a tight end to the right side, presenting a traditional run formation.
The Titans intend to run the ball between the left guard and left tackle, using the fullback as a lead blocker to take on the linebacker.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso does a good job identifying the play and beating Tennessee's fullback to the hole. This blocks the running lane while Godchaux pushes the center into the gap as well, further blocking Demarco Murray's path.
Winning at the point of attack causes Murray to slow down and wait for a hole to develop. He tries to find a crease behind his lead blockers, but the extra time allows Hayes, who smoothly slants underneath the tight end on the backside, to take Murray to the ground.
In the GIF below, you can see the whole play come together.
What makes Miami's defensive line – and really the defense as a whole – so tough to run against is that they are fundamentally sound. The defensive linemen play with gap integrity and are difficult to move off their spot. And when they face a single blocker, the Dolphins' defenders have proven they can beat their opposition and make a play, as Hayes did on the play above.
"Our defensive line does a really good job," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. "They're playing unselfish football and making sure that they're gap-responsible, and that's allowing our linebackers to make the plays that they're making."
The individual impact each lineman can make on any given play, coupled with the cohesion and soundness they play with as a whole, makes the Dolphins' defensive line tough to run against.
Tenacious play at the second level
With an excellent defensive line in front of them, Miami's linebackers and safeties have plenty of room to make plays in the run game.
"Their key is that they have linebackers that are downhill and really try to press runs and be gap sound," Falcons center Alex Mack explained. "While, at the same time, they have a defensive line that can be one-on-one."
The linebacker corps has many new faces and does not contain much depth at all, but they've been productive. Alonso is in his second season with the Dolphins and leads the team's linebackers with 10 combined tackles against the run, earning an 80.2 PFF run defense grade.
Although only in his second year with the team, Alonso is the familiar face in Miami's linebacker room. The Dolphins signed veterans Lawrence Timmons and Rey Maualuga this offseason to join Alonso in the starting lineup. Undrafted rookie Chase Allen has joined the rotation and he's been impressive against the run, earning nine combined tackles and boasting an 80.9 PFF run defense grade. Second-year linebacker Mike Hull is also a factor, tying Alonso with 10 combined tackles on run plays.
Miami's best run-defender isn't on the defensive line or among the linebackers, however. Strong safety Reshad Jones has established himself as one of the best tacklers at his position and has 12 total tackles against the run, tying him with Suh for the team lead. According to PFF, Jones is the best run-stopping safety in the NFL with a run defense grade of 91.7.
"The ability to play both in the middle of the field and down in the box are valuable," Gase said of Jones. "Anytime you have interchangeable safeties, that makes it tough on the offense. I think the fact that he's a really good blitzer and when we pressure him is something that he's really made some money on.
"Just having him back there, the intensity, the way that he goes about his business day in and day out, he's a true pro … having him on the field makes a big difference."
The Dolphins' second-level defenders are adept at flowing to their run gaps and making plays at the point of attack. The effectiveness of proper gap defense and the flow of Miami's linebackers is on display in the play shown below.
A 4-3 front relies on one-gap assignments. Gaps are labeled "A," "B," "C," and "D," and they are the spaces between each offensive lineman. In a 4-3 front, each defender is responsible for a single gap.
New York runs a simple inside zone play that appears designed to hit the A-gap between the center and right guard. As the play develops, however, both Suh and Godchaux look to have good leverage on the Jet's offensive linemen and are in position to make a play in that gap. Seeing this, New York running back Matt Forte bounces out to the B-gap.
Because the Dolphins' defensive line closes down the gap, the offensive lineman coming to block Alonso is now in poor position to move him away from where the play is actually headed. Alonso sees Forte's change of direction and meets him in the hole to stop him for no gain.
There really isn't any secret trick to the Dolphins' run defense. Miami has a very capable defensive line that can win at the point of attack and savvy linebackers who play aggressive gap football and can redirect on the fly.
"When you have linebackers that get downhill and fill gaps quickly, you have a much harder time double-teaming linemen," Mack said. "You can't be on the D-line as long and can't really commit to establishing those blocks. You've got to keep an eye on the linebackers, you've got to get off (the initial block) and get on those linebackers, because you can't just let the linebackers go free. And then you're leaving the D-line one-on-one."
Even in their run blitzes, which are especially effective with a player like Jones at strong safety, the Dolphins never sacrifice the integrity of their defense overall. Miami has surrendered just one play of 20 or more yards on the ground this season, which speaks to the defense's commitment to their assignments.
How teams have had success running against Miami
Because they've played such sound football against the run, there really haven't been any weak points for opposing offenses to exploit.
The Dolphins are first in the NFL in defending runs up the middle, allowing an average of just 1.33 yards per carry on 27 attempts. They are also second in defending runs behind the left guard, surrendering 1.64 yards per carry.
Running up the middle has proven tough against Miami, but the Dolphins are 29th and 20th against runs off the left and right tackles, respectively. With only a four-game sample size, a couple of big runs can skew the date, but for a defense that has allowed only one run of 20-plus yards, that's notable.
That one long run came in Miami's first game of the season against the San Diego Chargers. On second-and-8, Chargers running back Brandon Oliver took the handoff and broke free on the left-hand side for a 26-yard gain. The bigger gains against the Dolphins this year have come in a similar manner, so let's break down how Oliver got loose.
San Diego lines up in a three-receiver set with its tight end lined up on the right side of the formation. The Dolphins counter this look with their nickel package, bringing in slot cornerback Bobby McCain and leaving Alonso and Hull in at linebacker.
Nate Allen walks up from his free safety position to cover the Chargers' tight end, signaling a Cover 1 look with man coverage on the receivers, which can be an effective look against the run. What makes this play work, however, is that the initial look from the offensive line and running back is that of a pass.
When the ball is snapped, the offensive line does not immediately surge forward to run block. Instead, the tackles kick out as if to pass-block, which draws a strong rush from the defensive line. Oliver also plays into this deception, taking a step backwards after the snap and delaying his mesh with quarterback Philip Rivers. With no indicators from the offensive line and a delay from the running back, Miami's linebackers are left hesitating between dropping into coverage or attacking their run gaps.
Once the Dolphins have fallen into their trap, the Chargers switch tactics and are set up well for a big run play. Wake, who charged upfield expecting a pass, runs himself out of position on the right side of the defensive line allowing San Diego's left tackle to abandon that block and act as a pseudo-lead blocker, picking up Alonso. The Charger's center is in position to seal off Hull, and Xavien Howard, the Dolphins' corner at the bottom of the picture is focused solely on his receiver.
Jones, who begins this play as the deep safety in Miami's Cover 1 look, is the defender who makes the tackle, but it comes at the end of the Chargers' longest play to that point in the game.
Delayed handoffs and draws have been effective at times against Miami, because they can suck the defensive line too far upfield and open up the running lanes.
Of course, the Falcons aren't afraid to throw the ball to set up the run. While the Dolphins' run defense is among the league's best, their pass defense is 22nd in yards per game. Hitting some passes against Miami could force Jones to play away from the line of scrimmage and keep the linebackers guessing. Atlanta's offense poses by far the greatest threat Miami has seen and is at its best when it effectively combines runs with play-action passes. If the Falcons can execute to the level they're capable of, it might not matter how good the Dolphins' run defense has looked.