Re-setting the Bar
The Dolphins defense produced several season-high statistics in Sunday's win over the San Francisco 49ers. In a comprehensive performance, Miami hit new high-water marks with five sacks, three takeaways and 45.8 completion percentage allowed.
All three levels of the defense had contributions. The pass rush generated 19 pressures (per Pro Football Focus) from 10 different players; the previous high was nine players with a pressure in the Week 3 win over Jacksonville.
Tuesday, Dolphins Defensive Backs Coach Gerald Alexander talked about the relationship between the coverage and the pass rush and how those two elements are tied together in a successful defense.
"I think the rush helps the coverage more," Alexander said. "If those guys are putting pressure on the quarterback, they can really affect the throws and force ill-decisions.
Causing Confusion and Chaos
Part of the effective pass rush comes from the structure of the defense, but also the players making adjustments as they see things unfold on any given play. Three of the Dolphins' five sacks came from linebackers, and the position group as a whole generated 11 of the 19 quarterback pressures.
Jerome Baker is a multi-faceted linebacker who rarely leaves the field. He's played 89.3 percent of Miami's defensive snaps this season. Baker limited 49ers quarterbacks to just 19 yards on five pass targets, made four tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage and picked up his second sack of 2020.
Post-game Sunday, Baker attributed the defense's performance to the versatility and growing within the system.
"Just different looks. Guys lining up in different spots," Baker said. "We just do a great job of understanding the defense so we can put different guys in different spots. Sometimes the coaches don't even tell us; we just do it. We're definitely coming together as a defense."
Tuesday, Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer elaborated on Baker's comments.
"There's no coaches between the white lines on Sundays so it's the players making decisions," Boyer said. "You try to build it in so those guys have flexibility within calls to change things so they can play fast and at a high level. There's a structure scheme that we put out there and then guys can adapt based on certain parameters."
Between Baker, Kyle Van Noy, Kamu Grugier-Hill and the entirety of this Dolphins linebackers unit, the rush is a threat to come from anywhere. Whether it's coming down hill in the A-gaps (gap between the center and guard) or rushing the edge, Miami's pass rush has been effective.
Badgering the Quarterback, Run-Game
The Dolphins pass rush ranks tied for seventh in the NFL with 14 sacks. Linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel has chipped in with 2.5 of his own. He's generated six pressures on 64 pass-rush reps and made eight tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage on 31 run-down snaps. Both of those numbers are marked improvements from Van Ginkel's rookie season.
Andrew Van Ginkel run stop and pressure rate percentages in 2019 and 2020:
|Run Stop Percentage
Leading up to the season and into September, Dolphins coaches praised Van Ginkel's work in the weight room. Adding functional strength and increasing his ability to beat blocks were focal points for the 2019 fifth-round draft choice.
"(Van Ginkel's) gotten stronger since we've gotten him," Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores said. "He's made a lot of improvement."
"I think the biggest thing 'Gink' has done for himself is he got a lot stronger at the point of attack," Dolphins Outside Linebackers Coach Austin Clark said.
"He's a worker bee. He works at his craft every day," Dolphins Linebackers Coach Anthony Campanile said. "He's always trying to do extra. He's up in this facility as much as he can be."
Van Ginkel's pass-rush prowess was well-documented dating back to his college days at Wisconsin. The former Badger recorded 12 sacks and four forced fumbles in his two years in Madison. As a Dolphin, Van Ginkel is heating up quarterbacks and providing a thorn in the side of tight ends, pulling guards and anyone that tries him in the running game.
"He prepares extremely well. He's watching tape up until the day of the game," Clark said. "He's versatile; he uses his hands extremely well. That's something I think he worked on in the offseason to get better in the run game, and I think we've seen that."
Xavien Howard has an interception in each of the last three games. He's tied for the league lead in 2020 and his 15 picks since December of 2017 are the most in the NFL. What's more, he's hit that mark playing in just 27 games, averaging an interception per 8.6 pass targets. Comparatively, the NFL's second-leading interceptor over that period (Kyle Fuller) snatches an interception every 21.5 targets. Last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, records an interception every 25.8 targets over that same span.
"(Xavien Howard) does his job," Alexander said. "He's aligned in the right places and does what's necessary for the play call. He understands his responsibility and he has good ball skills. Even in my career, there were many layups that I dropped. To have those ball skills, he does a really good job of attacking the football."
Byron Jones produced the second-most tight-window throws when aligned in press coverage a year ago in Dallas, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Jones is off to a hot start in Miami allowing only 57.1 percent of his targets to be completed. Opposing quarterbacks have a 77.1 passer rating testing Jones with only 46 passing yards on four completions in two-plus games. Jones took notice of Howard's playmaking skills instantly.
"When X came back towards the end of camp, I think his first couple of days, he got like two or three picks," Jones said with a laugh. "You can see his play-making ability right away."
Despite the individual success, Howard is focused on the only stat that matters – wins.
"It's always just be around the ball and find the ball, so whatever happens at the end of the year on how many picks I get, I'm just focused on as a whole, as a team, and really just winning games," Howard said.
The Dolphins' individual parts and collective units are showing up in the team's league rankings on defense. Five weeks into the season, Miami ranks ninth in the league allowing 22.6 points per game, tied for seventh in sacks (14) and seventh in third down defense, allowing only 38 percent conversions.