Dolphins film study: How opponents are trying to keep Miami’s receiving duo in check

Al Diaz/

In the first month of the NFL season, teams have seen how dynamic the Dolphins’ duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle can be. And Miami’s opponents have worked hard to limit them.

In the Dolphins’ 40-17 loss to the New York Jets, it was a rather quiet day for Hill and Waddle. Hill caught seven passes for 47 yards, while Waddle recorded three receptions for a season-low 23 yards.

The Dolphins’ quarterback situation didn’t do the receivers any favors, as they were down to their third-string quarterback, rookie Skylar Thompson. Neither did the offensive line situation, as a pair of backup tackles were protecting the seventh-round pick for much of the afternoon.

But the Dolphins also struggled to unlock their offense against a Jets defense that was committed to keeping the speedy duo in front of it. Under head coach Robert Saleh, New York has played the highest rate of Cover 4 defense, according to TruMedia, a zone concept that places four defenders in deep zones. It’s a deterrent for offenses that like to push the ball downfield and forces quarterbacks to attempt shorter passes.

The Dolphins saw Cover 4 on 27.4 percent of their plays, the highest rate in any game this season. They saw Cover 6 — another zone concept that combines Cover 4 and Cover 2, placing three defenders in deep zones — on 21 percent of their plays, also a season-high.

It continued an upward trend of teams playing Cover 4 against Miami. In Week 1, the Patriots used it on 10.2 percent of plays. Next week, the Ravens had a Cover 4 rate of 14.5 percent. In Week 3, the Bills used it on 20.5 percent of plays and in Week 4, the Bengals were in Cover 4 on 21.7 percent of plays.

With limited downfield opportunities and shaky protection, the Dolphins recorded a season-low 4.4 yards per attempt. Though Thompson was hit on his second-quarter interception, it came on a play in which the Jets were in Cover 6. Aligned several yards off the ball, cornerback Sauce Gardner was able to break on the pass intended for wide receiver River Cracraft.

One silver lining to the loss was the emergence of the running game. Teams who frequently play defense in two-high-safety concepts must sacrifice one extra defender in the box committed to stopping the run. The Dolphins took advantage of that numbers game, as running back Raheem Mostert recorded a season-high 113 yards.

“It was obvious from very early in the game that [the Jets] were going to play the pass until we proved otherwise,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said postgame. “I can’t remember a first or second down single-safety defense until the second half.”

In Week 6, the Dolphins host the Minnesota Vikings, who run the third-highest rate of Cover 4 (22 percent) and the highest rate of Cover 6 (29.4 percent). With uncertainty regarding who will start at quarterback Sunday, the Dolphins may need to lean on their rushing game again.

Change in philosophy?

The Dolphins kept their blitz-heavy tendencies when they retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, but the tactic has mainly backfired in the team’s first five games.

Miami’s defense ranks sixth in blitz rate, sending extra defenders on 33.5 percent of opponent dropbacks, according to TruMedia. However, the Dolphins’ 31.4 percent pressure rate ranks 18th in the NFL.

Against the Jets, the Dolphins blitzed on 45.8 percent of quarterback Zach Wilson’s dropbacks, their second-highest in a game this season, but their 20.8 percent pressure rate ranked second-fewest.

Like many of the Dolphins’ opponents this season, the Jets got the ball out quickly to negate the blitzes. 61.9 percent of Wilson’s attempts came within 2.5 seconds. However, self-inflicted mistakes have also hurt the Dolphins.

The Dolphins’ nine missed tackles were tied for second-most in a game this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Miami defenders only missed more tackles against the Bills, who ran 90 plays underneath the blistering South Florida heat.

Without cornerbacks Xavien Howard (groins) and Byron Jones (reserve/PUP), the Dolphins also made a slight shift in their coverage.

The Dolphins this season have played the second-highest rate of Cover 1, a man-to-man concept with one deep safety. But against the Jets, they played 11 snaps in Cover 2, a zone concept that places two defenders in deep zones covering half the field. It was the team’s second-highest rate of Cover 2 in a game this season, trailing only the Bills game.

With Howard’s status for Sunday uncertain and Jones not expected to return this week, the Dolphins could again be short-handed at corner. Thus, the team could again opt for more zone coverages and two-high safety defenses against a talented receiving duo in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.