The Miami Dolphins have officially, after three seasons, completed the rebuilding chapter of their latest lifecycle as a team just as former Head Coach Brian Flores declared entering into the 2021 regular season.
“The guys we got in ’19, the guys we got in ’20, the guys we got in ’21, that we got in this draft (2021), that’s the team,” said Flores via Peter King last spring. “You know what I mean? That’s the team moving forward. As we move forward, that’s going to be the crux or the big chunk of our team. They’ll be the reason why we make noise or don’t make noise.”
But a 9-8 season, one that included seven straight losses followed by seven straight wins, suggested otherwise. Another year of growth on the field was required for the rebuild that was embarked on in 2019. Yet with 19 wins over the last two seasons combined, Miami’s foundation was indeed set and, based on the team’s reaction this offseason, the team feels as though they’re close. That leads to a transition from “rebuilding franchise” to a “young contender.”
Rebuilding teams don’t sign 33-year old pass rushers to one-year, five-million-dollar contracts like the Dolphins reportedly just did with Melvin Ingram. Rebuilding is largely based on the inherent desire to pool young talent and then let that talent play and develop for long-term benefits. And while Ingram hasn’t technically put the pen to paper yet, it has been reported that the signing is imminent.
The addition of Melvin Ingram III into the Dolphins’ defensive infrastructure can be an exciting development for Miami. Yes, the surface level scan of Ingram’s last two seasons isn’t likely going to inspire those unfamiliar with Ingram’s play. Two sacks over the last two years (and 22 games played) is not going to move the needle. But when you dig past the box score and into the nuances of Ingram, his personal situation and, most importantly his style of play (both in 2021 and historically), there’s a massive amount of payoff potential for the Dolphins and Ingram alike.
But Miami needs to calibrate their expectations accordingly and ensure that Ingram is used in the right kinds of ways. After all, he’s 33 years old and only one season removed from a knee sprain in 2020 that cost him more than half the season. That, plus a slew of other defenders to compete for reps on the edge, including Emmanuel Ogbah, 2021 first-round-pick Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel, Ingram’s role needs to be thought through carefully to put him in the best positions to win.
Miami’s defense is uniquely tailored to do exactly that.
Ingram comes to the Dolphins with 51.0 career sacks — but his role hasn’t been one that consistently charged him with serving in a starring role off the edge. Ingram offers a unique build with a 19th percentile arm length. Winning with length and extension skills as is traditionally coveted with perimeter players isn’t necessarily the hallmark trait for Ingram. Instead, you have to take inventory on all the different alignments and usages that Ingram has been charged with over his career. Take Week 1 in 2021 against the Buffalo Bills, for example. Ingram, starring in Pittsburgh’s defense, took reps from both sides of the line as an outside linebacker, an inside linebacker mugged up on the line of scrimmage and even as a stacked linebacker charged with twisting and stunting through interior gaps. Between bull rushing Dion Dawkins to draw a holding penalty early from off the edge and a looping stunt from an off-ball alignment, Ingram was a player who defenses need to pay attention to – wherever he’s aligning on any given play.
And remember: this was last season in Week 1.
Moving around the front is nothing new for Ingram. Former Chargers Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley saw to that. Bradley oversaw all three of Ingram’s Pro Bowl seasons with the Chargers from 2017-2019 — weaponizing Ingram as a ‘MIKE’ linebacker in the low red zone and moving him all around the front as an inside and outside presence. Head up rushes on guards often yielded productive pass rushes as they allowed Ingram’s quickness to help compensate for his lack of length that could otherwise test him on the edge.
And yes, sure, that was several years ago. Ingram is now 33, as we’ve mentioned. But if you’re reducing the snap count for Ingram (he played 62% of the snaps during his time in Pittsburgh and 58% of the snaps during his time in Kansas City in 2021), why can’t he offer the same flashes as he did playing 85% of the snaps for Bradley? Especially in the Dolphins’ defensive structure.
Yes, Flores is no longer serving as the team’s head coach. But his defensive system, brought to South Florida from New England, still remains. So, too, does the team’s defensive coordinator, Josh Boyer — who held the role starting in 2020 and remains under new Head Coach Mike McDaniel. The Dolphins’ defense is notorious for two things: aggressive man coverage on the outside and exotic pressure packages that manipulate pass protection to attack weak points and dictate the game on any given week.
And that, my friends, is where Ingram’s skill set comes into play.
Miami’s bread and butter pressure package is dropped straight off the Bill Belichick tree — their “5-0” front. The objective is simple: cover every offensive lineman on the line of scrimmage with a defender to prompt the offense to check into a gap or man protection, thereby removing the opportunity to slide protect and increase the opportunity for miscommunication or a failed pass via a stunt. And boy, oh boy do the Dolphins stunt. This isn’t a team that is predicated on simply lining up their best four and telling them to get upfield on the defensive front. The objective is to identify matchups in preparation and attack them. But where Miami’s pressure front gets most of its run is that the players up front are oftentimes interchangeable. They’re not coached with certain positions manning certain alignments — all the players on the defense are marked as X’s on the chalkboard; allowing everything from a base or a dime defense to occupy the same roles in the same call with different personnel on the field.
Miami’s addition of linebacker Channing Tindall with their first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft further affirms that despite Flores’ departure, Miami is going to continue this standard operating procedure. Tindall’s snap percentage leapt up for Georgia in 2021 in unison with the Bulldogs’ defense increasing their linebacker pressure calls by 20% or more on all three downs:
- A 57% frequency for linebackers on 1st & 2nd down when calling pressure or simulated pressure in 2020 (at a 25% occurrence rate) versus 77% frequency for linebackers on 1st & 2nd down when calling pressure or simulated pressure in 2021 (at a 53% occurrence rate)
- A 61% frequency for linebackers on 3rd down when calling pressure or simulated pressure in 2020 (at a 48% occurrence rate) versus 83% frequency for linebackers on 3rd down when calling pressure or simulated pressure in 2021 (at 59% occurrence rate)
Georgia embraced the second level pressure looks in 2021 in large part because of the explosiveness of Tindall, Quay Walker and Nakobe Dean, and won themselves a national championship for their efforts. Tindall, a 4.47-second 40-yard dash athlete with a 42-inch vertical, has all the explosiveness to hit home from depth and help double down on Miami’s exotics.
Consider Ingram the triple down. No, Ingram isn’t running 4.47 or jumping 42 inches; but his experience from a 2-point stance inside offers him a unique opportunity to fulfill as many X’s on the chalkboard for the 5-0 package as possible. However, doing so will prevent him from being an indicator to personnel for opposing coaching staffs on gameday as part of a Miami depth chart that is filled with versatile defenders:
- Emmanuel Ogbah can play interior and perimeter snaps on the line of scrimmage
- Jerome Baker was platooned as a 3-4 outside linebacker and a WILL linebacker in even fronts
- 2021 rookie Jevon Holland was so proficient at playing in the nickel and in the slot at Oregon that many felt that was his destined position in the NFL (he’s the Dolphins’ star free safety)
- Third year safety Brandon Jones is effective as a ‘rat’ defender in shallow areas but was frequently in a starring role on the line of scrimmage going all the way back to his rookie season in 2020 – check out his effort on the strip sack return for a touchdown against Kyler Murray to see what kind of range he can provide in such a role
- Tindall now projects as a three-down threat with sideline-to-sideline range and explosive pressure abilities on third down from both on the line of scrimmage and from depth
- Christian Wilkins can man a base defensive end spot, he can man the A-gaps and everything in between after taking a massive step forward in year three this past season; comfortably his best in the NFL. Wilkins can penetrate and he can stack the point of attack and read & react
- 2021 rookie Jaelan Phillips is expected to take a big step forward this year and you can look back to his film with the Miami Hurricanes in 2020 to see him reduced inside and taking snaps with his hand in the dirt. The Dolphins also weaned him in slowly throughout the season last year and he garnered some opportunities elsewhere besides on the edge
If you’re counting at home, that’s seven total defenders — and Ingram would make eight. And those eight, along with cornerbacks Byron Jones and Xavien Howard give the Dolphins the effective infrastructure to run everything from a base odd-front defense through their ‘5-0’ subpackage with 10 of 11 players on the field remaining the same. Don’t believe me? Check it out.
3-4 base defensive look
DE: Emmanuel Ogbah
NT: Raekwon Davis
DE: Christian Wilkins
OLB: Melvin Ingram
ILB: Jerome Baker
ILB: Channing Tindall
OLB: Jaelan Phillips
CB: Xavien Howard
FS: Jevon Holland
SS: Brandon Jones
CB: Byron Jones
5-0 pressure subpackage
Five up front:
Emmanuel Ogbah (left ‘end’, 2-pt. stance)
Melvin Ingram (Mugged in B-gap, 2 pt. stance)
Christian Wilkins (head up on the center, 3 pt. stance)
Tindall/Baker (Mugged in B-gap, 2 pt. stance)
Jaelan Phillips (right ‘end’, 2-pt. stance)
Six in coverage:
Tindall/Baker (RB or TE in assignment)
Brandon Jones (RB or TE in assignment)
Xavien Howard (WR in assignment)
Byron Jones (WR in assignment)
Eric Rowe/Nik Needham (WR/TE in coverage)
Jevon Holland (Free safety in high post)
The Dolphins can make that dynamic of a shift by swapping out nose tackle Raekwon Davis for an added defensive back. Am I taking liberties here in assuming Tindall wins a starting job over Elandon Roberts? Yes. But I also didn’t account for the interchangeability of any of the players in the front five or the back six (the 5-0 front is often paired with man free coverage behind it) to swap gaps, roles in the stunts or coverage assignments, either.
But all of this conversation is moot if you’re asking too much of Ingram; which is why the presence of speed rusher Andrew Van Ginkel is so important. Van Ginkel isn’t 260-something pounds like Ingram; he’s a 240-pound speed rusher who did his best work last season as a speed rusher off the bench and intermittently played 3-4 outside linebacker. Ingram’s ideal balance in reps makes the return of linebacker Sam Eguavoen important, too.
Eguavoen has made a living as a special teams player but he’s grown into quite the effective pressure stunter as a mugged linebacker inside; serving as a winner both as the lead crash player in stunts or serving as the looper who comes behind the stunt and reduces his surface area to run free through gaps late. In 91 pass rush snaps in 2021, Eguavoen totalled 15 pressures (a 16.5% pressure rate). Of defenders with 90+ pass rush snaps last season, Eguavoen’s pass rush productivity ranked 16th in the NFL (but third on the Dolphins; as safety Brandon Jones and linebacker Jerome Baker ranked in the top five). Van Ginkel? He was tied for 24th.
These are roles Ingram can fill intermittently, too. They can also be roles filled by Van Ginkel and/or Eguavoen to keep Ingram’s workload in a space that allows him to keep plugging at a high rate as he did all of last season. You can forget the sacks — Ingram was on the field for 500 passing downs in total last season, 460 times rushing the passer. And his pressure rate was tied for 18th in the NFL across all defenders with equal or more opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks. There’s plenty in the tank left to give. The Dolphins simply need to continue to strike the balance both of Ingram’s 2021 squads did in his role and usage. The pieces are there for that to happen.
This Dolphins team is clearly communicating that they think the rebuild is done — as the agreement to sign Ingram indicates. And based on Ingram’s personal chapter of his own career as a late-stage defender looking to stay busy in the mix each year, it would seem that Ingram tends to agree. Now let’s put the pen to paper and see all the different blends of personnel groupings the Dolphins can implement as a result.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about the New England Patriots/Miami Dolphins five-man front pressure subpackages, I cannot recommend this series from Coach Chris Vasseur (AKA Coach Vass) enough. His thoroughness and teaching is an excellent tool for any football fan looking to learn about 5-0 pressure fronts.
- Jun 28, 2022
- Jun 27, 2022