New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been watching the Dolphins coaches for a long time. Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph comes from the Cincinnati system, of which the Patriots are familiar, but the Dolphins introduce a twist on the defensive line.
“Vance came from Cincinnati, which there are some elements to some of the things that Cincinnati does there with the linebackers up at the line of scrimmage,” Belichick said in a week 2 press conference. “There is, again, some secondary pressures, some blitz-zone, and then the defensive line is obviously a [Jim] Washburn-style defensive line. So, there is some element I'd say of all of those factors in there.”
What is a “Washburn-style defensive line”? How does it affect the Dolphins defense and how can it change how the Patriots operate on offense?
Washburn gained popularity as the Titans defensive line coach from 1999-2010, a position he held with the Eagles from 2011-12, and the Lions from 2013-15. Washburn joined the Dolphins this offseason and he’s brought his aggressive defensive line play to Miami in the form of a Wide Nine defense.
So let’s talk Wide Nine.
Coaches assign numbers to certain roles along the defensive line and they can vary from coaching tree to coaching tree. The one on the left side of the above picture is from Smart Football and follows the standard discussion- so when you hear “three technique” the defender is aligned in between the tackle and guard- while the other represents a simple counting order.
Regardless of the method, the nine technique is asked to cover the outside shoulder of the opposing tight end. The above image is the Dolphins very first play of the game in week 1 against the Seahawks. They kept their defensive ends wide for much of the game, regardless of down or distance.
The justification for this is simple: it gives the pass rusher a cleaner angle into the backfield.
The pass rushers get some momentum before engaging with the offensive tackle and can run directly at the quarterback at an angle that can disrupt an offensive tackle’s drop and blow the lineman directly into the pocket. Quicker pass rushers use the width to their advantage because a tackle will have to step wide to engage and block the path to the quarterback- and this opens a big hole between the tackle and guard for the pass rusher to cut towards inside.
But while this alignment benefits the defensive ends, it adds a strain to the rest of the defense. The linebackers are now responsible for more gaps, the safeties will have to come into the box and help, and if the tight end can steer the pass rusher away from the backfield, then an offensive lineman is free to attack the second level.
And this is an issue with the wide nine in the running game. The Patriots, with RB LeGarrette Blount, would be thrilled to see the wide nine formation because the middle of the field is more vulnerable due to the spacing. And if the running game works in the middle of the field, and the safety has to drop into the box to help, then that will open up the play action passing game.
Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh and S Reshad Jones will have to play incredible games in the middle of the field to stop the Patriots and, while absolutely possible, I would expect the Patriots to add some wrinkles to get away from Suh and allow Blount to get into the second level.
No matter Jones’ considerable talent, the coaches will take the 250-pound Blount in the open field every time.
The benefit of the wide nine in the passing game has lessened, too, thanks to the rise in the quick passing attack that the Patriots use liberally.
“With the quality of defensive linemen that are in this league,” Belichick said in a week 2 press conference, “and particularly, the ones that are on Miami's team, it's hard to stand back there and hold the ball all day and wait for a lot of plays to develop as opposed to getting the ball out before they get to you, risk negative plays and getting strip sacked and all of that. Teams that have good pass rushes make it tough to hold the ball and extend plays.”
Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo already uses a blazing fast release to get rid of the ball, which kind of neuters the value in the wide nine anyways- although I’d argue that the defensive ends are in a better position to swat down screen passes.
I think the Patriots are going to attack the middle of the field against the Dolphins with Blount and with Martellus Bennett at tight end. Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason are exceptional in the open field and will take advantage of the linebackers. So long as the Patriots prevent Suh from taking over, Blount should be able to pick up a few yards before contact.
A developed running game will force the Dolphins to respond to the play action threat and should open up some passes in the seams for Bennett and other players in the middle of the field.