A Review & Preview of the Miami Dolphin Front Seven

In the first of a series of articles, the writers at Dolphinshout will analyze changes in key areas of the Miami Dolphin football team. This installment focuses on the defensive front seven.

The responsibility of the front seven begins most notably with pass rushing. In today’s NFL, money goes to the players that pass the ball, protect the passer, catch the ball, rush the passer and cover the receivers. The front seven is the main force in rushing the passer, but must also shut down the running, while covering the middle of the field.

The pass rush is where the players on the front seven earn their reputation. The Miami defensive backs take the blame for the lack of big plays on the defense, but balls fluttering in the air are easy pickings compared to perfect passes thrown in rhythm. Pressuring the QB disrupts the passing game and takes the pressure off the coverage unit. The QB has a much better chance of completing passes the longer he has to survey the field.

The brain trust of the Miami Dolphins is well aware the DBs are not solely to blame for the team’s inability to create turnovers. Moving from a base 3-4 to a base 4-3 defense, changes the roles of several players in the component most experts believe is the overall best unit on the team. There is talent left from the Sparano regime, but Kevin Coyle’s defense attacks differently from the scheme coached by Mike Nolan.

The pressure is now applied mainly by the defensive ends where it previously came from the outside linebackers. Where there was a primary nose tackle in a 3-4, there are two tackles in the 4-3. The following illustration shows the difference in the two alignments side by side.

The dolphins will interchange these two formations in a hybrid defense; the base scheme is pictured on the right. Under coach Coyle, the Miami defense changes from the left picture to the right picture. In this simplistic interpretation, a defensive lineman replaces a linebacker.

The change does not seem drastic, but the type of players required for the scheme to work presents issues when transforming to the new the system. Paul Soliai manned the nose tackle position in the 3-4, but he is now joined by Randy Starks at the under tackle position. The NFL game is evolving from common five and seven step QB drops replaced by 3 step drops in a rapid-fire up-tempo sling fest.

In this modern passing game, the QB releases the ball so quickly, the outside linebackers in the 3-4 are mitigated by the release time of the football. Here is a look at the same illustration with the arcs of the pass rushers added in red.

Notice the distance required to get the passer in a 3-4 versus the distance in a 4-3. As the game evolves to a quicker tempo, the pass rushers have to find ways to get to the QB fast. Lining up closer is one obvious advantage as the red lines indicate. There is an added benefit in the 4-3 by having two tackles coming up the middle. Any pass rush coming around the end is going to have issues reaching the passer in the 3-step drop.

Bringing pressure up the middle can disrupt the timing of the up-tempo offense. The 3-step drop with only a single nose tackle is much easier than a 3-step drop with two tackles. Fortunately, Miami has two players already on the team capable of playing the positions, Soliai and Starks, but there needs to be rotational players to rest the starters. For that the Dolphins will need Jared Odrick to bulk up. A heavier Odrick cannot man the DE position in a 4-3, because he does not have pure pass rusher speed.

The Dolphins began reshaping last year by drafting DE Olivier Vernon but the process was not complete until they jumped up to the number three spot in the draft to add Dion Jordan. With Cameron Wake at RDE, the addition of Jordan on the left side will strike fear in QBs and the Miami defensive line has now made the complete transition to the new defensive scheme.

Soliai, Starks and Odrick at the tackles with Wake, Jordan and Vernon at the ends, are as solid a group as there is in the NFL. Keeston Randall, Vaughn Martin and Dereck Shelby will fight it out with a large group of rookies for the final two or perhaps three DL roster spots.

The linebackers feature free agents Danell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler joining Koa Misi in a change from four linebackers to three. By releasing Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, the Dolphins cut ties with two older free agent linebackers but the need for more change is still evident when looking closely at the alignment.

The areas circled in red demonstrate how the roles of the OLBs change from one scheme to the other. The simple diagram shows why Dansby and Burnett are no longer with the Dolphins. The need for speed becomes obvious when shown graphically. The OLBs in the 4-3 have twice as much ground to cover and the two aging veterans were a mismatch for the defense.

Both OLBs needed to be replaced with more speedy players and the dolphins are probably not done, but will wait for next off-season to tweak in the LB corps. Dion Jordan and Cameron Wake will be used in hybrid type roles leaving the LB corps manned by more special teams’ demons than by actual starting caliber LBs.

The Names Jason Trusnik, Austin Spitler and Josh Kaddu don’t inspire thoughts of greatness and hoping a host of rookies led by Jelani Jenkins will sure up the LB corps is wishful thinking. The Linebackers may be the weakest unit on the team. The free agent acquisitions are still unknowns, but there is a lot riding on the two new players stepping up in a big way.

In conclusion, the defensive front seven is a unit with impressive talent on the line, backed by an unknown group of linebackers. The line will hold its own and the linebackers should be sufficient without being spectacular. The group will be outstanding if Ellerbe and Wheeler make the leap from spot starters to true every down players. The group could go the other direction if these two players fail to step up.

As go Ellerbe and Wheeler, so goes the front seven…