It’s hard to believe, but Christmas is almost here and so is the 2011 NFL regular season. In week sixteen, the Detroit Lions will be taking on a Miami Dolphins team that has had a disappointing season, but is vastly improved defensively from the year before. The Dolphins made many key offseason acquisitions on the defensive side of the ball that has made a huge difference this season. One of those is their new defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan. Before coaching the Dolphins, he was the defensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos in 2009, where he helped turn a 30th ranked Broncos defense in 2008 to a 14th ranked defense in 2009. Nolan is performing a similar turnaround with the Dolphins this season.
Scheme-wise, the Dolphins run a 3-4 defense that is basically a zone blitz defense with elements of cover two thrown in there. In general, it’s an aggressive defense that disguises its blitzes very well. In NFL circles, Nolan is known to be one of the best in the NFL in disguising blitzes. Brian Billick, who Nolan coached for back in 2001, called Nolan, “the best coach I’ve ever been around”. What Nolan does differently from a lot of other 3-4 zone blitz defenses in the NFL is that he blitzes his inside linebackers more than usual. Generally, a 3-4 inside linebacker is used primarily from run stuffing and pass coverage, but Nolan likes to use them as pass rushers also. That is where an athletic inside linebacker like Karlos Dansby, who the Dolphins acquired in free agency, becomes so useful.
The other thing that Nolan does really well is find creative ways to get his outside linebackers involved. While he was in Denver, Elvis Dumervil had great production under him because the Broncos would constantly switch between a 4-3 front and a 3-4 front with Dumervil either lining up as a defensive end or outside linebacker. Depending on what he lined up as, the offensive line would have to decide who blocked him, which caused a lot of confusion. With the Dolphins, he runs things a little differently. Cameron Wake is a lighter, more pure outside linebacker compared to Elvis Dumervil, who was more of a defensive end. To get him in good pass rushing situations, the Dolphins match him up one on one with the tackles, who Wake can beat with his exceptional speed and rushing abilities. If you haven’t had a chance to watch Cameron Wake before, he is basically the AFC version of Clay Matthews and the Dolphins do similar things with Wake as the Packers do with Matthews.
Overall, the Dolphins defense is a very good unit, ranking 7th in points scored, 6th against the pass, 6th against the run and 4th overall. In terms of rankings, they will be the second best defense the Lions have faced after the Giants, who rank second overall. The Lions definitely have their work cut out for them on offense. I think the best way to attack this defense would be through the air. The offensive line has faced many potent pass rushers this season and has done a great job against them, so Cameron Wake and the rest of that linebacking crew shouldn’t be an unconquerable challenge. Plus, the Dolphins are giving up 3.6 yards per carry on the ground, which ranks 3rd in the NFL. Besides, its never a bad idea to throw the ball when Calvin Johnson is catching the ball.