That's the question I've been grappling with since the Dolphins reeled off two impressive wins in the aftermath of Campbell's promotion to interim head coach, keeping Miami within striking distance of a wild-card spot. So I took some time to study the All-22 Coaches Film, to see how the novice coach has helped his team crush foes behind an explosive offense and a dynamic defense. Here's what I found:
1) The Dolphins' defense is dominating behind a simpler approach.
Entering 2015, the Dolphins were widely hailed as dark-horse contenders in the AFC, thanks to the disruptive potential of a defense featuring Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Brent Grimes. The trio was expected to anchor a unit that pummeled opponents in the trenches while suffocating aerial attacks with sticky coverage in the back end. However, the defense stumbled out of the gate under coordinator Kevin Coyle, surrendering an average of 25.3 points, 399.5 total yards and 160.5 rushing yards -- while registering just one sack -- during the first four games of the season. The group looked nothing like the rugged, star-driven force it was supposed to be. Shortly after head coach Joe Philbin was fired, Coyle followed him out the door.
Miami's struggles could partly be attributed to the hesitant play of the defensive line at the point of attack. Under Coyle, the Dolphins would seemingly "read and react" instead of blowing through their assigned gaps. The defenders would routinely take on blockers squarely down the middle, which led to minimal penetration when they weren't able to win with sheer power and brute strength. Although the Dolphins would mix in some stems and angles (defensive-line movement where defenders shoot gaps), the movement didn't appear coordinated as a group. Thus, there were gaping holes at the point of attack, leading to big gains from nifty cutback runners adept at spotting seams.
Miami also couldn't generate a consistent pass rush, despite the presence of Pro Bowlers on the front line. True, the inability to stop the run prevented the unit from attacking in favorable situations (obvious passing downs or long-yardage situations), but the front line also simply didn't win enough "one-on-ones" to register high sack totals. The Dolphins repeatedly got close to the quarterback in the pocket, but were unable to get to him prior to the release of the throw. As a result, the secondary defenders were unable to feast off rushed or hurried throws from the pocket.
New coordinator Lou Anarumo has cleaned up the defense by simplifying the scheme and putting his top players in position to make plays. With the number of calls on the play sheet reduced, defenders are able to focus on technique and effort instead of assignment. Consequently, they play faster and create more chaos with sheer energy and hustle.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I've noticed the Dolphins using more movement along the line, to allow their disruptors to attack their assigned gaps after the snap. By using more "one-gap" movement tactics, the Dolphins are able to play on the opponent's side of the line of scrimmage, leading to more negative plays (tackles for loss and sacks) from the defense. Additionally, the coordinated movement allows everyone to know exactly which gap is their responsibility, resulting in fewer explosive runs between the tackles. With Anarumo also mixing in some five-man pressures to incorporate second-level defenders, the Dolphins are flying to the ball and playing aggressively on each snap.
From a player's perspective, the simplified approach allows guys to play faster, due to a "see ball, get ball" mentality. Defenders are able to focus exclusively on reacting to what they see instead of worrying about various checks or assignments. Thus, it was sensible for Anarumo to pare down his game plan to just 10 or so different calls. Defenders can now spend the bulk of their work week honing technique and focusing on their opponent's tendencies rather than mastering new information. With each defender tasked with the goal of winning his "one-on-one" matchup each week, the smaller playbook and increased emphasis on technique is producing better results.
Overall, the Dolphins' defense has improved dramatically, with better effort and hustle coming from each player. Anarumo has gotten all 11 defenders to fly to the ball with reckless abandon and nasty intention. The combination of "hitting and hustling" produces big hits, which lead to turnovers on tips, bobbles and deflections. Most importantly, it allows the defense to set the tone with physicality and ferocity between the lines.
2) Lamar Miller is thriving as the focal point of the offense.
For all of the conversation regarding the NFL being a quarterback-driven league, the most explosive teams feature a dynamic weapon in the backfield, someone who can create big-play opportunities as a runner or receiver. Despite posting a 1,000-yard season in 2014, Miller had been an underutilized asset prior to Campbell's promotion. The fourth-year pro averaged just 9.3 carries and 32.8 rushing yards in the team's first four games, surprisingly low numbers for a runner who averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2014.
Miller's workload has increased with Campbell at the reins: Since Week 6, Miller has averaged 16.5 rushes and 144.0 rushing yards per game. Most impressively, he has been averaging 8.7 rushing yards per carry in that span, displaying the kind of explosiveness that led me to compare him to Clinton Portis during the 2012 pre-draft process.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, it's clear Miller is at his best working on the edges in the Dolphins' spread scheme. He exhibits exceptional stop-start quickness in the hole, but he also possesses the vision and cut-back skills to attack seams on the back side. With the Dolphins using a variety of zone-based blocking schemes and backfield misdirections, Miller's knack for spotting creases makes him a threat to go the distance from anywhere on the field. Take a look at the video to the right to see Miller explode through the middle on a simple inside zone with cross-blocking action.
Miller's versatility as a receiver also makes him a scoring threat at all times. He's a terrific route-runner from the backfield, exhibiting patience and savvy setting defenders up in space. Additionally, Miller is a nifty playmaker on screens. He is patient enough to allow his blockers to get out in front, and he possesses enough top-end speed to put it in the paint when he gets into the open field.
In the play depicted below, from Miami's 44-26 win over Houston in Week 7, the Dolphins get Miller the ball on a misdirection screen in the open field. The Dolphins are aligned in a dubs formation, with receiver Jarvis Landry in the slot and Miller at the dot position. At the snap, Miller fakes a dive, with Landry coming around a fake reverse. Ryan Tannehill fakes the end-around, retreats and lobs the ball to Miller in the flat. Miller weaves through traffic and finds the end zone for a 54-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
3) Ryan Tannehill has found his groove in a quick-rhythm passing game.
The Dolphins wisely hired coordinator Bill Lazor in January 2014 to implement a version of the spread that accentuated Tannehill's skills as a mobile playmaker. The fourth-year pro thrived in Texas A&M's spread offense, which featured an assortment of bubble screens, quicks and short crossing routes. The system was designed to get the quarterback a few "layups" to build his confidence and help him find a rhythm.
Lazor, who has stayed on under Campbell, has installed a similar system in Miami after learning the nuances of the spread offense from Chip Kelly during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed the Dolphins run the basic concepts of the spread (bubble screens, quicks and short crossers), as well as some movement-based throws (bootlegs and naked passes) designed to put the quarterback on the edges. Given Tannehill's athleticism, mobility, quick release and experience running a "tempo" offense, the quick-rhythm offense allows him to play fast and efficient from the pocket, especially when he is supported by a strong running game.
Against the Texans, Tannehill was nearly flawless executing the system, completing 18 of 19 passes for 282 yards with four touchdowns, no picks and a passer rating of 158.3. Although the Dolphins' receivers accounted for 257 "YAC" (yards after the catch), Tannehill impressed by consistently delivering the ball within the strike zone. He repeatedly put the ball on the receiver's upfield shoulder, allowing the pass-catcher to make plays on the perimeter.
On his 53-yard touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews, which is depicted below, Tannehill shows outstanding accuracy and ball placement. The Dolphins align in a trips formation, with Matthews positioned on the left. Landry motions out of the backfield to create an empty formation. The overload leaves Matthews one-on-one on the corner without any help on the inside, and the big-bodied playmaker wins quickly on the three-step slant. Tannehill delivers the ball on time, leading to a touchdown on an explosive "catch-and-run" play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Dolphins have also featured a number of crossing routes to help Tannehill register easy completions against any coverage. Crossing routes are effective against man coverage, due to potential picks, and they're good against zones because the crossing action pulls defenders out of their assigned areas, leaving open voids for pass-catchers between the hashes.
On Landry's second touchdown of the day, which is depicted below, the Dolphins use one of their favorite crossing-route concepts ('X Mesh) to generate a big play in the red zone. The Dolphins are aligned in a duo formation, with Landry positioned at split end (X). Kenny Stills motions into the slot to run a crossing route over the top of Landry's underneath crossing route. Matthews is running a "search" route over the middle. The combination of crossers creates a pick for Landry, leaving him open for an easy throw-and-catch for Tannehill. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Tannehill finding his groove within a system built to enhance his talents, the Dolphins' offense is finally beginning to click like many expected prior to the season.