While the defense was playing excellent football when healthy, it’s been getting thinner and thinner during the season’s home stretch. Miami defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has adjusted on the fly — and the biggest way he has done so is by blitzing more often.
Traditionally, Fangio will trust two-high coverage shells, aggressive zone coverage and a four-man rush to defend passing attacks. But in each of the last two games, the Dolphins have sent five or more players on at least 40% of their opponents’ dropbacks.
Let’s take a closer look at what we expect from the Dolphins on Saturday.
A primary feature of Miami’s blitzing strategy is not showing a blitz is coming until late in the cadence. The Dolphins tend to hold firm in a traditional alignment. Then — just before the snap — off-ball linebackers or a cornerback will fire toward the line of scrimmage.
Dolphins have blitzed on more than 40% of opponents' dropbacks each of the last 2 games— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 10, 2024
They're good at not showing blitz until late in the cadence, leading to the QB not having as quick of an answer for it pic.twitter.com/1T3IeKaN6N
Here, we see this technique get the best of the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Josh Allen on a few reps. In the first play, three off-ball defenders fire into the backfield after not threatening to blitz. That overwhelms (and possibly surprises) the pass protectors — and Allen, whose hurried throw is intercepted.
But disguising the rush also sometimes allows the Dolphins to give up big plays, too.
When Miami does heavily blitz, #Chiefs need to take advantage of the DBs picking up underneath routes from depth— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 10, 2024
These blitzes get beat simply by throwing underneath to a receiver being picked up by a deep defender pic.twitter.com/JhaPlACnFZ
On these plays, heavy blitzes force deep defenders to come forward so they can pick up routes in man coverage. Since the defense is aligned normally before the snap, a quarterback can use a quick throw to take advantage of the resulting cushion underneath.
The last one of these plays is the best example: Miami’s blitz leaves a deep safety to pick up athletic tight end Isaiah Likely on a shallow crossing pattern. Playing from behind, the safety is unable to catch up to make a play on the ball — which leads to a big catch-and-run.
To best take advantage of this, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his wide receivers must be on the same page. At this time, that is not always a given.
Use of pre-snap motion
To counter the Dolphins’ blitz, the Chiefs need to utilize pre-snap motions. This is something that Kansas City traditionally does as much as any team — but in the simplified offense that debuted in the Week 17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, there was less of it. Against Miami, the Chiefs should work more of it into the mix — because in the last two games, the use of motion has given the Dolphins some trouble.
Miami's D has struggled to handle pre-snap motions in the pass game. Baltimore was killing them with it pic.twitter.com/5tP6YL9ELB— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 10, 2024
In the first rep shown here, Miami plans to send a fifth rusher into the backfield. That doesn’t change when the Ravens’ wide receiver Zay Flowers goes in motion. But the shift creates a problem for the defense; it has to sort out which route should be picked up. This leaves Flowers open for a huge play.
The back end already has a tough time covering up the areas left vulnerable by a blitz. So when motion is used to change the offensive formation, it makes every defensive back have to think harder during the play — and possibly change their coverage responsibility on the fly.
Targeting weak links
With multiple backups playing for Miami, there will be mismatches up front and in coverage. One glaring target for the Chiefs will be linebacker Duke Riley. On a few occasions this season, the seven-year veteran has had to fill in for injured starter Jerome Baker — who was placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured list this week.
Riley played against Baltimore — and Ravens wasted no time targeting him in coverage. From the opening drive, quarterback Lamar Jackson twice found the same running back on a wheel route for big gains — and both times, Riley was unable to get over the rub route and take it away.
While David Long Jr. is a playmaker, Riley looks very exploitable on the 2nd level. Look for KC to target 45 on 3rd downs, in the red zone, etc. pic.twitter.com/Yn7w4ifbWw— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 10, 2024
It doesn’t stop there, though. The Ravens continued to expose Riley on screen passes, picking up running backs on checkdowns and play-action passes.
Linebacker David Long Jr. will be a tough opponent — but watch for the Chiefs to target Riley situationally in the red zone, on third down and in short-yardage scenarios.
The bottom line
The Dolphins’ defensive injuries will force the unit to play with more of an all-or-nothing mindset, trying to surprise the offense with unanticipated blitzes and aggressive play-calls.
And this could work. On passing plays, the Chiefs have struggled to execute on the fly — which Miami could force them to do. So Kansas City will need to counter by using pre-snap motion to disrupt the Dolphins’ coverage strategies — and also target the weak links on Miami’s defensive unit.