Week 15 in All-22 Review: How The Dolphins Needed 3 Backups to Overcome the Patriots
December 6th, 2009 was the last time the Miami Dolphins defeated the New England Patriots before the week 15 victory, 24-20. The Dolphins pulled out another thrilling last second win, their 8th of the season, and this win might have been the sweetest. Now the team controls its playoff aspirations, but it hasn’t been easy.
This article will look at the three backup Dolphins defenders that were critical to stopping Tom Brady and the Patriots from winning a 10th straight time. Using All-22 game film, Pro Football Focus grades and Photoshop, I’ll explain the importance of three unlikely players that rose their game at the most critical time of the season.
Rookie LB Jelani Jenkins
Profile: 4th round pick in 2013. 29 snaps in week 15. 2 tackles, 1 QB hurry. PFF grade= +1.7
Jelani Jenkins came out of the University of Florida as an inside linebacker with strong coverage skills, and those skills proved to be tremendously valuable against the fast-paced Patriots offense. Jenkins didn’t play until 13:25 in the 3rd quarter, but he displayed the ability to smother running backs and tight ends- something $26 million dollar man Philip Wheeler has dearly struggled with this year. In fact, I believe the following play is what spurred the change by defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle:
Here, you’ll see the orange arrow pointing at MLB Dannell Ellerbe assigning Wheeler (in the orange circle) the running back in coverage. Here’s the issue: Danny Amendola (#80) comes in motion and runs a crossing pattern (follow the red line) and Dolphins DE Cameron Wake drops back in coverage to block the TE and Wheeler waits on the RB to release. This causes Amendola to be wide open and gain 30 yards to start the drive. Follow the orange line to see the path Wheeler took.
Mistakes like this have been constant for the Dolphins linebacker squad, and it seems Coyle has seen enough. Early in the 3rd, he inserts Jenkins as a weakside linebacker (WILL), which is a position that is dependent on having good coverage skills. Jenkins didn’t wait to make an impact; the first play, he gets a tackle. See below for his alignment.
His impact didn’t end there. He replaced Wheeler on passing third down situations, and showed great speed and athleticism closing in on running backs.
You’ll see Jenkins in this picture start at the line of scrimmage (LOS), turn his hips, take the appropriate angle, square up and be in proper position to hit the running back, who dropped the pass from Brady. This might not be an impressive play, but this is the type of play that has killed the Dolphins defense, who have been abnormally poor in open field tackling this season.
The above picture highlights Jenkins’ position at the snap and how he sticks to Shane Vereen from the snap. He stays squared, uses his lateral quickness to shuffle to the flat, and forces Brady to need a perfect throw. The throw was off and forced a field goal. “Little” plays like this show the rookie is worthy to receive snaps and is a viable backup. Hopefully he develops his pass rushing abilities this offseason through adding strength and more variety to his moves so he can see the field more.
3rd Year CB Michael Thomas
Profile: Claimed off 49ers practice squad week of 12/9. 16 snaps. 2 tackles, 1 INT. PFF grade= +1.2
On a day where the Dolphins 3rd round corner back selection, Will Davis, struggled to stop anyone (that’s addressed below) and 2nd round pick Jamar Taylor is still injured, the Dolphins had to turn to a guy defensive tackle Jared Odrick didn’t even know his first name. Michael Thomas didn’t disappoint, and earned himself a roster spot for the rest of the season. He finally got into the game with only 5:40 remaining due to Brent Grimes cramping, and he left his mark.
On the final drive for the Patriots, Thomas was the defensive star. He had the difficult task of covering Danny Amendola, and as you’ll see in the picture below, he shadowed him well. Amendola started his route heading towards the sideline, then quickly slanted inside, which usually leads to a big gain. Thomas concedes the first down, but he showed quick, fluid hips by backpedaling, pivoting and changing direction with Amendola. As you can see, there’s no wasted movement in his coverage.
Thomas wasn’t done there. The next play he tackled Shane Vereen in the flat for a 2 yard gain, forcing the Patriots to take a timeout. Of course, his shining moment was saved for last. On 4th and goal, strong safety Reshad Jones (who finally had a solid game) told Thomas to play the inside post route, and Thomas baited Tom Brady into a pick. At the start of the play, Thomas gave about 5 yards of cushion to the slot, then dropped back into a zone, allowing him to smother the post route and get the interception. Brady had no other options with the pass rush closing in, and Thomas played the route perfectly.
3rd year CB Jimmy Wilson
Profile: 2011 7th round pick. 52 snaps, 4 tackles. PFF grade= -.6
Looking at Jimmy Wilson’s overall game, he wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad either. He made a few good tackles in open space, and one strong tackle in run support. But the most impressive thing about Wilson’s day: week 15 was his first time spent at cornerback in 18 months. He’s been exclusively practicing as a safety since training camp of 2012, and yet he stepped in vs. the Patriots and held his own. He made two key blanket coverages early, where he lined up against Amendola on the Patriots 2nd down and goal, then batted down a sure touchdown pass to Josh Boyce on 3rd down. For a team that’s been decimated by injuries, Wilson played a huge role that he wasn’t expected to be put in.
Dion Jordan continues to be strong in coverage. Kevin Coyle has been lining him up in different spots the past few weeks and dropping him into coverage, and he smothers opponent tight ends with ease. PFF graded him negatively for his pass rush in week 15, but I’m not sure why. He created decent pressure and almost had 2 sacks. Check out the photo below for Jordan covering the Patriots tight end on a crossing route.
Rookie CB Will Davis gave up a lot of yards, but not from a lack of skill. Davis wasn’t aggressive like he routinely showed in training camp and at Utah State, but I think he just needs more reps. He gave too much cushion to possession receivers and needs to trust his instincts, but Tom Brady didn’t abuse him like Dolphins fans feared. Below you will see an illustration of Davis’ coverage of Danny Amendola. If he’s 5 yards off as opposed to 10, this play is a lot more difficult for Brady. The Dolphins just need to build Davis’ confidence.
Entering week 16 against the Buffalo Bills in a payback game, the Dolphins have about a 66% chance of making the playoffs. They control their own destiny and just need to win out to finally end the long stretch of mediocrity. Getting performances out of unlikely sources is key to winning big games like they did in week 15, and if coaches are now showing trust in the young, hungry players, watch out, because so far they’ve passed the test.