In order for soon-to-be Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to transform the Miami defense back into a unit feared across the league, he’ll have to fix what didn’t work well in 2022.
The Dolphins finished the regular season 30th in takeaways, 27th in pass defense, 24th in scoring defense and third-down defense and 18th in total defense, ultimately leading former defensive coordinator Josh Boyer to be fired. This for a unit that was expected to build upon an impressive second half of 2021 through continuity — outside of former coach Brian Flores.
Fangio, who is set to accept Miami’s defensive coordinator position after Sunday’s Super Bowl, can really stand to improve the Dolphins defense in the areas of forcing turnovers, getting off the field on third downs and fostering a unit that’s not so reliant on the blitz as it was under Boyer. If he does those things, along with maintaining what the Dolphins already excel in — like run defense — and everything else should fall into place.
When Fangio was AP Assistant Coach of the Year with the 2018 Chicago Bears, a season as defensive coordinator that led him to break through into the head coaching ranks the ensuing offseason with the Denver Broncos, Fangio’s defense was able to pressure opposing quarterbacks without blitzing.
The Bears that season ranked third in sacks with 50. They pressured quarterbacks at a 26.7-percent rate, according to Football Reference, which ranked in the top half of the league. Meanwhile, their 20.3 blitz percentage was 10th-lowest.
Fangio’s blitz percentages were in a similar range with a small uptick in three seasons as Broncos head coach: 24.1 in 2019, 27.9 in 2020 and 25.3 in 2021. Although only a defensive consultant with the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles this season, that defense produced an awe-inspiring 70 regular-season sacks, which was third-most in NFL history. The unit reached that figure by blitzing just 22.1 percent of the time.
The Dolphins were second in blitz percentage in 2020 (40.8) and 2021 (39.6), Boyer’s first two seasons as defensive coordinator. For a number of reasons, he had to drop that rate to 33.3 percent this past season, but that still ranked third in the league.
Never having cornerback Byron Jones available to play opposite Xavien Howard — and Howard being hampered by injuries — limited the effectiveness of Boyer’s blitzes. He didn’t have the same caliber of man coverage on the boundary to free up extra defenders on the pass rush. He lost safety Brandon Jones during the season, and that took away one of his favorite tools with Jones’ knack for the safety blitz.
The blitz patterns became predictable and often untimely. As opposing offenses figured them out, Boyer tried to adjust the way he called his defense — leading to that decrease in blitz rate — but he simply wasn’t as effective when forced out of his comfort zone.
Fangio’s scheme creates confusion by causing the quarterback to make post-snap reads. Historically, his defensive looks start the same, primarily in the two deep safety shell, but his coverages vary. His calls won’t be tipped off as often to opponents before the snap with versatility out of the same base look. That lack of predictability could take care of the takeaways that need to increase and avoid the reliance on the blitz. In turn, that makes key third downs more difficult to pick up when offenses aren’t as privy to defensive tendencies.
Fangio’s 49ers defense ranked in the top five in total defense and scoring defense in three consecutive seasons from 2011 to 2013, when San Francisco, under coach Jim Harbaugh, reached at least the NFC Championship Game each season and one Super Bowl.
Player development for Miami’s young core of defenders could also be anticipated.
Can Fangio get pass rushers Bradley Chubb, whom he already had in Denver, and Jaelan Phillips to the level of Von Miller with the Broncos, Khalil Mack with the Bears or Aldon Smith with the 49ers?
Can he turn Jevon Holland into the caliber of safety that Eddie Jackson was in Chicago or Justin Simmons in Denver or the Donte Whitner-Dashon Goldson combination in San Francisco?
Can he produce a vision for an upgrade at linebacker to get into the stratosphere of what Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were with the Niners? And what can he do for defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler, who have already excelled up front with the Dolphins?
Of course, it also helps if Fangio is dealt a better hand on the injury front than Boyer had this past season.
With cornerback Byron Jones missing the season after never recovering from offseason lower left leg surgery and safety Brandon Jones, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah and cornerback Nik Needham lost for the year during the season, it provided ample difficulties for Boyer.
One area where Boyer deserves credit was some of his in-game adjustments. Although some of his original game plans going into various contests were exposed in the first half, he adjusted for second-half stops in wins against Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago and in keeping the Dolphins in the regular season loss at Buffalo.
The Dolphins also finished the season strong defensively, possibly making coach Mike McDaniel’s decision tougher. The three turnovers — one for touchdown — and seven sacks against the Bills nearly led to an enormous wild-card round playoff upset. The defense also kept the New York Jets out of the end zone in the regular-season finale in order to clinch a playoff berth with the 11-6 win.