‘Shell’ Game: The Zone Defense That’s Slowing Down the Miami Dolphins Offense

The Miami Dolphins offense has regressed since Week 7 in no small part because they have fared worse against two-high defenses.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Mike McDaniel’s day-after evaluation of the Miami Dolphins‘ offensive performance against the Raiders predictably focused on the team’s self-inflicted wounds.

The Dolphins in Week 11 set the team’s season-low in points at Hard Rock Stadium (20) in Sunday’s win, and certainly three giveaways and a failed fourth down were largely to blame.

“What does the game look like if you don’t turn over the ball three times?” McDaniel said Monday. “That’s kind of how I look at it.”

That’s a big part of the story, for sure. But it’s not the entire story.

A Closer Look at Miami Dolphins’ Struggles on Offense

The Raiders on Sunday did an excellent job of keeping the action in front of them, allowing zero pass plays of 40 or more yards (Miami did have five passes that went for 20 or more).

MORE: Miami Dolphins Depth Chart

Those chunk plays have been a big part of Miami’s success in 2023 — they rank sixth in completions of 20+ (39) and second in completions of 40+ (8).

But those have largely dried up over the past month, and their statistical rankings have sagged because of it.

Since Week 7, the Dolphins have averaged 1.2 more yards per attempt and have a 14.9% higher positive EPA rate when throwing against single-high concept coverages (Cover 1 and Cover 3) than two-deep schemes (Cover 2, 2-man, and Cover 4), according to data provided by SIS.

Those two-high shell defenses have limited the Dolphins to just six adjusted net yards per attempt and the league’s eighth-worst passing success rate (38.9%) in their last four games.

Put another way, teams in the last month have turned one of the NFL’s most efficient passing offenses into one of the NFL’s least by keeping a second safety deep to limit the over-the-top completions.

No surprise, then, that the Dolphins, in their last four games, have gone against two-deep coverages on a majority of their non-red zone, spikes, or screen passing attempts.

“Well, yeah, I think we see a ton,” McDaniel said. “We saw the second-most two-shell defense in the National Football League at like 51% of the snaps last year. And I don’t think that’s subsided.

“So you know, I think that that’s something that I’m always looking at.”

Fortunately for the Dolphins, the defense is not unbeatable. It certainly takes more patience to grind out a 10-play drive than tell Tyreek Hill to go deep, but the Dolphins have the players to do it. Do they have the discipline to do it? That’s another story.

The Dolphins, on the season, have actually had more success against two-high than single-high defenses.

MORE: Week 12 NFL Power Rankings

In 134 attempts against two-high post-snap looks (Cover 2, 2-man, and Cover 4), the Dolphins average 9.4 yards per attempt (second in the NFL), 8.6 adjusted net yards per attempt (third), and a 53.2% positive EPA rate (third)

In 110 such attempts against one-high post-snap (Cover 1, 3, and 6), the Dolphins average 9.1 yards per attempt (fourth), 7.2 adjusted net yards per attempt (ninth), and have a 52.5% positive EPA rate (fourth).

“I think a lot of our offense’s success has come against two deep because we get a lot of it,” McDaniel said. “But there’s a lot of different variables. It’s not as black and white as that. But in [the Raiders] game, you know, they adjusted their two-deep in a smart fashion.

“And then, on top of the way the defense was playing, we didn’t really take that many shots down the field. And then, you know, once you start to get behind the eight ball with turnovers, it just kind of changes the game.

“But I think that’s something that we always have to be prepared for because I think really, the default against our offense has kind of been all the various forms of two-shell. I think that’s kind of more of the norm for us.

“But, you know, I think that’s a challenge that’s presented to us each and every game. I think teams, you know, from a generic standpoint, try to make us earn everything we get because they see on tape that we have some explosive capabilities.

“The idea is that, whatever they’re taking away to make them pay for it, we always have to be able to be explosive and move all the score points regardless of the defense they present.”

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