SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
By most any statistical measure, UM’s maligned defense improved last season, rising to 14th among 128 FBS schools in yards allowed per game (329.6) and 36th in points permitted (24.3).
Yet former players and others continue to criticize coordinator Mark D’Onofrio because of schemes and philosophy.
Today, we examine what prominent alums say must be changed on defense; D’Onofrio’s explanation for his approach; and areas where changes are likely and unlikely:
### UM’s defensive scheme. Al Golden and D’Onofrio believe strongly in mixing 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. That’s a hot button issue among ex-players.
“We’re not a 3-4 team! Never have been,” former star running back Clinton Portis said. “A 4-3 is the best defense ever played. A 3-4 doesn’t fit UM.”
Former Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta agrees. “Miami has had success being a 4-3 aggressive defense in the past," Torretta said this past offseason. "I would like to see more aggressiveness from the front four. That’s what we did and we had a lot of success.”
So why does UM switch between the two and make players learn how to play in both?
“We started in 2013 to build a hybrid defense to set you up so you’re not pigeonholed with personnel and you can recruit anyone to this scheme and make it fit the options that you have,” D’Onofrio said last week.
“We stayed true to that going into our third year. It has allowed us to focus on guys that do things really well for us and put them in position to do that. In Virginia, we were ranked in the top 10 and had numerous pros” with this approach.
### Overall defensive aggressiveness. Pittsburgh Steelers rookie defensive end Anthony Chickillo said UM’s scheme didn’t allow him to display his athleticism the past four years, and former UM All-American center Brett Romberg said UM needs to “allow guys like Chickillo and Chad Thomas to play a more aggressive style.”
Former assistant coach Don Soldinger said: “The criticism I have defensively is those guys need to run to the football. You need to make your reads on the run and get up-field and get to the ball. Jimmy Johnson also played quite a bit of zone but he wanted you up-field and reading everything on the run. And if guys run under a block [unlike what they may be taught] and make a play, don’t say anything to them.”
UM insists it wants players to swarm to the ball and defensive lineman Ufomba Kamalu said getting upfield more quickly is being emphasized to the front seven more than ever before.
“We always had the option to rush the quarterback but never took full advantage of it,” Kamalu said last week. “The emphasis now is getting up-field more. We love it. It’s a more aggressive defense.”
New defensive line coach Randy Melvin, during a practice open to the media, put it simply to his unit: “Put your hand in the ground and go and shut... up!”
So just how much different will this defense look?
“It’s not that much different, but it’s always our job to see where guys can get better and not be stuck,” D’Onofrio said. “With the personnel, think about what they can do and how you can help them. We’re hard on ourselves. We go back and look at it and say this wasn’t working out very well. Let’s scrap it. What can we do better?
“[But] if you’re going to add new things, you better scrap some other things. What you don’t want to do is end up with too much. We’re conscious of that. You try to see if you can tweak a thing here or there to help guys without completely changing anything. That’s the challenge every year. We’ve arrived at a package we’re excited about this season and fits the 2015 personnel.”
D’Onofrio, incidentally, has said UM’s defensive backs play plenty of man defense --- more than it did initially under Golden and D'Onofrio --- and quibbles with suggestions to the contrary.
### The two-gap approach, which enraged at least one former player who complained about it to me last season.
In layman’s terms, when a team plays one gap, that defensive lineman is responsible for one gap and typically lines up directly in that gap; the hope is for the defensive lineman to get penetration for a sack or a tackle for loss.
In a two-gap, the defensive lineman is responsible for the gap on either side of the offensive lineman that he is lined up across from. The main purpose of the two-gap technique is for the defensive line to "clog" the line of scrimmage, which allows for the more athletic linebackers to make plays on the outside or gives them time to offer support on runs up the middle.
D’Onofrio said that UM ran two-gap only 25 percent of the time last season and “75 percent of the snaps were one-gap techniques or movements where guys have a chance to be really disruptive and get tackles for losses and get sacks. The misconception when people talk in terms two-gap is that we don’t want them to be aggressive. It’s just somebody is responsible for two gaps. A little too much gets put into what we play. It’s more important how we play it.”
### Where linebackers and safeties line up.
Portis: “With safeties 15 yards back, how are you going to make a play? And they had [linebacker] Denzel Perryman playing in no man’s land.”
Soldinger --- who likes Golden and this staff – said the safeties need to be more involved. “I never see safeties in the [TV screen] picture sometimes.”
And in an interview airing Sunday night, former Hurricanes All-American Bennie Blades told NBC-6’s Adam Kuperstein: “When it’s 3rd and 1 and these guys are still 15 yards deep, are you kidding me? I don’t care who you are, if you’re a 10-year-old kid, you say, ‘Man, what are you doing? We gotta get back to playing real Hurricanes football.”
UM has consistently disputed this criticism, insisting it puts its safeties in the right spot, though Denzel Perryman has said players sometimes didn’t line up exactly where they were supposed to.
Miami coaches don’t want safeties to line up too closely to the line of scrimmage so the cornerbacks aren’t left on an island and so UM isn't more vulnerable to being beaten over the top.
Also, coaches fear giving up a big play (running or passing) if eight or nine defenders are in the box and an offensive player breaks an initial tackle. If all the linebackers are crowding the line, that could leave an offensive player in the open field if he eludes the initial defender.
Also, UM’s philosophy is not to give up the big play or get beaten over the top but instead hope for a third-down stop at some point, or that an opposing offense self-destructs eventually.
Confronted by Orlando Alzugaray on WQAM last month (in an awkward moment), Golden defended an alignment when Alzugaray showed him a screen shot of a 2014 play in which five defenders were well into the end zone when Georgia Tech had the ball on UM’s 1-yard line. Tech scored on the play.
Here’s how Golden responded to Alzugaray questioning him: “Do you understand what’s going on here? I’ll help you here. As they run the option, he’s going to dive into the line of scrimmage. [The linebacker] is going to meet him, so he’s a free hitter. He has no other responsibility but to tackle the dive. On the snap, he’s roaring. But he needs action before he can roar; otherwise he’s roaring to nowhere.
“This guy [another UM defender] depending on which way he goes, is going to fill the D gap. [Another] will fill outside on the pitch. [Another] guy will lock down. It’s based on rotation…. You should watch all the teams that play them.
“We stopped them on 4th and 1 two years ago to win it using the same thing. [And] we’ve been 6-1 the last seven games against the option.”
In fairness to D’Onofrio, consider this: Of the 12 FBS teams Miami played last season, the Hurricanes defense held 11 of them under their season yardage average on offense --- on average, a whopping 81 yards under their averages. The only exception: Nebraska, which managed 456 yards –-- 3.7 yards over its season average.
D’Onofrio is bullish on this defense. Why?
“The two biggest things that stand out are the depth at the defensive line and the depth at the safety position,” he said. “Those are really big deals. Our safeties have to run our defense. We ask them to do a lot of things. We are more experienced in those two areas.
“You hear a lot of people saying you want to be built strong up the middle. … What’s happened around here in the past is certain guys had the spot, kind of by default, and now there’s great competition.
“I’m very excited about the depth in the front four. It’s by far the best we’ve had. You want to have guys who can wreck the game up front. We’ve been quietly accumulating those players. We had a couple years it was tough to get defensive linemen.
“When you see the quality of guys getting in, we have overall depth that we’re looking for. When you have competition, guys can’t get complacent. They can’t say, ‘I’m going to play. I’m in the two deep. Who else are they going to play?’”
UM hopes that depth of pass-rushing linemen boosts its per-sack average of 2.08, which was 68th in the country.
### Even beyond the Dolphins’ improved offensive cast and Ryan Tannehill’s continued growth, linebacker Jelani Jenkins says this is another reason why this offense is going to give teams major problems:
More than past years, “they’re making us think before the ball is even snapped,” he said. “They end up lining up in a simple formation but the things they do before that get you all riled up, keep you from thinking about the things you’re supposed to think about. You see how smart the offensive coordinator [Bill Lazor] is in making defenses uncomfortable.”
Tannehill, incidentally, is on track to be the only opening-day AFC East quarterback who has ever started a game for his team. The other projected starters: Jimmy Garoppolo (Patriots), Matt Cassel (Bills) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Jets).
### Evidence of renewed Dolphins interest: Miami already has surpassed last season’s final season ticket sales count of 44,623, and Thursday’s game was watched in 8.5 percent of Dade/Broward homes on CBS-4, compared with 5.8 for last year’s preseason opener.
### We’ve heard disappointment expressed so far in running back Jay Ajayi, who returned to practice Saturday after dealing with a hamstring injury.
### Please see the last post for a lot of Dolphins news and notes from Saturday.
### The Heat has maintained contact with the representation for Portland and former Heat free agent forward Dorell Wright and expressed willingness to continue talking. But Miami has not made an offer to this point.
If the Heat decides to offer a minimum deal in September and he accepts, Wright would be the favorite over James Ennis (who has a non-guaranteed deal) for the 15th roster spot, barring trades.
Wright has expressed interest in returning but is talking to several other teams, too. Wright, 29, averaged 4.6 points in 48 games for the Trail Blazers last season.
Wright spent his first six seasons with the Heat and has averaged 8.4 points in his 11-year career and shot 36.5 percent on three-pointers.
### Though the Marlins intend to make a managerial change, they want to wait until after the season ends in case managers are fired (perhaps the Dodgers’ Don Mattingly, for example), so that they know the full pool of candidates before making a decision.
There’s no front-runner, but managing experience will be an important criteria.
### There are mixed views inside the Marlins about whether to consider trades this winter for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, with some still high on him but at least one prominent Marlins person open to using him as a carrot in a deal.
Twitter: @flasportsbuzz... Please see our last post for lots of Saturday Dolphins news.