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T.J. McDonald’s Impact on the Miami Defense

Aug 10, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (right) talks with Miami Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald (22) before kickoff against the Atlanta Falcons at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dolphins take the Monday Night stage in Carolina, they will do so with the addition of a heavy-hitter in the secondary. T.J. McDonald was signed in March despite facing an eight-game suspension, and was later given a four-year extension by Miami.

Despite never suiting up in the regular season for Miami, McDonald earned the admiration of the organization through his commitment to the game, and his impressive film.

McDonald spent the first four years of his career with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. There, he earned the reputation of a versatile, big hitting safety.

Not unlike Reshad Jones, McDonald can play a variety of roles – none more impressive than his ability to line up around the line of scrimmage. Matt Burke has maximized Jones’ explosive style in 2017 by moving him all over the field. With McDonald in the mix, the Dolphins can disguise coverages and show the offense similar looks on both hash marks.

Jones will often sneak down to the line of scrimmage to defend the strong-side C gap in the running game, or blitz the quarterback. Also in his arsenal, the ability to chip and carry tight ends down the field.

While this column is about McDonald, using Jones’ skillset to define McDonald’s role with the team is nearly a linear comparison.

After going through five games from 2016 extensively, I pulled some GIFs from McDonald’s different responsibilities with the Rams, in hopes of showcasing the dimension he will add to the Miami defense.

Aug 10, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive back T.J. McDonald (22) brings down Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Anthony Dable (16) during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 10, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive back T.J. McDonald (22) brings down Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Anthony Dable (16) during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

For the better part of two decades, the Dolphins have exhausted endless resources to help defend the vaunted New England Patriots offense. Dion Jordan was supposed to help cover Rob Gronkowski. Joey Porter was supposed to make life more difficult on Tom Brady. The lengthy-cornerback prototype instilled by General Manager Chris Grier was supposed to prevent the short-area quickness of the Pats from killing Miami.

None of it has worked.

Where T.J. McDonald does his best work, aside from the aforementioned boost to the running game, is in the short passing game. In this GIF, you’ll see McDonald play what essentially equates to a SAM linebacker position. He takes a short drop, passes off the tight end up the field, recognizes the weak side crosser, and closes it down with a big hit.

Although he is often too deep in his set-up/drop, (it’s impossible to know if that’s scheme based or trying to compensate for shortcomings), it gives the Dolphins flexibility in terms of disguising coverage.

Here, he shows a two-deep look initially, then flashes down just beyond the hook zone into quarters coverage, a package Miami runs frequently.

Doing the opposite this time, he shows a box presence and bails out at the snap.

Playing over the tight end allows Miami a variety of cover options both to the flats and carrying the tight end up the seam. Here, McDonald lurks off the strong side of the formation, but takes the back to the flat with a strong jam, disrupting his route.

Where Jones has McDonald beat as a safety, is as a pass rusher. While Jones often explodes off the snap count, McDonald has a more tentative look to his blitzing style.

Ideally, the Dolphins would incorporate some more dime packages into their sub-defense look. However, Miami has run the dime defense onto the field exactly zero times this season (pre-season included, when McDonald was active).

With Kiko Alonso struggling in man coverage against more skilled tight ends (Jared Cook), it would behoove the Dolphins to look to replacing him in obvious passing downs. Dropping McDonald into the box, while giving rookie Maurice Smith center field duties, could maximize the pass defense’s potential.

For now, the Dolphins figure to use Jones and McDonald in interchangeable roles.


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Travis is a lifelong Dolphins fan that bases his writing on film study and analytical statistics. His passion for football is rivaled only by his passion for journalism. Specializing in all things Miami Dolphins and quarterback play, Travis also owns and operates, a QB grading site.


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