Thu, 28 Jan 2021

Travis Wingfield

Establishing a shared aesthetic is crucial in any profession. Head Coach Brian Flores and Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer established commonalities over the course of a nearly decade-and-a-half-long relationship, and a similar affinity for the same play-style -- aggression.

"It's aggressive. He definitely has an aggressive mindset, which I like, Dolphins safety Eric Rowe said. "I like being the aggressor instead of being passive and kind of just playing back. He wants to dictate what the offense does, so kind of have the defense run the game. With any team, it doesn't matter; that's usually the game plan is be aggressive."

The "he" Rowe is referring to is Dolphins Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer, who calls the plays for the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL.

"I thought Josh called a great game," Flores said after the 20-3 win Sunday at the Jets. "He's done a great job really the entire year. I think oftentimes you give me too much credit. Josh has done a great job the entire year."

Under Boyer, the Dolphins defense is second in scoring (18.6 points per game allowed). Opposing quarterbacks have an 84.3 passer rating against the Dolphins this season (third-lowest) and the league's stingiest third-down defense (32.8 percent conversion rate allowed) with the third-most takeaways (19).

Perhaps name recognition prevents Boyer from getting his due. Hired as the defensive coordinator this offseason, Boyer's previous highest-ranking position was the same one he holds now as a defensive coordinator. His two jobs calling a defense, 13 years apart, are bookended by the job in Miami and his 2005 stop at the South Dakota School of Mines.

How did Boyer get from the South Dakota School of Mines to the New England Patriots, an NFL team with three Super Bowl titles in four years?

"Basically how it happened is Dean Pees was the linebackers coach for the New England Patriots, I believe in '04 and '05," Boyer said. "I coached for Dean at Kent State. I was a graduate assistant. I worked heavily with the secondary with him, pretty closely with him, and after the '05 season, Dean was made the defensive coordinator at New England and he called."

That's where Boyer met Flores - and the two have been working together ever since. That budding relationship led to a conversation 14 years later to broach the topic of promoting Boyer from cornerbacks coach and defensive passing game coordinator to the man in charge of the entire defense.

"This was pre-pandemic," Boyer said. "It was just after our season. We had some people coming over to our house and it was a pretty quick conversation. 'Flo' - obviously we've known each other for a long time and he basically just kind of said, 'hey, I'm thinking about this.' I said, 'yeah, that's great.' I said, 'whatever you need, whatever you want me to do.'"

And that was that. Boyer accepted his job and went to work on installing their version of a multiple, aggressive defense. Flores talked about their relationship and all the years of experience working together on Wednesday.

"I've worked with Josh for a long time," he said. "He's a very good teacher of the game, he's got a lot of good knowledge. We've had years worth of conversations about defense and coverage and structures and fronts and protections and pressures ... I thought he would do a great job and I think he is doing that."

One veteran safety has played under Boyer (and Flores) for the majority of his career. Wednesday, Eric Rowe offered his perspective on what makes Boyer qualified and accomplished at his craft.

"The attention to detail is really the same as 'Flo.' Him and 'Flo' are basically the same person. They have the same mindset. The energy they bring every day, the attention to detail within the defense. Any scheme, technique, fundamentals, all of that."

With leadership positions and one former pupil in Rowe in place, the Dolphins went to work adding more talent, experience and youth to the defense. Two of the imported products Flores and Boyer set their sights on were linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts.

Wednesday, Flores spoke to the Cincinnati media about the acquisition of a pair of players he had pre-existing relationships with, akin to that of he and Boyer's history.

"It's always nice to get guys that you've worked with before," Flores said. "And in a lot of ways, those guys, they become - you said 'sergeants,' but they find leadership roles within the team. They understand how I'm wired, for sure, personally, because obviously I've had personal relationships with a couple of these guys I'm referencing. Elandon Roberts is part of that as well. And they can kind of share some of that history with the guys who don't know me as well. I think that's been good. So when I lose it on someone, they can tell them, 'that's not as bad as it was.' So that part of it has been good."

The groundwork for this Dolphins defense began long before 2020, however. Boyer, cornerbacks coach and defensive passing game coordinator, did something that's become commonplace among his previous cornerback coaching stops.

When Malcolm Butler went from undrafted free agent to Super Bowl hero in 2014, Boyer was his position Coach. When J.C. Jackson went undrafted in 2018, he signed to play in New England under Boyer's tutelage. Now, Jackson is second in the NFL's with six interceptions (behind Miami's Xavien Howard), giving him 14 in his three-year career.

It took Boyer all of three months to uncover another solid undrafted cornerback with the Dolphins. Nik Needham wasn't picked in the 2019 draft out of the University of Texas El Paso, but signed with Miami after the draft.

At a press conference last November, Flores detailed the discovery and initial thought of Needham through his first round of organized team activities as a rookie.

"Josh Boyer, it's March and he goes, 'I think I've got a kid from UTEP who's pretty decent,'" Flores said. "When he says 'pretty decent' that means he's probably pretty good."

And Needham has been pretty good for the Dolphins this year.

Among cornerbacks with at least 20 targets against from the slot position, Needham's 77.2 passer rating allowed is the third-best in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus).

"Last year at training camp, he was undrafted, and he was out there making plays ... Fast forward to now, he can play inside-outside," Rowe said of Needham. "He always has the tough task of - whether it's covering (Jamison) Crowder in the slot, I think this week Tyler Boyd's in the slot and he's a really good receiver. (Nik is) always up to it. So his development, he's a key piece of this defense."

The entire secondary - under Flores, Boyer and Defensive Backs Coach Gerald Alexander - has turned things up a notch. Among Miami's top five players in terms of snaps played in the defensive backfield (Howard, Needham, Byron Jones, Eric Rowe and Bobby McCain), the collective passer rating against is just 71.2.

Mirror that coverage with an unrelenting, teamwork-oriented pass rush, and that's how the Dolphins have climbed near the top of the leaderboard in some of the game's most important statistical categories.

Twelve Dolphins have at least a half of a sack and five or more quarterback pressures. Eleven different members of the Miami defense have had a hand in the 19 turnovers (interception, forced or recovered fumble).

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