Previewing the Dolphins Game: The Defense

The Miami Dolphins ranked 12th in total defense in the NFL last year. That was primarily because they were 6th in the league against the pass. However they were 24th against the run.  If the rush defense was the primary deficiency, they have moved to correct it.

Despite their nice overall ranking, the Dolphins had their share of troubles last year. They were up and down throughout the season and many blamed defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle for the problem. For instance, after a blowout loss to the Chiefs in September last year, the Dolphins players were reportedly “beyond furious” with the defensive game plan and reporters could hear their vocal displeasure in the locker room after the game. Probably more concerning, the year ended on a down note as there was a significant defensive slide over the last six games where they were particularly poor against the run. Coyle said in the offseason “Finishing is the name of the game. This league, the competition is so fierce, so close, the good teams find ways to win in critical situations. And we need to do that. We need to do that better than we’ve done over the past three years to get from being an 8-8 team to the upper echelon of the league. It’s making plays in crunch time.” Coyle recognizes the problem. It remains to be seen if he understands the considerably more difficult task of finding the solution.

After much uncertainty, Coyle was retained by the team after the season and in the end, the Dolphins decided to correct their problems through him instead of without him. Evidently as a result, the Dolphins have simplified their defensive scheme this year. The claim was that the complexity of the defense stunted the growth of rookies and new players to the team. There have been veterans of the Dolphins who have openly complained about how complex the system was and how much thinking that was done on the field. Indeed, defensive rookies haven’t played much for the Dolphins and it apparently has nothing to do with head coach Joe Philbin’s preference. The defense was reportedly simply too difficult to learn in the first year, especially when you’re a rookie in the NFL.

The Dolphins play a standard 4-3 which, in its simplified form, will probably be similar to the type of front the Bears used over the past decade or more before this year. As most Bears fans will know, when you play such a defense, fundamentals are key. In that respect, the Dolphins have been emphasizing better tackling in the offseason, something that they were notably poor at last year. This will be something to watch on Thursday.

Building a Wall

Those putting together the Dolphins offense might not recognize that games are won and lost at the line of scrimmage. But they definitely have the right idea on defense. This is a rugged group headed by free agent addition Ndamukong Suh. Suh promises to improve the run defense and, perhaps as important, he may help provide for a better pass rush. Outstanding defensive end Cameron Wake promises to be the major beneficiary of the increased attention which Suh will command and Dolphin fans may reasonably expect the pass rush, and therefore the pass defense, to be significantly improved by this signing.

This offseason included questions about Suh’s commitment. Suh had a previous habit of not showing up for OTAs but its one thing not to want to spend months of your precious offseason in Detroit, it’s another thing altogether to pay a man $60 million guaranteed only to have him not show up for workouts in Miami. The Dolphins, somewhat concerned about it, dispatched Mike Tannenbaum to Portland, Oregon to check on their highest paid player. He was happy to find Suh working hard at the Nike state of the art facilities. Suh apparently was spending a great deal of this time there and the Dolphins were satisfied that their investment was safe, something Lions fans could have told them without spending the price of a plane ticket.

Suh has dominated defensive workouts in camp and he’s beaten right guard Billy Turner so badly that the Dolphins replaced him with third stringer Jacques McClendon yesterday at practice. As always, how Bears Pro Bowl right guard Kyle Long does against his familiar foe, Suh, will be entertaining to watch for both Dolphins and Bears fans, even if the stakes are somewhat lower than usual.

One other point worth noting.  The Dolphins signed C.J. Mosley, late in free agency.  He’s a veteran of 10 NFL seasons who was signed as physical, savvy depth.   But there has been a lot of concern over Moseley’s performance in camp.  He is languishing on the third team for the Dolphins and reportedly hasn’t stood out against third-team offensive players. Mosley should be dominating these players and he’s not.  No team stays 100% healthy over the course of the season and the Dolphins are counting on Moseley to perform this year as part of a defensive line rotation where he could eventually be called upon to take on a major role.  Mosely’s performance Thursday night will be something to keep an eye on.

Areas of Competition

Given the quality of the Dolphins run defense and the emphasis on improving the defensive line, this could be one heck of a front seven if they get their linebacker situation straightened out. The position is an area of wide open competition right now with weak side linebacker Jelani Jenkins as the only established starter. Jenkins became a starter in Week 2 last season after Koa Misi and opening-day starter Dannell Ellerbe both were injured in Week 1. He ended up leading the team with 108 tackles to go along with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

This year Misi, veteran Kelvin Sheppard and second year man Chris McCain are competing to be the other two of the best three linebackers on the team. Misi started last year and Sheppard has started 31 games for the Bills and Colts over his previous 4 year career but McCain has the length and athleticism that coaches look for in an outside linebacker and third-down pass rusher. Currently it looks like it will either be Misi at strong-side linebacker with Sheppard in the middle or McCain on the outside with Misi in the middle. This competition would be better addressed if Misi could stay healthy. He is currently not practicing with a calf injury. His durability is a concern.

The other competition of note for those watching Thursday night will be at cornerback opposite Brent Grimesfor the Dolphins. Jamar Taylor entered camp as something of a front-runner but he is being challenged primarily by free agent pickup Brice McCain. Taylor is a former 2013 second-round pick. He earned some valuable experience at the end of the 2014 season when he started three games in place of injured former cornerback Cortland Finnegan and played reasonably well. McCain has started 86 games over a six year career, most of which was played with the Houston Texans. These guys both look solid to me and it looks like one of those rare camp competitions where the Dolphins win either way.

Bottom Line

I didn’t have a lot of good things to say about a Dolphins offense that appears to have major problems along the offensive line yesterday. But I love this defense and, like Coyle, I’m having a hard time understanding why they slid so far late in the season last year. But I’ll say this. With the addition of Suh and reasonably solid starters everywhere I look, if these guys aren’t’ a wonderful unit to watch in 2015, Coyle should and will be fired. I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing what they do on Thursday night against a Bears offense which is good at the skill positions but which, to my eye, leaves a lot to be desired at the line of scrimmage. These guys are going to be a significant challenge for them.

Points to bear in mind while watching:

  1. Long Vs. Suh. ’nuff said.
  2. Will the Dolphins tackle better than last year.  This is something that’s going to be critical for them over the course of the season.  It’s probably the most common reason why otherwise talented defenses can under-perform.
  3. How will veteran C.J. Mosley look?
  4. Matt Forte (if he plays) and the other Bears running backs against the Dolphins linebackers. This could be an interesting match up as the linebackers in competition on the outside are assigned some reasonably good pass catchers out of the backfield.
  5. Will the Bears be able to run on what should be a much improved Dolphins run defense?
  6. Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and the rest of the Bears passing game against an excellent pass-defending unit. The Dolphins pass rush will be something both teams fans should be interested in keeping an eye on. Wake, in particular, has the potential to eat them alive if they don’t perform well.

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