The Task Of Improving Dolphins Defense


There is no Yeremiah Bell which leaves a hole at safety.  Cameron Wake wants a bigger contract and thus is staying away from the voluntary stuff at camp.  Koa Misi has yet to deliver a performance that a second round pick is expected to make and Paul Soliai who was to be the man leaving for a bigger deal returns to his team with less money and a scheme that he really doesn’t fit into.

Or does he?

The Miami Dolphins defense last year started the season ranked abysmally close to the bottom.  As the season wore on, and wore down the fans patience, the defense improved remarkably.  Some say that the lockout off-season really had a lot to do with the early turmoil on the defensive side of the ball.  LB Karlos Dansby showed up at camp overweight.  Newly signed LB Kevin Burnett couldn’t get on the same page as Dansby let alone anyone else.  Jason Taylor was back and despite his decreased production still outperformed Misi.

By seasons end, the Dolphins defense was back in the upper echelon.  Buoyed by their number 3 ranking against the run, the Dolphins finished their rise from the bottom to finish 15th overall but 26th against the pass.  The secondary has not been improved thus far in 2012 but the addition of new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle could change all that.

Coyle is not a clone of former DC Mike Nolan.  He doesn’t run a 34 defense but a 43.  He is coming off a solid year as the Bengals secondary coach where he helped the Bengals achieve a ranking of 9th against the pass and 7th overall.  Coyle however will be tasked with more than the secondary on his first go-around as a DC.  Is he the young and up and coming coach who will be Joe Philbins first branch on the future head coaching tree or will he fail to make the same impact he did in Cincinnati?

The first question is what will the Dolphins run?  While it appeared that the team was heading to a total shift to the 4-3 it now appears that Coyle and company will run a more hybrid defense that utilizes both formations depending on the opposing team and the game situations dictated.  So why would anyone believe that this will be the case?  Simply put the Dolphins don’t have the pieces in place to completely reconfigure the defensive side of the ball and frankly, they are not going to do it through this years draft.  There are too many holes to fill elsewhere.

In order to switch to the 43, the Dolphins would need an outside pass rusher who can also get back into coverage if needed.  The Dolphins have that in Cameron Wake but have no one on the other side.  Sure they could spend the 8th overall pick on a pass rushing DE/OLB but that won’t necessarily fix the problems.  Keving Burnett and Dansby both are inside guys.  Can one of them move outside?  Successfully?  Paul Soliai is a very serviceable and solid NT but can he move to the tackle position required in a four man front?

We already know that Jared Odrick and Randy Starks can play both but can Odrick play as a DT with the same consistency and upside he showed last year coming off the end?  Phillip Merling returns and has yet to show any type of consistency at the DE position.  The Dolphins currently have three defensive ends and three defensive tackles listed on their roster including Soliai and another NT as well.  It’s obvious they do not have all the pieces to make the defensive switch that will be necessary to move to a 4-3.  Especially when you consider the LB situation that features more interior backers than outside backers.  Even with the addition recently of Gary Guyton.

With the draft now down to 9 days away, the Dolphins will have to make the decision to either go offensively heavy (they need QB, WR, RT, and RG) or defensively where they need OLB/DE, CB, and safety.  The free agent signing of former Arizona Cardinal Richard Marshall could impact how the Dolphins approach the defensive side of the ball.  Marshall is capable of playing both corner and safety positions and under Kevin Coyle, he could be even better than he was last year with the Cardinals.

Obviously a lot of the success that the defense will have or not have will come down to injuries.  Last year the team was plagued by injuries in the secondary that forced starting CB Vontae’ Davis out for the first part of the season and with Davis out, Sean Smith continued to struggle.  Mike Nolan’s defense was not simple and it was really set up to put the corners on an island.  Using blitz schemes and stunts, the idea behind Nolan’s defense was to get to the QB quick, make him act fast and allow the corners to react.  The problem was the Dolphins couldn’t get enough pressure on the QB and the corners were left in the wind.  One of the reasons the team finished ranked 26th.

While Nolan’s schemes work well when pressure is able to be made, without that pressure there is little help in the secondary as many times he used disguised safety blitzes.  I can’t say what kind of approach Kevin Coyle will have on this defense as it is his for the first time and the approach in Cincinnati is only a blueprint to what he may or may not use.  I do expect a more streamlined secondary where the safeties and corners work together and thus an improvement in their production.  I also have to imagine the run stopping ability of the front four should also continue.  The question is can this team get to the passer?

While most of the pre-draft talk seems to center around the offense, the defense can’t simply be overlooked.  Those lovely mock drafts of Ryan Tannehill and Reuben Randle along with a right tackle and right guard are not going to happen.  I fully suspect a few “What’s and Who’s” come draft weekend.  The Dolphins very well may opt for Ryan Tannehill and round one and if they do, it’s a nod to the knowledge of Mike Sherman on the kid.  However, if the team opts instead for that big pass rushing specialist, the Dolphins may find their eventual transition to a 43 a lot smoother and this year defense a lot more productive out of the gate.

The Dolphins have a lot of options but they only have one selection in round 1.  Where they spend that pick will say more about this teams future direction than any other selection made in the last four years.