The Miami Dolphins will square off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night in a game that will serve as a dress rehearsal for a regular season that begins in two weeks. Both first teams on each side of the ball are expected to play much of the game’s first three quarters.
We’ve gotten a glimpse at who the 2013 Dolphins will be in the first three preseason games, but Saturday night will be our most-extensive sneak peek.
Here are the team’s three biggest reasons for optimism and concern on the defensive side of the ball as the regular season draws near (We took a look at the offense on Thursday):
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM…
1. Defensive line one of league’s best
What was already one of the NFL’s top interior defensive lines got even better when the Dolphins moved Jared Odrick to defensive tackle after playing on the edge in 2012. Odrick, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai will provide Miami with a stout three-man rotation that should stuff the run and produce a solid interior pass rush.
But it’s the hope that the Dolphins finally have another edge-rushing threat to pair with Cameron Wake which serves as the biggest reason for optimism on the front four. We already know Miami has one of the league’s best defensive ends in Wake. He deserves to be mentioned in the same class as J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith, who are widely considered to be the top two edge rushers in football, and he’s also a relentless edge-setter when defending the run.
But for Kevin Coyle’s defense to be an elite one, Wake will need some assistance in 2013. Oliver Vernon is expected to be a more polished rusher in his second season and has locked up the starting right defensive end spot. And when first-round pick Dion Jordan is deemed healthy enough to compete, he’ll give the Dolphins an athletic freak who can be moved all over the field on third downs with the intent of making life difficult for quarterbacks.
Of the two, either Vernon or Jordan needs to emerge as a potential double-digit sack artist for the Dolphins’ defense.
2. Dannell Ellerbe looks to be a difference maker at linebacker
Some experts hold the opinion that the Dolphins overspent when they signed Dannell Ellerbe to five-year, $35 million deal in March — an overrated linebacker, who was only propelled to a big-money contract because the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
Ellerbe hasn’t played much during the first three weeks of exhibitions, but I see a difference maker when I watch him on film. He’s fast, instinctive and violent, which projects him to be a huge upgrade in the middle of the Dolphin defense this season.
Karlos Dansby was solid in that role last year, but rarely made game-changing plays. Ellerbe has the potential to be dominant, and should help improve the pass rush as an established blitzer.
To be an elite defense in 2013, the Dolphins will be banking on Ellerbe playing up to his $35 million contract. He’s passed the eye test thus far.
3. Brent Grimes could be shutdown corner defense has been missing
The Dolphins have been looking for a shutdown corner since the days of Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain. They likely don’t have two, but they could finally have one in Brent Grimes.
Grimes has been everything the Dolphins could have possibly hoped he would be returning from an Achilles injury that sidelined him all of last season.
He appears to be just as good as he’s ever been, locking up any receiver he’s matched up with and oftentimes getting his hands on the football with a deflection or pick when a quarterback tries to test him. The interception he came down with last Saturday night in Houston was a phenomenal display of instincts and athleticism.
I’m not sold on the opposite boundary corner, whether it’s Dimitri Patterson, Nolan Carroll or one of the rookies, but I’m expecting a Pro-Bowl caliber season from Grimes. Lockdown coverage on the perimeter would allow the Dolphins’ front seven to be a more aggressive unit.
The only concern? Grimes is under contract for only one season in Miami, and will likely require a lucrative, multi-year deal next offseason to retain.
1. Nolan Carroll’s projected role in nickel package
The Dolphins saved some future cap space by parting ways with cornerback Richard Marshall, but in doing so, they were forced to promote Nolan Carroll to the starting boundary spot in nickel and dime packages as Dimitri Patterson will rotate inside to cover the slot.
Carroll could eventually be replaced with either rookie — Will Davis or Jamar Taylor — but entrusting a first-year player with such a role would also be concerning. For now, Carroll is working with the starters.
Carroll started 10 games in 2012, but was far from starting caliber. An improved pass rush from the front seven could help mask some deficiencies in coverage, but Carroll is a liability on the perimeter if the Dolphins aren’t able to terrorize quarterbacks with consistently overwhelming pressure.
Yes, that will only be the case in the nickel and dime, but the Dolphins will likely deviate from their base defense just as often as they’ll line up in the 4-3.
2. Dion Jordan’s shoulder
The Dolphins’ first-round pick has showcased sublime explosiveness rushing from the edge in brief action this preseason, but that ability was recently put on the shelf for an undisclosed amount of time.
Dion Jordan re-injured a surgically repaired right shoulder against the Jaguars in preseason game number two, and it’s now being speculated that he could be forced to sit out the opener in Cleveland.
To be an elite defense in 2013, I firmly believe the Dolphins must find another consistent pass rusher opposite Cameron Wake. Maybe Oliver Vernon becomes that player, but Jordan’s potential to do so is far greater.
It would be foolish to rush him back, but it would definitely be a setback for the Dolphins’ defense if he isn’t ready to roll at the start of the season.
3. Possibility Dolphins struck out on Philip Wheeler
Like I mentioned above, I think the addition of Dannell Ellerbe makes the Dolphins’ defense a better one. I’m less convinced Philip Wheeler will be an upgrade over Kevin Burnett at weakside linebacker, however.
Wheeler certainly has the ability to be, as an all-around defender who can stuff the run, cover tight ends and rush the passer. If he’s the same player he was in Oakland last season, the Dolphins did well inking him to a five-year commitment.
The Georgia Tech product was nothing special in his first four seasons in the league with the Indianapolis Colts, though. General manager Jeff Ireland will certainly be accused of overspending if Wheeler proves to be nothing more than a one-year wonder.
But if the 28-year-old veteran remains the hungry, attacking player he was in Oakland, he becomes another reason why the Dolphins could have themselves a top-five defense in 2013.