There was harassing pressure. There was stout play against the run. There were takeaways. The Dolphins’ defense was as advertised in the team’s 23-10 opening day win over the Cleveland Browns.
The front seven relentlessly got after quarterback Brandon Weeden to the tune of six sacks, running back Trent Richardson was held to a mere 47 yards on the ground and cornerbacks Dimitri Patterson and Nolan Carroll combined for three interceptions.
It was the type of dominance that had Dolphins fans and NFL pundits alike questioning if Miami had itself an elite defense. Since then, those questions have shifted to if the unit is even above average, however.
Injuries piled up for Kevin Coyle’s defense during the first five games of the season, and the result has pushed the group’s total defense ranking to the middle of the pack.
The star of Week 1, Dimitri Patterson, hasn’t played a snap since with a groin injury, one of the league’s most productive pass rushers in Cameron Wake has sat out most defensive plays during the past three weeks with a knee injury and Paul Soliai, Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi, Chris Clemons and Nolan Carroll have all nursed injuries at some point.
With a great offense, the Dolphins’ play defensively thus far would suffice. But Miami’s offense is far from great at the moment. It is struggling to run the football and protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which is putting the pressure on the Dolphins’ defense to step up and dominate football games.
If Mike Sherman’s offense can begin to protect Tannehill more consistently in the final 11 games, I don’t doubt the second year passer’s ability to lead the Dolphins to the playoffs. But given how miserably the offensive line failed to do so during the first five games, the team’s defense should take it upon itself to live up to its potential and become an elite unit.
The good news is the defense is returning to full strength. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Paul Soliai and $35 million middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe both sat out practice on Monday afternoon in Davie. But Soliai was reportedly just dealing with an illness and should play in Week 7. Ellerbe, meanwhile, told reporters after the workout that he still expects to play on Sunday despite the shoulder injury he suffered during Miami’s loss to Baltimore.
Two players that were practicing on Monday, Cameron Wake and Dimitri Patterson, should make the Dolphins a much more capable defensive team.
After the six sacks Miami managed in Cleveland, it has only produced seven in the four games since. And the biggest reason for the drop off in pressure has been that Wake, who recorded 37.5 sacks during his previous three seasons, has been on the sideline.
The Dolphins haven’t missed Patterson as much as most thought they would, as Nolan Carroll has actually resembled a starting-caliber cornerback, but he would certainly be a huge upgrade over Jimmy Wilson in the nickel spot.
More pressure and better coverage will help the defense’s cause, but more needs to happen for the unit to live up to it’s potential than simply getting healthy. There are several members of the defense that must live up to their potential individually.
At linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler — two free-agent acquisitions from the offseason that cost a combined $61 million to sign — have underwhelmed.
Ellerbe had an impressive 40 tackles in the first five games, but his tackles need to happen closer to the line of scrimmage during the remaining games of the season. He hasn’t been the disruptive force against the run he projected to be and only has one fumble recovery to his name as far as game-changing plays go.
As for Wheeler, the former Colts and Raiders linebacker was actually ranked as the league’s worst 4-3 outside linebacker according to Pro Football Focus before a decent effort versus the Ravens. He can’t afford to keep missing tackles and getting burnt in coverage if he has any hope of becoming one of the Dolphins’ better defensive players.
Ellerbe and Wheeler have both played at a high level in the past, though. There’s obviously a reason they were such sought after free agents. If they can both begin to settle in with their new team and system and can fight any complacency they may have from earning big-money contracts back in March, they should be much more effective as the season progresses.
Two other defensive starters who have underperformed are Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons at safety.
Jones was arguably a top five safety in the entire NFL in 2012. He flew to the football, was solid in coverage and made game-changing plays. Other than the fluky interception return touchdown he should credit to Dion Jordan’s pressure in Week 5, however, Jones has been picked on in coverage and hasn’t dominated a game like he frequently was able to do a year ago.
Like Ellerbe and Wheeler, Jones must combat any complacency that has come with the near $30 million extension he received before the season.
Jones’ partner-in-crime, Chris Clemons, has also been a disappointment. After a career year in 2012, in which he recorded nearly 100 tackles and intercepted two passes, Clemons hasn’t been a difference maker through five games this season and is only on pace for 76 tackles.
Although he’s yet to miss any game action, Clemons has been limited at practice this season with hamstring and glute injuries. Returning to full strength after the bye week could help Clemons resurrect his performance.
Having Jones and Clemons return to form would substantially improve the Dolphins’ defense.
Not all of the unit’s ability to live up to its potential is on the players, though. There has been a head-scratching personnel decision that could be holding the defense back.
First-round pick Dion Jordan has only played 25 percent of the team’s defensive snaps through five weeks. Yes, he was being eased along after re-injuring the shoulder he had operated on during the offseason. But the fact that Jordan played a significant role on special teams during the first five games, tells me he’s ready for more snaps on defense.
Despite limited action, Jordan has been a difference maker on defense. He’s pressured the quarterback and forced an interception versus the Ravens by getting his hand on the football while Joe Flacco was in his throwing motion.
A healthy Cameron Wake rushing from the left side and Jordan rushing from the right side far more often, could be the formula for one of the league’s fiercest pass rushes.
As a whole, the Dolphins’ defense is currently ranked a very respectable 13th in total yards. But considering the team has played one less game than most given its early bye week, Miami actually ranks a much more revealing 25th in yards conceded per contest.
The 288 passing yards the unit is giving up on average isn’t going to cut it. The 4.0 yards per carry opponents have managed against Miami’s front seven isn’t going to cut it, either, especially considering the Dolphins possess one of top three-man defensive tackle rotations in football.
Kevin Coyle’s defense is capable of much more. And if a much healthier defense doesn’t begin to resemble the group that dominated in Cleveland, versus an ailing Bills team that will likely start a quarterback with two career starts under his belt this coming Sunday, there will no longer be any excuses for the unit.