Why Miami Dolphins' New-Look Defense Could Take the League by Storm
The Miami Dolphins offense stole the headlines this offseason, but the defense could be the story of the year in South Beach.
Whatever the situation, whatever the play, the Dolphins were up to the task Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.
There was pressure, there were sacks, there were stuffed runs, tipped passes, red-zone stops, third-down stops and more.
For the Dolphins defense, like most good defenses in the NFL, it all starts up front.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden was under duress all day and was pressured 30 total times (11 hurries, 13 hits and six sacks) on 59 total dropbacks.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Weeden was only under pressure on 27.7 percent of his dropbacks in 2012, so based on last year's performance, the Dolphins really did some damage to the Browns offensive line.
Defensive tackle Randy Starks and defensive ends Cameron Wake, Dion Jordan and Derrick Shelby all got an invite to the sack party.
Wake and Starks met at the quarterback on this 1st-and-15 with under two minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The Dolphins brought a five-man rush, with linebacker Dannell Ellerbe rushing as the fifth defender along with Wake, Starks, defensive tackle Jared Odrick and defensive end Olivier Vernon.
The Browns had enough players in protection (six) to pick up all of the rushers, but that didn't stop Wake and Starks from handily beating their assignments.
In fact, the two defensive linemen had done so within two seconds of the ball being snapped, and Wake had reached the quarterback 2.6 seconds after the ball was snapped. Only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning got the ball out of their hands quicker than 2.6 seconds on average in 2012, according to PFF.
Weeden helped the Dolphins pass rush by holding on to the ball too long at times, waiting for those long routes to develop—the Browns offensive line will have to get used to blocking a little longer with Norv Turner as its offensive coordinator.
At the same time, however, that could be attributed to good coverage downfield.
On a Browns 1st-and-10 in the fourth quarter, for example, Weeden was looking downfield for a big play.
He began his throwing motion, but he second-guessed himself and held on to the ball. It's unclear who he was intending to throw to, but there was blanketing coverage across the board.
After resetting, he began to throw again, and he would have had time, as the Dolphins brought just a four-man rush. However, the tight end didn't chip Shelby on his way into the backfield.
The whole operation took about 3.4 seconds, reasonably longer than what could be considered a coverage sack.
Sometimes, great coverage is the best way to get pressure up front.
The Dolphins can definitely tip a cap to cornerback Dimitri Patterson, formerly of the Browns, who was in position to make plays on the ball all day.
He finished the afternoon with two interceptions and this pass breakup on an out-breaking pattern intended for wide receiver Greg Little.
There was also immediate improvement in one key category: turnovers.
They made it a clear point of emphasis this offseason to create more turnovers on defense, and their plan unfolded exactly as scripted Sunday. Weeden was intercepted three times, and the Dolphins defense forced two fumbles (although they didn't recover either).
Two of the three interceptions were on passes that bounced off the hands of a Browns receiver, but that goes back to having ball-hawking defensive backs that can make plays on the ball. Credit Patterson again for keeping his head on a swivel on a pass dropped by Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.
The big tight end went up for the ball but couldn't corral it over his head.
That allowed Patterson to break on the ball, and he was able to make the diving interception.
Clearly, there's plenty to be excited about with the Dolphins defense.
Don't call it an overreaction to one strong performance—against the Browns, at that.
Call it a continuation of last year's strong defensive performance when the Dolphins ranked seventh in scoring, which was an extension of an exceptional 2011 campaign, when they ranked sixth.
Call it the culmination of a solid offseason's work by the Dolphins front office and coaching staff, who identified the weaknesses in an already-strong unit and made the right moves to bolster those weaknesses.
Call it a defense that will take the league by storm in 2013.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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