One of the "easiest" predictions many made about the Miami Dolphins this offseason was that it would be tough to run the ball against them.
Apparently the NFL hasn't received that memo, as the Dolphins' run defense has vastly underachieved in 2013, as they currently are ranked 23rd in that category, allowing 4.2 yards per carry on the season.
Along with their embarrassing rank against the run comes this: Out of 13 games this season, in eight of them the Dolphins have allowed teams to run for over 100 yards, with three of those teams running for over 150 yards in the game.
This is a crisis on the defensive side of the ball, one that's only magnified by the fact that in 2012 they were ranked 13th against the run, while in 2011 they were ranked third.
To make matters worse, this season has seen a vast improvement in the Dolphins' secondary, which is ranked 13th in the NFL in yards allowed with only four quarterbacks passing for over 300 yards (each of those quarterbacks are either household names or have had playoff success: Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton and Ben Roethlisberger).
|New York Jets||22||99||4.5|
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus
So how do the Dolphins strengthen their porous defense against the run in the offseason for 2014? What options are available to the team?
The first step would be for the Dolphins to re-sign two of their biggest impending free agents: Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Odds are the Dolphins will only choose to keep one, and if they do that their best bet would be Soliai. Losing both would be a disaster and would force the Dolphins to completely rebuild their defensive line, which despite their troubles against the run have remained the strongest and deepest unit on the team.
Re-signing one (or both) of their interior defensive linemen is step one to fixing the problem. Step two calls for the continued development of their 2013 first-round draft pick.
Dion Jordan hasn't played too many snaps for Miami in 2013, partly because of his troubles against the running game, as reported by The Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. But that was as a defensive end, where he was beaten out in camp by Olivier Vernon, who himself has been good against the run in addition to his 11.5 sacks on the season.
So what should the Dolphins do with Jordan? The best place for him would be as a weak-side linebacker in Miami's 4-3 scheme, lined up right behind Cameron Wake. This not only gives Miami athleticism that seems to be missing from the linebacker spot (which should equate to better success stopping the run), but also gives Miami another effective pass-rusher on the field who at times can also drop back into coverage to cover the tight end.
As we see Jordan develop more each week, it's also apparent that he's better suited as a linebacker than as a defensive end and can develop into an even better weak-side linebacker than Miami's current WLB, Philip Wheeler.
Speaking of linebackers, they tend to be the crux of Miami's problems in terms of stopping the run. The Dolphins have been rather boom-or-bust when it comes to defending against the run, as there are times when a player is knocked down behind the line of scrimmage against Miami (usually by a defensive lineman), followed by a large run.
Getting Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler more accustomed to the Dolphins defense in 2014 might help a little bit, however if I were to pick which one would be more likely to improve, it would be Ellerbe, as Wheeler is currently ranked 31 out of 33 4-3 linebackers according to Pro Football Focus (h/t Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post).
Using both linebackers in a linebacker rotation along with Dion Jordan, Koa Misi, rookie Jelani Jenkins as he continues to develop and draft pick X from 2014 would help the linebackers remain fresh on the field, thus limiting the missed tackles that you often see from the Dolphins.
The draft is where the Dolphins can also fortify their run defense by drafting a defensive tackle and a linebacker at some point.
I wouldn't recommend a first-rounder get spent on either of those positions unless the best defensive tackle or linebacker available are head-and-shoulders ahead of the best offensive tackle or guard available, but I would invest in both positions on the second and third days of the draft (preferably players used to the 4-3 scheme used by Kevin Coyle).
If the right picks are made, then not only would you improve Miami's run defense in 2014, but you would also improve Miami's future—an important thing to remember when you consider that Randy Starks and Paul Soliai aren't getting any younger.
The Dolphins have the talent within the organization already to improve their run defense and just need to focus on keeping that talent while fortifying the linebacker and defensive tackle positions with a little bit of new blood. No need for any flashy signings, save for retaining the players that the Dolphins already have.
If they can do that along with continuing to develop the players they already have at those positions, then Miami's run defense will be just as improved in 2014 as their secondary has been in 2013.