Breaking Down Miami Dolphins' Issues at Linebacker in 2013

Andrew Tornetta@AndrewTornettaCorrespondent IIJanuary 24, 2014

In one season, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler went from prized acquisitions to major free agent busts.
In one season, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler went from prized acquisitions to major free agent

It's no secret that both Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler had extremely disappointing seasons for the Miami Dolphins in 2013.

In a recent article where I handed out grades for each Dolphins player, Wheeler received an F for his play this season while Ellerbe didn't fare much better, getting a D+.

We all saw the duo struggled in 2013, but the question all Dolphins fans want to know is why they struggled.

After all, the two signings were met with overwhelming praise as the Dolphins seemed to get younger and faster at two pivotal positions. 

In Baltimore, Ellerbe was next in line to fill the shoes of the retiring Ray Lewis. He was rated as the best linebacker on the free agent market by Sports Illustrated's Peter King and the Dolphins signing him appeared to be a huge steal.

The Wheeler signing wasn't met with the same amount of notoriety but was still seen as a solid upgrade for Miami. Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke wrote the following about the move:

How much of an upgrade Wheeler will be over either Misi or Burnett remains to be seen, but the 28-year-old Wheeler enjoyed an impressive 2012 and entered free agency with a great deal of momentum. He is competent in all aspects of linebacker play; he’d be able to play outside in the Dolphins’ current 4-3 or possibly jump inside, should they slide back to a 3-4.

I gave Miami a “B” for the Ellerbe signing, and Wheeler looks like a better fit for the Dolphins’ current defense. This is another heavy commitment, but Wheeler should be worth it.

So what changed for the two linebackers from 2012 to 2013? How did they go from prized acquisitions to a pair of free agent busts in just one season?

For starters, they seemed to be lost in Kevin Coyle's 4-3 defensive system.

This past season was Ellerbe's first in a 4-3 defense and it was also Wheeler's third straight season playing in a new system.

Take a look at this tweet from Pro Football Focus prior to last season, which compared Ellerbe and Wheeler with Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, the two players they replaced.

So Ellerbe went from a pretty solid 6.2 grade in 2012 against the run to an abysmal -17 in 2013, third worst among all inside linebackers.

Wheeler, meanwhile, has never been a good run-stuffer but still was just slightly below average in that regard in 2012 with a -1.7 grade. But in 2013, he was just as bad as Ellerbe, posting a -16.8 grade, the second worst among outside linebackers.

More than any other position on the defense, linebackers must be extremely instinctive. In a split second you have to know if the play is a run or pass and you must know where you should be at all times.

The problems for Ellerbe and Wheeler seemed to be that they were simply thinking too much, and if a linebacker hesitates at all, they will almost always be out of position. 

Take a look at this play from Miami's Week 16 game against the Buffalo Bills. On 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Fred Jackson takes a read-option handoff up the middle for a touchdown. You can watch the full play here.

At the snap of the ball you can see that everyone on the defense is doing their jobs perfectly. Olivier Vernon (50) has the right side sealed off in case the quarterback keeps it, while Koa Misi (55) and Cameron Wake (91) are setting the edge on the left side.

Meanwhile, Randy Starks (94) and Paul Soliai (96) are both eating up two blockers, leaving two gaping holes that Ellerbe (59) and Wheeler (52) need to fill without hesitation.

However, the problem on this play, as was the problem all season, is that they did hesitate. Instead of filling the holes hard, they waited that extra split second and ended up getting stuck behind both Starks and Soliai. 

Instead of running free at the ball carrier, they both got caught behind a defensive tackle that was clogging up two offensive lineman.

This means that the middle is now wide open and Jackson can follow his blocker right to the end zone, not getting touched until Chris Clemons eventually hits him at the 2-yard line.

Now if this type of play was done by a pair of practice squad linebackers in a preseason game, I would simply brush it off and say that they just aren't any good.

But the fact is that Wheeler and especially Ellerbe have both proven to be quality linebackers in the NFL. Neither one was this bad with his previous team so there is no reason they should be this bad with the Dolphins.

Linebackers need to read and react to every play; they don't have time to think about where they should go next. When they think you get the result you see above, with both linebackers stuck in no man's land with no chance at making a play on the ball.

Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi stroll the field prior to a game early in the season. Among the three, Misi was the only one that played well this year.
Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler and Koa Misi stroll the field prior to a game early in the season. Among the three, Misi was the only one that played well this year.Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel

With both linebackers almost guaranteed to be back and starting next season thanks to their contracts—the duo is owed a total of $11 million guaranteed in 2014—their improvement is going to be critical to how good the Dolphins defense can be in 2014.

So what needs to happen?

First off, getting another season in Coyle's defensive system will be a huge help. As will working with Mark Duffner, the Dolphins' new linebacker coach.

Duffner has already taken on the task of getting the most out of Ellerbe and Wheeler next season, via Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post.

The next step is to put them in the best positions to succeed. For example, as atrocious as Wheeler's season was, he still excelled in rushing the passer, ranking behind only Von Miller among 4-3 outside linebackers with 23 hurries.

He registered pressure on opposing quarterbacks once every 4.5 pass plays, which was the best on the team. The problem was he only rushed the passer on 12 percent of his snaps.

This was due in large part to the scheme the Dolphins ran, but if you have a guy that is that lethal in getting to the quarterback, the coaches need to do a better job of taking advantage of that.

Instead, Wheeler was dropped back into coverage on 45 percent of his snaps, where he was terrible. When matched up in man coverage, Wheeler allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 72.3 percent of passes thrown at him for three touchdowns and a 108.7 QB rating.

Ellerbe on the other hand, was pretty solid in coverage, holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 73 quarterback rating when targeting him while also picking off a pair of passes. But as previously mentioned, he was dreadful against the run.

The bad news is that the Dolphins will head into next season likely starting two of the worst-rated linebackers of the 2013 season. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Ellerbe was ranked 50th of 55 inside linebackers, while Wheeler ranked dead last among 35 outside linebackers.

But the good news is that it's very unlikely they can possibly play much worse in 2014.

The great news is that if Ellerbe and Wheeler can play anywhere close to the level that they were expected to play at when they were brought in, the Dolphins will boast one of the best defenses in the NFL.

With two hefty contracts to live up to, 2014 will be the ultimate test in whether the much maligned duo has what it takes to step up to the challenge and deliver.


Andrew Tornetta is a correspondent for Bleacher Report. Check out his B/R archive and follow him on Twitter @AndrewTornetta.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats come from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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