We looked at how the offense performed in Week 1 here, and now it is time to evaluate the defense.
After finishing the 2013 season as the NFL’s eighth-best scoring defense, the Dolphins continued to add talent through free agency and the NFL draft. Despite adding talent on every level of the defense, the unit still played sloppily and allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to complete all seven of his pass attempts and gain 53 yards.
The Dolphins defense also allowed rookie running back Devonta Freeman to gain 57 yards on a dump-off pass and struggled to stop Freeman on the ground, where he averaged five yards a carry.
To see where the Dolphins defense must improve as the team enters its second preseason game, we must turn to the film and evaluate how positional groups performed.
Let’s take a look at each positional group, in order from needing most improvement to least, and use illustrations to demonstrate what coaches will be looking to fix between games.
When defending the run, linebackers must have the ability to quickly read the flow of the offensive line and attack the open gaps to stop the ball-carrier at or around the line of scrimmage. This requires patience, discipline and intelligence. But it also requires physical explosion, strength and tackling technique.
If a linebacker is deficient in one or more areas of the required mental or physical traits, he will struggle to stay on the field for more than a few snaps a game.
If the first game is any indication of how the 2014 season will play out, the linebackers will be a liability to an otherwise talented defense. Just like 2013.
With Koa Misi moving from strong-side linebacker to middle linebacker and Dannell Ellerbe becoming the new strong-side starter, the Dolphins hope to fix their porous run defense.
Misi has been a successful strong-side linebacker for the last two seasons, logging a positive Pro Football Focus grade for both 2012 and 2013 (subscription required). His biggest strength is as a run defender because he has violent hands that disengage blocks with ease. Misi’s transition to the inside will require more instincts and play diagnoses than his role outside the tackle box.
In his first game at middle linebacker, Misi had so-so results. Misi was able to get into the backfield multiple times, including the play that you can see below. He correctly reads the front-side cut by Atlanta's running back and stays in his gap.
Although in position to finish the play and make the tackle at the line of scrimmage, Misi whiffs on the tackle because he gets too aggressive and loses tackling form. By lunging, the ball-carrier easily avoids the tackle and proceeds to gain five yards.
Misi’s never been much of a pass-rusher on passing downs, notching just two in 2013. Strong-side linebackers are the first to come off the field in sub-packages, such as nickel or dime, because they are better as run-stoppers. The Dolphins only blitzed their linebackers 11 percent of the time Week 1 when lined up in their base 4-3 defensive front. It’s impossible to know if defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was calling a vanilla defense, or if that should be expected in the regular season. The next play is an encouraging look for Misi as a pass-rusher.
Misi blows past the running back and tracks down quarterback Matt Ryan with ease to finish the sack. This type of pressure has to happen consistently on linebacker blitzes to take advantage of the deep defensive line the Dolphins have. Ellerbe couldn’t produce effectively in the role, as he only created six quarterback hurries throughout 2013.
To minimize Misi’s and Ellerbe’s snaps in pass defense, the Dolphins ran 46 percent of their defensive snaps in nickel formation, which swaps a linebacker out for an extra cornerback. Misi and Ellerbe each struggled greatly in coverage in 2013, so they shouldn’t be on the field on obvious passing downs.
Philip Wheeler was ranked as PFF’s worst 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013 because of his struggles against both the pass and the run. His performance against Atlanta failed to provide much hope for improvement. He only played 14 snaps but was flagged for a penalty and failed to set the edge in the run game. His penchant for looking lost in space and unable to locate the football has effectively opened the door for backups to compete for his starting job.
Unfortunately, the Dolphins have limited options to replace Wheeler at this point. Backup Jelani Jenkins was inconsistent in Week 1, as he was washed out of plays and missed multiple tackles. In this GIF, you’ll see why run diagnosis and understanding of spacing is so critical.
This next image is of the same run play. You’ll see Jenkins take a bad angle to confront the running back, but he is slow to get there and the back simply bounces toward the sideline for a huge gain.
Rookie linebacker Jordan Tripp showed the most promise of all backups. He lined up at middle linebacker and showed good diagnosis and tackling ability. He’s a very good athlete, which is a huge asset for the defense. He could slide over to the weak side and take Wheeler’s starting job, but he’s not a great pass-rusher. He’s better in coverage and has improved as a run defender since his days at Montana.
Overall, the linebackers for the Dolphins need to drastically improve. Their ability to make plays in the backfield is miniscule because of the lack of natural instincts and play diagnosis issues. The most disturbing deficiency is the horrible tackling displayed against Atlanta. The GIF shows two Dolphins linebackers lunge at poor angles, giving up 20 yards more than what was necessary.
There is no quick fix for the Dolphins, but Week 2 needs to feature a backup stepping up in a big way.
There aren’t many ways for the cornerbacks to improve upon from their Week 1 performance, despite the statistics indicating Ryan carved them up with ease. Coyle’s defensive scheme allows his cornerbacks to make aggressive breaks on the ball, but the most important part of the philosophy is to not allow big plays.
That might change in 2014, as the Dolphins signed cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Louis Delmas. Each is known for forcing turnovers, but they will get roasted for their aggressiveness at times, too. It’s a tradeoff that Coyle is willing to risk because of the poor linebacker play.
In this photo, you’ll see cornerback Will Davis breaking toward the receiver before the pass is thrown. Because of his anticipation, he breaks up the pass at the last second, saving a first down.
Since the Falcons didn’t pass downfield, there aren’t many concerns for the Dolphins’ secondary entering Week 2. Backup defensive backs Walt Aikens and Michael Thomas each missed tackles in the second half, but this is the first live action they’ve seen this year. Fundamentals need to be tightened because there is no excuse for missing tackles. But for coverage, the Dolphins did well and continued the success they had as a unit in 2013.
It’s an image of beauty when a defensive line is deep with pass-rushing talent, and this Dolphins front is loaded. Throughout the game, Miami's defensive line was able to create pressure, no matter which backups entered the game.
The starting unit of Cameron Wake, Earl Mitchell, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick played extremely well, opening gaps for linebackers to finish plays (it’s not the fault of the linemen if the linebackers do not execute). Their pass rush was solid despite not registering a sack.
The second- and third-string defensive linemen provided plenty of flashy plays. Rookie defensive lineman Terrence Fede showed off his tremendous athleticism throughout his 41 snaps. He’s raw and needs time to develop, but his burst off the snap and quickness are promising for being 6’4” and 282 pounds.
Although Anthony Johnson went undrafted, he also flashed the talent that once caused Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Dan Hope to call Johnson a potential first-round pick. He must gain consistency in effort and stay lower with his pads, but Johnson has so far shown at least the talent to stick on the practice squad for a deep defensive line group.
The Dolphins were one of the top defenses in the NFL in 2013 because of their defensive line and secondary, and they look to be led by those units once again. Each showed the ability to limit offenses and stall drives. That being said, the defense as a whole must improve its tackling and take better angles. A short pass cannot turn into a 57-yard catch-and-run because of missed tackles.
Week 2 is an opportunity for the defense to build more depth across the linebacker position and potentially find a player to replace Wheeler as the starter. Building from the fundamentals is the best way to earn snaps right now.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com.
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.