The most surprising aspect of the 2014 season for the Miami Dolphins was the collapse of a once stout run defense. This was very surprising because the starting defensive line remained intact for the majority of the season. It is my opinion that fixing the run defense is the number one priority this offseason. In this article, I am going to explore what I think were the primary issues and what I think needs to be done.
I think it is important to understand the struggles were not related to one player. It was several factors. The first factor is the change in our personnel from offseason moves and injuries. Over the last two years, we swapped Kevin Burnett for Philip Wheeler and Karlos Dansby for Dannell Ellerbe. These moves proved to be very significant downgrades. We also released Paul Soliai and replaced him with Earl Mitchell. Although Earl Mitchell hustles hard and is better at shooting through a gap, he simply was not able to anchor in the trenches against offensive lineman on a consistent basis.
When the season started, it had already been recognized that Ellerbe was not a natural run stuffing tackling machine in the middle. The team was unable to find a suitable player in free agency or the draft to man the middle of the field. So they turned to Koa Misi to try to cross train him over to play inside linebacker in what primarily was a 4-3 defense. Koa Misi did not look bad early on in the season but he sustained an ankle injury midway through and was never able to play at an effective level after that. Ellerbe was hurt early on and was replaced by Jelani Jenkins.
Although Jenkins played way above expectations, he still is on the small side for a linebacker and certainly more of an outside linebacker - not a tackling machine in the middle. In Miami’s scheme, they prefer to play defensive ends that are very good at rushing the passer and athletic enough to defend the pass. Cameron Wake, Olivier Vernon, and Dion Jordon are all very gifted football players.
However, Miami combined them with an interior that was a three man rotation of Randy Starks, Mitchell, and Jared Odrick. None of those players are really true offensive line gobbling massive run defenders. In fact, Odrick and Starks often played defensive end in a 3-4 scheme in the past. When you add this all together, you have small defensive ends, small defensive tackles, and a lack of talent and hard nose tacklers at the linebacker position. When you consider those factors, it is not surprising the Dolphins were not able to consistently stop the run.
Clearly, our undersized defensive front and bad tackling at linebacker contributed to our inability to stop the run. However, coaching also played a part. Coyle was unable to prepare our defense to maintain proper containment. This was exposed over and over through the season. He also had poor defensive calls or was not able to adjust players on several occasions that hurt us.
Ok, so we have identified several problems. I am sure that fixing this may seem daunting to Mike Tannenbaum and Dennis Hickey. However, the good news is the team is not in bad shape from a flexibility standpoint going into the offseason. Here is my arm chair review of options the team has.
Starting at the top, Joe Philbin has been an offensive coach throughout the majority of his career. Therefore, I tend to think that he does not get directly involved with how to manage the defense. That means the primary coach responsible for the defense is currently Coyle.
Coyle’s expertise is coaching the secondary. He did that for eight years for the Cincinnati Bengals prior to coming here. Therefore, it probably should not be all shocking that our run defense has gotten worse under his watch. I think there was enough avoidable mistakes on defense this year to point to Coyle as a problem. Do I think he is awful? No, I don’t think he is the glaring reason the team was 8-8. However, I do think you should upgrade your coaches the same way you upgrade your players when the opportunity is there.
I personally think Jim Schwartz would be a very good addition. He was a head coach for several years in Detroit and he did a sound job in Buffalo. Not to mention, Buffalo’s defense has had Miami’s number for the last two years. It would be nice to have him come and give some insight on how to fix that. His experience as head coach would be ideal on the defensive side. Philbin essentially needs a coach that completely manages the defense and Schwartz would have the back ground to do that very thing. You get the idea - I think they should be trying to sign him right now.
On the personnel side, I think without a doubt we need a true run stuffing defensive tackle and we need a tackling machine at middle linebacker. For this to happen, we have to consider freeing up salary cap space. Our options are to release Mitchell (before March), Starks, and/or do not re-sign \Odrick. I would prefer to keep Odrick, however, I know he is also going to cost the most and be 3-4 year upfront money commitment. I personally would let Mitchell go and keep Starks and Odrick since they can play inside or outside. But I am pretty impartial. Just one of the three needs to go and we need to replace them with a 325+ pound monster in the middle. Maybe someone like a Dan Williams of the Cardinals will free up now that Todd Bowels is leaving.
At linebacker, we have a lot of talent on and both weak and strong side linebackers. Dion Jodran, Chris McCain, and Jelani Jenkins all have great upside to them. Throw in Jordan Tripp who also has potential and you can see we are not in urgent need of a guy that can cover and rush the passer. I think it is time to consider letting Misi go to free up some cap space although if he would take a pay cut, I would like to have him back as a backup MLB and also a guy that can play on strong side linebacker. Drafting Benardrick McKinney would be a great move if he is on the board. He seems like the ideal player to plug at MLB.
So there you have it. Here are the three things this team needs to improve the defense.
1. A huge defensive tackle
2. A true hard nosed middle linebacker
3. Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator
It is all possible. We can only hope some or all of it happen.
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