By: Chip Turner
PART I from 2/11/21
Part II - DEFENSE
This is the second of a three-part series on moves the Dolphins need to make to get to the point that they can play for a championship. For part one, go here: https://www.phinmaniacs.com/articles/the-road-to-the-top-how-do-the-dolphins-get-there-from-here-part-i-offense.
The Miami Dolphins Defense made tremendous strides from 2019 to 2020. Before the season-ending blowout loss at Buffalo, (I’m sorry, this is the last time I’ll reference that), they were leading the NFL in points allowed. Their “bend but don’t break” defense was tremendously effective until that point, and the “amoeba” front that Flores and Boyer unleashed on occasion gave QBs fits. As a semi-direct consequence of the amoeba defense, Jimmy Garoppolo was benched, Jared Goff relocated to Detroit, and Justin Herbert shaved his head and joined a cult.
The defense finished in the top half of the league in sacks and QB pressures, and led the league in takeaways. More importantly, despite being only average in yards allowed both on the ground and through the air, the team was particularly adept at not allowing opponents to score; their opponents scored on just 30.7% of their drives, the fourth-best percentage in the league.
Still, there’s work left to be done if the defense is going to be a championship-level unit.
One of the more underrated position groups on the entire roster, the Dolphins DL was primarily used in a 3-4 front, with enough wrinkles and looks to keep opposing OCs scratching their heads. Without a great deal of flash, Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah, Raekwon Davis and Zach Sieler provided a solid rotation, even after Davon Godchaux was injured. (Note – I listed Shaq Lawson as a LB for the purposes of this article; I’m aware he was used in multiple fronts.)
What’s interesting about this is that Flores and Boyer used each of the Linemen to the best of their abilities. While Ogbah had nine sacks on the year, some of his success can certainly be attributed to the defensive scheme. Sieler has proven excellent at penetrating a line and causing disruption, Davis made huge strides in his rookie year as a behemoth who regularly occupied two O-linemen, and Christian Wilkins continued his growth in his sophomore season.
2021 Outlook: I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The Defensive Linemen in this scheme are doing what they’re asked to do; stop the run and occupy blockers, allowing LB to wreak havoc.
As much as this is true, imagine what Flores could do with a monster pass-rusher at DE. That time may come, but I don’t think it will happen in 2021. Davon Godchaux might be re-signed, but I wouldn’t expect much activity here besides a depth signing or late-round draft pick.
This is where the fun starts. Shaq Lawson, Andrew Van Ginkel, Kyle Van Noy and Jerome Baker just had fun this past year. While the D-Line held up blockers, these four collected stats. Lawson and Van Ginkel both rumbled for defensive scores, and Van Noy and Baker collected 13 sacks between them. Thanks to Boyer and Flores, these guys got to capitalize on the opportunities created for them in the trenches.
Here’s the thing: I’m of the opinion that the biggest thing this defense is missing, the thing that could launch this team from “dangerous” to “I’ll tune in just to watch this defense play” is a dominant MIKE linebacker. And at present, the Dolphins simply don’t have one. While Jerome Baker has tons of speed, he doesn’t have the size to take on blockers. While Free Agent Elandon Roberts was a missile against the run, he was a liability in coverage.
2021 Outlook: I believe that the Dolphins will make an addition here. While Lavonte David might be on the radar as a free agent (and I’d like the signing), I don’t think he’s a long-term solution at the position. Where there are a few solutions is in the 2021 NFL Draft. Micah Parsons would be a welcome addition, although recent rumors of off-field behavior are…troubling, and he’s likely going to be drafted in the top half of the first round anyway. Nick Bolton is a tremendous option at ILB, but he’s slightly undersized for the MIKE – and the same could be said for Chazz Surratt.
Enter Zaven Collins. If the Dolphins trade down from pick #3 and acquire more draft capital, and Zaven Collins is still on the board near the end of the first round, he’d be the perfect pick. He’d make the Dolphins Defense a must-watch every Sunday.
This might be the strongest position group on the entire team. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones make up one of the better cornerback tandems in football, with Jones proving somewhat less effective than in 2019 after transitioning from zone coverage to press man. Bobby McCain is underrated at safety, Nik Needham and Eric Rowe flashed ability despite inconsistent years, and Brandon Jones progressed nicely as the year went on.
This brings us to Noah Igbinoghene, whom much of the Dolphins fan base have labeled a bust after extremely limited use. Almost all of his snaps came in the second and third games of the season, after an offseason with no training camp, as a rookie, who only played the position for two years in college. Oh, and he was literally the youngest player in the NFL.
Igbinoghene wasn’t used much at slot because of the emergence of Nik Needham. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing. I’m firmly of the opinion that Igbinoghene is being groomed as a boundary corner as an eventual replacement for Howard or Jones. He was drafted as a pick that pays off in 2022, not in 2020.
2021 Outlook: This group has been heavily invested in over the past year. Defensive backs are imperative to Miami’s defensive scheme, but I don’t believe they will sign anyone else in Free Agency. Safety help in the draft wouldn’t surprise me, particularly after the issues the team had slowing down larger Tight Ends.
Up next, Part III – Coaching and Special Teams.