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Unlike Rome – Dolphins Defense Built In a Day

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 27: Miami Dolphins Defensive End Cameron Wake (91) celebrates after sacking San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) along with Miami Dolphins Linebacker Kiko Alonso (47), Miami Dolphins Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh (93) and Miami Dolphins Linebacker Jelani Jenkins (53) during the NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Miami Dolphins on November 27, 2016, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)

What the silver screen didn’t tell you about Brad Pitt’s Oakland Athletics in Moneyball was that Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder were bonafide all-stars.

So I won’t tell you too much about Cam Wake, Reshad Jones and Ndamukong Suh. The three are established superstars with Dolphins’ tenure in their own right.

The rest of Miami’s defense, however, was part of a two-year rebuild from 2015’s talent-barren group.

In 2016, Chris Grier was appointed as general manager under VP of football operations, Mike Tannenbaum. While the boss is known for his free-agent spending frenzies, Grier is a grinder that made his way through the scouting ranks. Serving as the club’s director of college scouting from 2007-2015, Grier paid his dues through some difficult years in Miami.

After a dreadful 2015 season that saw Miami overhaul the coaching staff, Grier and Tannenbaum set course on a two year rebuild. After free agency, trades, the draft, every resource imaginable exhausted, the Dolphins remade the group overnight.

Miami Dolphins Defensive Ranks 2015-2017

Year Scoring Defense Run Defense Pass Defense
2015 24.3 (19th NFL) 126.2 YPG (28th NFL) 250 YPG (21st NFL)
2016 23.8 PPG (15th NFL) 140.4 YPG (30th NFL) 242.2 YPG (15th NFL)
2017 16.8 PPG (3rd NFL) 80.4 YPG (4th NFL) 235 YPG (11th NFL)

The personnel from that 2015 team is enough to make any Dolphins fan queasy, for lack of a better word. The starting linebackers at year’s end were Neville Hewitt, Jelani Jenkins and Kelvin Sheppard.

Jamar Taylor, Brice McCain and a past-his-prime Brent Grimes roamed the secondary. A ragtag group of unknowns tried to fill the void left by the injured Cam Wake.

Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) injured his achillies in the third quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on October 29, 2015. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The 2016 NFL Draft saw the Dolphins select two players on defense (Xavien Howard in the second round and Jordan Lucas in the sixth).

Miami’s big splash came in a pre-draft trade that netted Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell from the Philadelphia Eagles. The latter has been relegated to a backup role in Miami, the former has earned a new contract with the Dolphins, and the admiration of Pro Football Focus (19th highest graded linebacker).

Andre Branch was added to the defensive end rotation, along with Mario Williams, to mitigate the loss of Olivier Vernon. Again, the latter did not work out, the former played his way into a contract extension. Still, Miami had to get better, particularly against the run.

Lawrence Timmons (6th highest graded linebacker on PFF), and Will Hayes (18th highest graded defensive end) were acquired via free agency and trade.

Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor were added in the 5th and 6th round of the draft, each has contributed to the defensive tackle rotation.

Charles Harris, the team’s first round pick, is getting more pressure on the quarterback with each game. He has already registered a game clinching sack when he dropped Matt Cassel and the Tennessee Titans.

Cordrea Tankersley was selected with a third round (97th overall) draft pick. No rookie has contributed more than Tankersley. He broke up the pass that led to a game-winning Reshad Jones interception in just his third career start. He has already earned higher marks that Xavien Howard and Byron Maxwell (via PFF).

Finally, the Miami defense welcomed back its emotional leader – and they showed it with financial compensation. Reshad Jones was given a 5-year contract extension worth $60 million and $35 million in guarantees.

Miami’s all-pro safety is making the Dolphins brass look smart with his versatile brand of football. After a slow-start, Jones has been a PFF top-five graded safety each of the last three games.

Then there’s Matt Burke. The rookie defensive coordinator is pushing all the right buttons. Dialing up more pressure, playing more aggressive coverages on the boundary, Burke is maximizing his defense’s potential.

Overloading the weak side with blitzes has freed up Cam Wake and Ndamukong Suh to wreak havoc. Wake has registered a sack in four consecutive games while Suh consistently sets up shop in the opposition’s backfield.

Miami’s rookie defensive coordinator, Matt Burke, is pushing all the right buttons in 2017.

With a defensive line resembling a dominant pitching staff, it all starts up front for the Dolphins.

The Ace – Ndamukong Suh: Suh is Canton-bound when he decides to call it a career. Currently ranked 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, Suh commands double teams nearly every play. He’s impossible to move in the run game and guards need help containing him in the passing game. He gives the Dolphins eight innings every time out, racking up over 85% of the Dolphins defensive snaps the past three years.

The ACE-B – Cam Wake: Every great pitching staff has a number two that is lacking the fan-fare, but is every bit as dominant as the ace (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux). Starting his NFL career at age 27 probably has something to do with Wake’s lack of recognition. Nonetheless, Cameron Wake is 50th all time with 85 career sacks. Since tearing his Achilles in 2015, at age 33, Wake has recorded 90 quarterback pressures on 497 pass rush snaps. No edge rusher with a pass-rush-productivity rate over 15% has ever failed to reach the pro-bowl – Wake’s PRP, in that time, is 18.1%.

The Set-Up Man – William Hayes: Before handing the ball to the closer, you need someone that can set-up the save situation. In football, closers are pass rushers. Without dominant run-defense, the closer never gets to come onto the field. Despite playing just 38% of the defensive reps, Hayes leads the Dolphins defensive linemen in tackles for loss.

The Fire-Baller – Jordan Phillips: Phillips might not be a rep eater, but he offers nothing but explosion in a limited role. On just 21 snaps in Sunday’s win in Atlanta, Phillips was responsible for four run-stuffs at, or behind, the line of scrimmage

The Closer – Charles Harris: This may be an early anointing, but Charles Harris has flashed some serious potential rushing the passer late in games. The aforementioned game winning clinching sack against Tennessee was just the start – Harris added another pressure on the game-clinching drive in Atlanta. (Cam Wake has his claim laid to the closer role in Miami as well).

At linebacker, Lawrence Timmons frees the Dolphins defense up to be more creative. A technically sound player that can cover, blitz and defend sideline-to-sideline, Timmons is off to a terrific start in his Dolphins career.

Timmons’ impact on Kiko Alonso, allowing him to play more of an underneath role and off the weak side in the run game, might be Timmons’ biggest contribution to the team.

Lawrence Timmons and Kiko Alonso during training camp 2017. (Davie, FL)

The alleged weakness of the Miami defense is in the secondary. With Reshad Jones freelancing in the mold of Troy Polamalu, a lot of slack is alleviated from the other players. Nate Allen is off to an inauspicious start with Miami, and he will be replaced when T.J. McDonald returns from suspension.

Cornerback was an area of concern entering the season. Slot corner, Bobby McCain has elevated his play. He ranks 16th in yards per coverage snap among slot corners and his three run-stuffs are top five among that same group.

Howard ranks 36th in among NFL cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap. Tankersley doesn’t yet qualify for this distinction but, if he did, he would be in the top 20 – not bad for a third round rookie.

In 2018, the Dolphins defense will welcome back 2017 second round draft pick, Raekwon McMillan. Also re-joining the team, after an injury, is 2016 starting cornerback, Tony Lippett.

With those two back, and the recently extended T.J. McDonald back from suspension, Miami is approaching the territory of best defense in the National Football league.

And it happened overnight.


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Travis is a lifelong Dolphins fan that bases his writing on film study and analytical statistics. His passion for football is rivaled only by his passion for journalism. Specializing in all things Miami Dolphins and quarterback play, Travis also owns and operates, a QB grading site.


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