The Dolphins’ defense has looked more like a MASH unit than part of a football team this week. Injuries plagued that side of the ball, limiting, among others, defensive end Cameron Wake (knee), defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and linebacker Koa Misi (shoulder) in practice.
Saturday’s official injury report delivered no surprises, but it might have contained a few tidbits of encouraging news.
Wake, Soliai and Misi were listed as questionable, along with linebacker Jonathan Freeny (shoulder). Coach Joe Philbin said the decision to of whether or not they will play will be made based upon input from coaches, trainers and each ailing player.
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) will miss his third consecutive game after not participating in practice all week.
Perhaps the best news in the injury report regarded safety Chris Clemons (hamstring/quadriceps) and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (ribs). Both were limited in practice Thursday, but both were full participants in Saturday’s practice and are listed as probable for Monday night’s game against the Saints.
The game in New Orleans could be decided by the availability of Miami’s injured defensive standouts — and their ability to play like they do when healthy. Every NFL team deals with injuries, but the Dolphins have had their attrition come just in time to face Drew Brees and the Saints’ formidable offense.
Wake, who declined to speak to the media Saturday, would be crucial against Brees, who gets rid of the ball as quickly as any quarterback in the NFL.
“Last week, we got a lot of pressure on [Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan] but he was able to get the ball off before we got those hits on him,” defensive end Dion Jordan said. “In order to make plays, you’ve got to get your hands up or get there sooner.”
In addition to his own pass-rush excellence, Wake, when healthy, allows the rest of the defensive line to operate for much of the game without being double-teamed. Philbin said opposing offenses must devote a lot of “resources” to slowing down Wake.
“When Cam is on the field, he gets a lot of attention, especially early in games,” Jordan said. “They try to get as much slide to his side, chips, they’ll put running backs on him, plus the line just to slow him down.
“Any time he’s in the game, he demands a lot of attention, so that allows not only the other defensive end but also the guys inside to get off the ball and pass rush.”
Although Soliai’s role is considerably less glamorous than Wake’s, the 345-pounder has a similar level of importance in defending the run as Wake does against the pass, demanding double-teams and punishing opponents when they try to block him with just one player.
Given Miami’s inability to defend against the run so far this year, Soliai is a necessity to stopping the Saints. Although New Orleans’ passing game gets most of the attention, Ellerbe said Saturday that allowing the Saints to run successfully would only make Brees and the passing game more effective.
Football Outsiders tracks a stat called adjusted line yards (ALY), a version of yards per carry that more accurately measures offensive and defensive line play.
The Dolphins are last in defensive ALY through three games.
The good news is that Miami is sixth-best in open-field rushing yardage, meaning the linebackers are doing a good job preventing huge gains. But the defensive line can’t afford to lose its best run defender, even against a pass-happy offense.
“The linebackers depend on the defensive line,” linebacker Philip Wheeler said, “for them to get a push up front and kind of hold blocks sometimes, demanding a double-team at times so that we can make plays.”
Beyond consuming blockers, Soliai was praised this week for his athleticism, rare for someone whom Philbin described in his typical understated style as “a big individual.”
Wheeler said he has never seen anyone that big move so well, and Philbin said Soliai’s agility allows them to stunt and twist the defensive line, giving them more versatility.
Although there will be young players in place Monday night, ready for an opportunity, the Dolphins probably will need all hands on deck to slow down Brees and the Saints offense, making Wake and Soliai pivotal pieces.