Even through sustained mediocrity, this was one positive constant about the Dolphins in recent years: They would defend the run stoutly, for the most part.
No longer. Two years after fielding a top-seven run defense, Miami has plunged to 25th, allowing 119 yards per game on the ground.
“It’s surprising,” defensive tackle Paul Soliai said.
On Monday night, the Dolphins allowed 140 rushing yards and were gashed primarily by Tampa’s third- and fourth-string backs.
“That’s not our standard,” defensive tackle Randy Starks said. “Some people are not on the same page.”
Starks said at times a call is made from the coaches that needs to be changed “and someone might make the call, but not everyone will get it. Some check to it and some don’t.”
Equally troubling: The Dolphins’ run defense often wilts late. Before Tampa Bay’s final three plays, designed to run out the clock, the Buccaneers averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. Overall, Dolphins’ opponents are averaging 5.4 yards per carry in the fourth.
“It’s been inconsistent [and] frustrating,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said of his run defense. “It’s something that we’re going to address.”
The statistical decline is stark. In 2011, the Dolphins allowed 100 rushing yards per game, seventh-best in the league, and 3.6 yards per carry, which was fourth-best.
Then Coyle replaced Mike Nolan before the 2012 season, the Dolphins switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, and they allowed 108 yards per game on the ground (13th-best) and 4.0 yards per carry (10th-best).
This season, the Dolphins are allowing 3.9 yards per carry, which ranks 12th, but they have often been unable to make key stops.
So would moving back to a 3-4 defense be worth considering? Coach Joe Philbin said no.
“I like the scheme,” Philbin said. “We have to do a better job in pursuit, in tackling … in pursuing.”
Soliai, who has played well in both defenses, doesn’t blame the decline on the move to a 4-3.
“It makes no difference,” he said. “It’s us being in the right position and making the tackle.”
A few changes in personnel seemingly have had a corrosive effect on the run defense. Last season, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett ranked in the top quarter at their position against the run. Philip Wheeler, who replaced Burnett, ranks 33rd out of 35 outside linebackers against the run among players in a 4-3 defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Dannell Ellerbe, who replaced Dansby, ranks 35th out of 53. Koa Misi ranks 11th but missed Monday’s game with an injury.
What’s more, Wheeler has missed 14 tackles (third-most among outside linebackers) and Ellerbe has missed nine (sixth-most).
The defensive ends have been average against the run. Among 49 ends in a 4-3 defense, Cameron Wake ranks 27th against the run and Olivier Vernon is 31st. Backups Derrick Shelby and Dion Jordan are 11th and 27th, respectively. The Dolphins are limiting Jordan’s snaps because they say defending the run isn’t his strength.
Coyle defended the play of his defensive tackles: Starks, who ranks third among 71 tackles against the run, Soliai (20th) and Jared Odrick (40th).
“I think they’ve been solid throughout the season overall,” Coyle said. “At times very, very good.”
Odrick believes “there are things that need to be changed in terms of our technique. You walk into the D-line room [this week] and we’re mad.”
• The Dolphins listed receiver Mike Wallace (hamstring), cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) and center Mike Pouncey (illness) as questionable for Sunday’s game.
A teammate said Pouncey missed practice because he was “under the weather” and would suspect he would play. Wallace was limited in practice but caught passes on the sideline during the portion open to the media.
The Dolphins listed eight players as probable: safeties Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons, Misi, running back Daniel Thomas, tight end Michael Egnew, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, kicker Caleb Sturgis and punter Brandon Fields.
As expected, tackles Jonathan Martin and Will Yeatman (torn ACL) were ruled out.
• San Diego listed tackle King Dunlap as out and five players as questionable: linebacker Jarret Johnson, receiver Eddie Royal, center Nick Hardwick, fullback Le’Ron McClain and safety Jahleel Addae.
• The NFL fined Wheeler $21,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Tampa Bay quarterback Mike Glennon. Wheeler was called for a penalty on the play, a costly fourth-quarter mistake because Tampa would have punted otherwise. And Pouncey was fined $7,875 for striking a Tampa player in the head early in Monday’s game.