The NFL’s evolution into a pass-first league changes nothing in that NFL defense starts up front (ask New England why the Giants have two Super Bowl rings the Patriots don’t). So the continued progress of the Dolphins defense this season begins with the two current longest continuous serving members of the Dolphins defense.
And one of them says the other is “the anchor of our defense.”
“If he doesn’t play well, we have no defense,” defensive tackle Randy Starks said of nose guard/defensive tackle Paul Soliai.
Neither one’s effectiveness can be seen in the standard statistics. Starks earned a Pro Bowl berth as an alternate in 2010 despite his sacks dropping from 7.0 in 2009 to 3.0 and tackles dropping from 56 to 30.
You have to actually see blockers occupied, running plays disrupted or quarterbacks influenced into sacks or turnovers. While edge rushers get the sexy blindside bashes and the big sack totals, the pressure that truly discomforts quarterbacks comes rumbling up the middle. Being unable to step up in the pocket often leads to throws without feet being set, which often lack enough steam or accuracy.
Soliai, 6-4, 355, is better at taking up blockers in the run game than getting a pass rush — he didn’t have a single sack in 2011 — but the Dolphins didn’t keep him to be a specialist in the lesser part of modern offenses. After making $12.5 million as the Dolphins franchise player in 2011, Soliai re-signed a two-year deal worth $8.15 million in base salary rather than truly explore free agency.
“I left it all up to my agent [David Canter],” Soliai said. “I took the offseason to spend time with my family. I really didn’t get to think about it until my agent gave me a call to tell me who wanted to talk to me. I just wanted to have fun with my family.
“I wanted to stay,” he continued. “That’s my main goal was to stay here. I started here. I started slow. I like how I’m going right now, I’m going well.”
Back in 2008, it seemed ludicrous to think either Starks or Soliai would still be Dolphins in 2012.
Tennessee, which had a track record of knowing when to let defensive linemen go, didn’t prevent Starks from leaving as an unrestricted free agent. Soliai got into only eight games as a rookie in 2007.
It took Soliai time to figure out a few things after going from college to the NFL: professionalism, fitness, the nuances of the thankless nose guard position.
As a rookie, he reported overweight because he thought he needed it.
His second year saw less weight, more playing time, but two one-game suspensions for violations of team policy.
Jason Ferguson’s retirement after two seasons starting at nose tackle and Soliai’s slow improvement prompted a plan to move Starks to nose guard in 2010. That got scrapped when Soliai got good.
“I’ve grown up a lot,” he said. “Stuff I did the first and second year I’m more responsible, more accountable. A lot of my teammates look to me now. I’m just trying to be a leader.”
Starks said, “I’ve seen him grow as a person and a player. We watch film more together [now]. When I first got here, he was kind of quiet. I didn’t know what he was thinking. Maybe he was just following Ferguson’s role. Now, he’s taken over the role of nose tackle.”
The now-veteran Soliai didn’t take long to figure out his role in the Dolphins new defense.
“It’s basically the same as last year,” he said. “Last year, we ran a lot of 4-3. But we’re more aggressive this year, so that’s a good thing.”
Starks said he’ll be playing more “three technique” lining up between the guard and tackle.
“It’s going to put pressure on me to get a pass rush, help [outside linebacker] Cam [Wake] out,” he said. “At the same time, I’m looking forward to that challenge.
“I feel like I’m more comfortable in the position. I know where I’m going to be playing. It gives me a chance to get used to it and perfect the position. In the 3-4, I might be head up [over the center], might be over the tackle, might be over the guard.”
Starks’ 2011 season ended with a spectacular game against the Jets: a sack and the first two-interception game by a defensive lineman in Dolphins history.
Overall, however, he said, “I thought I did OK. I’m capable of doing more. I’ve proven that in the past. I think this year, I need to play to the level I did three years ago.”