Earlier this NFL season the Miami Dolphins defense was getting credit for having addressed its issues of a year ago, and new defensive coordinator Matt Burke was being profiled as an upgrade form Vance Joseph. It was a great time because some folks were expecting the early success to continue and this defense to carry the team into the NFL playoffs.
Except, any season ebbs and flows, and sometimes units improve and sometimes they get exposed.
And lately the Miami defense is looking more like the latter.
The Dolphins D has actually earned a big, fat F the past three games after allowing a total of 81 points in that span. The New York Jets scored 28 points on them. The Baltimore Ravens scored 26 points on them (another 14 was scored on the offense). And the Oakland Raiders scored 27 points on them Sunday night.
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Know what that means? No, not the Spanish, knuckleheads, but rather the meaning of the combined 81 points of the past three games?
It means only three other NFL teams have given up more points on defense than the Dolphins in that time.
The New York Giants have given up 85 points.
The San Francisco 49ers have given up 86 points.
The Denver Broncos, Joseph’s team, have given up 101 points.
And then comes the Dolphins’ defense, tied with Oakland, at 81 points allowed in that span.
So by the most important statistics that one can measure a defense — points allowed — the Dolphins have been the fourth-worst unit in the NFL the past three games.
That’s not the only troubling issue the defense is having, although I have to say that’s a whopper. The next big issue is that as the season has progressed, the Miami defense has not been improving. Again, teams that don’t improve as the season progresses rarely get into the playoffs.
(Peanut gallery: Mando, how can you possibly say that? You don’t know that, you negative Nelly. You can’t say whether young players are carrying out their assignments better. You don’t know if communication has improved. Maybe they have indeed improved and you’re just an ignoramus.)
Thanks, gallery, always enjoy your endless optimism that borders on lunacy.
It is true, I can’t tell you whether the Dolphins young cornerback tandem of Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley are backpedaling better or displaying looser hips now than earlier in the year.
I do know that neither had an interception early in the year. And neither has an interception now. They are not getting hands on the football enough. I know that. But that’s not the greater point.
The point is if you look at the overall defensive production on the field, the picture is not getting prettier. Consider:
The Dolphins gave up 20 first downs against Oakland. That was the third-most this season and the most in the last five games. Arrow pointing down.
The Raiders converted 53 percent of their third down plays against Miami. That’s the second-worst third down efficiency for the Miami defense this year and the worst in three weeks. Arrow down.
The Raiders gained 379 net yards against the Dolphins. That’s the most allowed this season by Miami. Arrow down.
The Raiders gained 295 net passing yards. That’s the second-most allowed this season by Miami and most since the season opener in September. Arrow down.
Arrow down doesn’t suggest improvement, folks. It doesn’t suggest playoff berth.
So why is this trending in the wrong direction? That’s a question coach Adam Gase will be asked Thursday when he meets with the media for the first time since Monday. That’s a question Burke will be asked Friday.
Let me give you an answer you’ll never hear from either coach: I think the Dolphins defense is built weird.
This defense is built around the defensive line. It has the team’s highest paid player in Ndamukong Suh and, indeed, is home to four of the team’s top seven salary cap charges for 2017. It is also home to the team’s first-round draft pick this year. And the second-round pick from 2015. And the team’s fifth-round pick this year. And the team’s sixth-round pick this year.
And, don’t get me wrong, the group’s production is solid.
But the production is not extraordinary. It’s not great.
The Dolphins have 16 sacks this year. That’s tied for 23rd in the NFL.
Yes, the run defense has been very good. It’s No. 7 in the NFL.
But when you pay premium money and use premium picks and make trades and re-sign free agents all for one unit on the team, that unit must be dominant all-around or the resources spent are not paying any dividends.
And the Miami defensive line being solid but not dominant is not a dividend payment.
This defense is built to play from in front. It is built for when a desperate offense must pass. Then the line can attack and the big corners and the fleet linebackers can cover for the couple of seconds until the linemen get to the quarterback.
Sounds good in theory but in practice it hasn’t worked because the Dolphins rarely enjoy leads late enough for that to be a factor.
More weirdness: The line’s best pass rusher is two months from his 36th birthday, so he’s playing between 50 and 55 percent of the downs during any given game.
The big ticket defensive tackle is playing his best ball since he arrived in Miami, but this remains a frustrating truth: Two schlubs making minimum can double team Suh up front and often erase him from a play.
My point is there’s stuff that doesn’t quite seem right up there.
The linebacker corps is also interesting. Lawrence Timmons is playing every down. He’s doing solid work, but he misses a lot of tackles. The Pittsburgh Steelers, by the way, know a thing or two about linebackers and they let him walk for a reason.
Kiko Alonso plays with energy and passion and is always around the football. But he’s struggled with coverage in recent weeks.
And those two guys play every down.
Then the corners: Bobby McCain has been the playmaker of the group. The guys outside are just … OK. Not amazing yet. Not lockdown guys yet.
Yes, they are young. But they are not as good as Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain were at the same stage in their careers. (I covered those guys so I know). Madison was excellent immediately and Surtain didn’t play a lot as a rookie because Terrell Buckley was still on the team, but he became a playmaker his second year.
The back end of the defense is going to get a big boost (everybody says) when T.J. McDonald joins the fray as early as the Carolina game Monday night. He’s been serving an NFL suspension but can and will begin practicing Thursday.
McDonald is not just supposed to be a guy filling a spot and not making mistakes, like Nate Allen was. McDonald is supposed to be a playmaker. A difference maker.
We’ll see on that.
The Dolphins could certainly use the help because right now this defense is trending in the wrong direction. And arrow down is not a good thing to be in November.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero