Poor Cameron Marshall. He’s an undrafted rookie trying to learn the playbook and, against the odds, earn a spot on the Miami Dolphins’ roster.
On Tuesday morning, he got a crash course in the dangers of free-running blitzers in the National Football League.
Like a Floyd Mayweather uppercut, Philip Wheeler was on Marshall before he could barely react during one particular passing play, blowing up the young running back and creating a path to the quarterback.
In other words, Marshall and Wheeler each played exactly to type during Miami’s first full-contact practice of the year. Marshall was the young, overmatched prospect; Wheeler was the quick, powerful linebacker brought in to apply pressure from Miami’s second level.
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Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe, the Dolphins’ other big linebacker pickup this offseason, were excellent during Tuesday’s padded practice, disrupting the passing game with pressure and coverage.
“That’s something I like to do,” Ellerbe said. “You’ve got to understand the cadence. Just know how their scheme and block protection is. You just have to go out there and do it, time it up.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit.”
It sure looked that way Tuesday, when the Dolphins’ front seven got the better of the Dolphins’ offensive line.
Miami’s run defense was good, but it usually is.
More noteworthy was just how effectively exotic Kevin Coyle got with his play-calling.
Ellerbe, lured from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason, said he blitzed five or six times Tuesday and would have had four sacks if allowed to hit the quarterback. Ellerbe also intercepted Ryan Tannehill during 7-on-7 drills — which he claims would have gone for a touchdown in a game.
“They’re slippery guys; I guess that’s the best way to describe it,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “Conversely, you don’t like to see two guys running free in the ‘A’ gap on offense.”
Jared Odrick, who has played exclusively at defensive tackle in camp after lining up at end his first three seasons, predicts opposing teams will have plenty of such breakdowns this fall.
Odrick told reporters Tuesday that the defense’s goal is to finish first in the league in sacks in 2013, and in the top five overall. Miami ranked seventh last year with 42 sacks, carried by Cameron Wake’s 15.
The early take is that the Dolphins’ pass rush will be far more versatile this season, and that has been without No. 3 pick Dion Jordan even seeing the field until Tuesday. Jordan (shoulder) was brought off of the nonfootball injury list Tuesday and practiced some, but not in any contact drills.
Put bluntly, Ellerbe and Wheeler are empirically better at getting after the quarterback than those they replaced — Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, respectively.
Ellerbe was the most effective pass rusher among the 32 NFL inside linebackers to take at least half of his team’s defensive snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
He blitzed on 20 percent of opposing teams’ passing downs, recording 18 total pressures on 79 blitzing opportunities. His five sacks ranked third among all inside linebackers.
Wheeler was just as good. Pro Football Focus ranked him second among all 4-3 outside linebackers, pressuring the quarterback nearly one out of every four times he blitzed.
As for Dansby and Burnett, they were not among the 10 best pass rushers at their respective positions. Only three every-down inside linebackers were less effective blitzers than Dansby.
“They’re athletic,” Odrick said. “They can come in and make plays, and that’s what they’re here to do. That’s what they’re going to do. And that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Ellerbe said he would like the lead the league in sacks this season, but knows that given the position he plays, that isn’t feasible.
Yet Ellerbe does have a more realistic goal in mind: record double-digit sacks, and have more than any other inside linebacker in the NFL.
“We’re learning a new defense,” Ellerbe said. “It’s just one of those things that one day it just clicks and you don’t have to think anymore. You just do your job.
“I feel like we can do everything.”
Marshall probably feels the same way.