The Dolphins defense this year has taken all assumptions and tossed them in the incinerator.
They are one of the best pass-rushing teams in football, yet No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan has just two sacks.
They have three of the league’s top 16 defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, yet rank 25th against the run, allowing 121.8 yards per game.
Their pass defense, a huge concern entering the season, has been without starting corner Dimitri Patterson for all but five games. And yet, they’ve allowed the third-fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL (12).
But no one captures the up-is-down nature of the 2013 Dolphins like Dannell Ellerbe, the high-priced free agent linebacker brought in shore up the middle of the defense.
Ellerbe in 2012 was the league’s third-best inside linebacker against the run, Pro Football Focus found. But in 2013, he’s one of the worst.
But on the flip side, he’s gone from a liability in coverage to a very good pass defender.
No better example of this was in the Dolphins’ 23-3 thumping of the Jets on Sunday. Ellerbe was so close to receiver Greg Salas on a first-half passing play, he was essentially a second jersey.
But Geno Smith threw it anyway, and Ellerbe caught the pass as if it was intended for him.
“I guess it was a birthday present,” said Ellerbe, who turned 28 last week. “I ain’t think he was going to throw it. I was surprised that he did.”
It was the kind of big play the Dolphins envisioned when they gave Ellerbe a five-year, $35 million contract back in March. They just envisioned he would make more of them.
Ellerbe is second on the team in tackles with 77 (according to team-provided statistics), but only two have been for loss. He has missed 12 tackles this year, seventh-most among inside linebackers and 21st-most among all NFL defensive players.
Also Ellerbe hasn’t been a particularly good pass-rusher, bringing down the quarterback just once on 57 blitzing opportunities.
And yet, his two interceptions are second-most on the team. Opposing teams have managed a passer rating of just 59.6 when throwing in his direction. Ellerbe has allowed only one touchdown pass all season.
“I like the way he is playing the game,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “He plays fast. He plays hard. I’m glad we’ve have him. I like what he is doing.”
Philbin will probably like Ellerbe even more when he finally gets comfortable in Kevin Coyle’s 4-3 defense.
The fifth-year linebacker acknowledged this week that he’s still not a natural in the system after playing the 3-4 with Baltimore. He was one of two inside linebackers in that scheme. Now, he’s alone in the middle, with added responsibilities.
“I’m really not able to go play fast and shoot like I was last year,” Ellerbe admitted.
He doesn’t know if he’ll get to that point this season, either.
Philbin made a point to mention Ellerbe has a better command of the defense and makes adjustments faster than he did earlier in the year.
Ellerbe should at least be comfortable with his surroundings Sunday, even if the scheme is still a bit foreign. He’ll return to Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers where Ellerbe’s former team plays on a yearly basis.
“That field is terrible,” Ellerbe said. “They’ve got the worst field ever. They need to do something about that.”
At least figuratively, however, this might be the week Ellerbe gets his footing.
The Steelers, to put it kindly, stink at running the football. They rank second-to-last in rushing (76.8 yards per game) and have managed a pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry.
“You just can’t let them get that one that gets out the back,” Ellerbe said. “We’ll stop them [for] one yards, two yards, three yards, one yards, then they’ll get one for 16 or 25 or something like that.”
Wells expects to submit his report to the league in a week to 10 days, according to ESPN.