The Dolphins have given new defensive coordinator Matt Burke five rookie defensive draft picks, traded for a run-stuffing defensive end (William Hayes), signed an accomplished linebacker (Lawrence Timmons) and added two veteran safeties (Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald).
And now the onus is on Burke, and these players, to fix a defense that relinquished more yards than any other team in Dolphins history.
“Statistically, we can’t get much worse, right?” Burke said Saturday in his first press conference since replacing new Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph. “I feel good about all the moves we’ve made this year at every level of defense. We added players at all three levels of the defense that will help us in the run game. We have a lot of depth relative to where we’ve been.”
The Dolphins believe their 30th-ranked run defense will be better partly because of Hayes, who will log substantial snaps, Timmons and second-round linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
And Burke cited a few other factors for optimism, including the return of safety Reshad Jones, who missed 10 games with a shoulder injury - “he is one of our better tacklers” – and noting that linebacker Kiko Alonso’s injured hand, now healed, gave him a “hard time” late in the season.
Burke, who was the Dolphins’ linebackers coach last season, mentioned poor tackling and injuries among factors for last year’s delinquent run defense.
“You give up a 30-yard run in a game, it’s never one person or one spot,” he said. “Sometimes, schematically, we dictated that we needed to pay attention to the passing game more.”
One thing that won’t change is the Dolphins’ commitment to the wide-nine defense. Asked if that could have contributed to the struggles against the run, Burke said no.
“One of the advantages of the wide nine is our defensive ends don’t have to play in seven technique, squared up,” Burke said. “It’s one of the hardest things for a guy like Cam [Wake], quote, unquote an undersized defensive end, to have to play in a square stance and take on offensive tackles.
“We don’t ask our defensive ends to do that. We allow our ends to play in space instead of having to play in tighter quarters. I don’t think it will be a lot different than what we’ve done. I have been in this scheme since 2007 with the Tennessee Titans when I first got in the league. I have never had a problem stopping the run doing it. We had issues at every level of defense that we have to address, tackling being the foremost one. I don’t think scheme is specific to us having run problems.”
So will fans notice any differences in his approach from Joseph’s?
It will be “subtle to everybody,” he said. “Vance and I worked together for three years and took a lot from each other. I don’t think there will be massively noticeable change. I’m trying to streamline some things a little bit, kind of get good at what we do and let guys play fast. Schematically, it will be pretty similar.”
Burke addressed other issues:
### He declined to say which of the linebackers would play which positions but wants to have guys “that are interchangeable.” Kiko Alonso played middle linebacker last season, but Lawrence Timmons and Raekwon McMillan can also play there.
Burke said he might have the players change positions “week to week” for matchup issues, but then added that the Dolphins might also decide to leave players at one spot.
If Timmons plays in the middle – which is one option - Alonso would be equipped to play weakside linebacker, with Koa Misi or McMillan at strongside in one scenario.
### Burke said defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who is expected to start opposite Ndamukong Suh, “has been inconsistent. He has had some flashes. Very talented player. We need to be more consistent from that spot.”
### Asked who his No. 3 tackle might be, Burke called it an open competition. He essentially ruled out defensive end Terrence Fede, who has played some tackle, and mentioned rookie draft picks Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor and veteran Nick Williams.
### On first-round pick Charles Harris: “We thought he was one of the more polished pass rushers in the draft. He’s explosive. We didn’t think he would be available where we picked him.”
### Of safety pickups Nate Allen and T.J. McDonald, Burke said: “Nate fits a little bit of our mindset, a multidimensional safety. T.J. was kind of a bonus for us. He’s a big, physical player.”
McDonald will not be eligible until Miami’s ninth game because of an NFL suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Burke, who played safety at Dartmouth and has been a defensive assistant for the Titans, Lions and Bengals, said becoming a coordinator for the first time is “exciting. I feel like I have put a lot of work in. It’s my 14th year in the league. I’m thankful for the organization and Adam [Gase] having the confidence in me to take his next step.”