When Vance Joseph left his job as Dolphins defensive coordinator to become coach of the Denver Broncos in January, Adam Gase needed not even a minute to determine that linebackers coach Matt Burke would replace him. That decision actually was made a year ago, the week Gase hired both men.
“When I hired him with Vance, that was the plan,” Gase said Thursday. “That was the main reason I wanted to make sure we had [Burke]. I really felt Vance was only going to be here a year. We wanted to get the system in place, and we didn’t want to change it. We wanted someone who could do that system and step up and take it over.”
Burke — whose defense is permitting 16.8 points per game, seven fewer than last season — has proved to be an excellent choice as coordinator, fully prepared for this gig after 13 years as an NFL assistant with four teams.
He has kept teams off balance with creative blitz packages. He smartly replaced cornerback Byron Maxwell with Cordrea Tankersley three weeks ago.
He’s orchestrating a defense that ranks third in points allowed per game (compared with 18th last year), fourth in rushing yards relinquished per game (30th last season) and is 11th in yards allowed (29th a year ago).
Defensive end Cam Wake said Burke has thrived because he uses players to their strengths and is the “brains of the operation.”
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said it helps that he’s “a very, very smart guy — Ivy League guy [from Dartmouth] — and understands the game. I’ve been around him for a long time, and he’s going to put us in great places.”
Safety Nate Allen said “he's a tactician. He's definitely one of the top scheme guys and trying to play the chess match game. He gives quarterbacks different looks, tries to cause confusion. He's top of the line. He holds everybody accountable. Everybody in the room has to be on top of everything.”
This has helped, too: According to safety Michael Thomas, Burke — in his first meeting with them after being named coordinator — said he would explain why decisions are made.
“He makes sure we understand why certain calls are made, why we disguise or don’t,” Thomas said.
Players say there have been few schematic changes from Joseph’s approach, and that’s by design.
But there have been subtle tweaks. Burke said Thursday he has moved Suh around a bit more than Joseph did. “He’s responded to that,” Burke said. “We’re trying to keep a moving target on him so they can’t just home in on where he’s lining up.”
And Gase said the defense has been “narrowed down from what it was last year. We were probably doing too much. Vance was trying to figure out what was best for us. That’s what’s tough about the first year. Trial by error. Matt had a better feel for what our players did well and he could lean on that. So far, everything has been going good.”
Linebacker Mike Hull said under Burke, “there has been more emphasis on stopping the run. Of course, you can stress that all you want and you need players to do it.”
To that end, Miami augmented its personnel this offseason with Lawrence Timmons, William Hayes and four rookie draft picks who are contributing. That cannot be understated.
Burke has done a few things to keep players on their toes.
As a reminder of the need for everyone to be prepared, he summoned seldom-used rookie safety Maurice Smith to the front of the room a few weeks ago and asked him five questions about the defense. (Smith answered all of them correctly.)
“I always thought that was a cool way to just kind of make those points that everyone in this room is responsible,” said Burke, who borrowed the idea from Eagles defensive coordinator and ex-Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
Before this season, Burke might have been most identified as the guy who went hiking with mountain gorillas in Uganda this summer. Now, he will get accolades for overseeing a defense that CBS’ Boomer Esiason calls “championship caliber.”
But Burke, who once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, deflects credit.
“Just trying to put the guys in good position to make plays,” he said. “Guys have bought into the big picture of what we’re trying to do and being physical, relentless, having attention to detail. The focus has been heightened.
“I’m happy to see the guys feeding into that. They are really dialed in. I don’t know it’s necessarily me. But it’s been good to see those guys are focused. I preach a lot that everything matters, every play matters, every little technique we do matters. One little thing is wrong, they’re all overcorrecting it and getting better.”
Here’s my six-pack of Thursday midday Dolphins notes, including some eye-opening numbers on lack of big plays and a change in Suh.