There is no easing into the 2018 season for the Dolphins defense.
Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans are coming to town Sunday. And because they are, we will know right away whether all of those changes to Miami’s roster and the coaching staff this offseason paid off.
Because Mariota might expose what has been the defense’s No. 1 vulnerable since Adam Gase was hired.
He can throw. But more importantly, he can also run. Really, really fast.
“I think it’s hard to replicate [Mariota’s] speed and kind of the ability to change directions,” Gase said. “He’s a better athlete really than almost every guy that you have on defense.”
Historically, that’s been bad news for the Dolphins.
In Gase’s first two seasons in Miami, dual-threat quarterbacks have absolutely roasted the Dolphins. They have thrown 18 touchdowns to just two interceptions. They have averaged 7.7 yards per carry. And they have won six of nine games.
That includes a monster performance by Mariota in 2016. He accounted for all four of Tennessee’s touchdowns in the Titans’ 30-17 triumph.
“We’ve had, I’d say, mixed success with some of those guys,” Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said with a heaping dollop of sarcasm. “I think for us, the biggest thing is going to be obviously having a committed rush plan on how we’re attacking him on third downs and those sort of situations.
“[It’s] a little bit about getting the right athletes on the field and the type of players that we’re using to work him in,” Burke continued. “At the end of the day, if you only have four people rushing the quarterback and they have five offensive linemen, there’s some space in there and there’s ways [to get out]. So, we have to try to utilize ways of dictating how we’re leaving some lanes open or how we’re closing some windows and those sort of things.”
One of those athletes Burke will rely on to corral the speedy Mariota, who ran a 4.52-second 40 coming out of Oregon?
The Dolphins’ two-time Pro Bowl safety believes he knows how to handle the Titans’ quarterback: Dare him to beat the Dolphins with his arm.
“Make him one-dimensional,” Jones said. “Stop the run. I think him standing in the pocket and trying to beat us with his arm, that’s not one of his strong points. He can make good throws, he’s a versatile quarterback, but I think the most important thing is stopping the run first. You’ve got to make them one-dimensional.”
Jones is onto something.
Mariota is not a particularly good volume passer. NFL games in which he has thrown 30 or more passes, the Titans are 7-17.
But in games in which he has 50 or more rushing yards? 5-0.
So the Dolphins are determined to keep him in the pocket, and probably, at least at times, use a spy (a linebacker or safety dedicated to keeping an eye on Mariota in passing downs, and responsible for taking him down should he decide to run).
Jones has been Miami’s spy before — in the 2016 season opener against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
But that takes him away from his strength: making plays. What’s more, the Dolphins have spent considerable resources this offseason getting faster in their defense’s back seven, drafting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Jerome Baker. Expect both to be part of Burke’s game plan.
“One thing I’ll say I’m cautious of is I think one of the mentalities is, ‘I’ll keep him in the pocket and mush rush and squeeze it down sometimes,’” Burke said. “A lot of times, those guys get sticky on blocks and then when he starts moving, they can’t get off to help chase or close things down. I think I’m a little cautious of telling those guys, ‘Just stand there and try to two-gap and fight it a little bit.’ We’re going to try to do some things. We’re still attacking and that’s our mentality, but we have to be able to dictate what windows are open and how we’re closing them.
“We’re always going to have a set of eyes on the quarterback from the back end as well, whether it’s in zone coverage or spying and those sort of things,” he added. “We’ll have some different pitches hopefully and have some success.”
Dolphins vs. mobile quarterbacks
Week 1: Russell Wilson, Seahawks. 27-43-1, 258, 1, 4-16-0. 12-10 loss.
Week 5: Marcus Mariota, Titans. 20-29-0, 163, 3, 7-60-1. 30-17 loss.
Week 7: Tyrod Taylor, Bills. 14-28-0, 221, 1, 7-35-1. 28-25 win.
Week 12: Colin Kaepernick, 49ers. 29-46-1, 296, 3, 10-113-0. 31-24 win.
Week 16: Tyrod Taylor, Bills. 26-39-0, 329, 3, 12-60-0. 34-31 win.
Week 10: Cam Newton, Panthers. 21-35-0, 254, 4, 5-95-0. 45-21 loss.
Week 15: Tyrod Taylor, Bills. 17-29-0, 224, 1, 6-42-1. 24-16 loss.
Week 16: Alex Smith, Chiefs. 25-39-0, 304, 1, 4-13-0. 29-13 loss.
Week 17: Tyrod Taylor, Bills. 19-27-0, 204, 1, 6-35-0. 22-16 loss.
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