Even the most casual Dolphins fan knows the drama at quarterback has dominated the team’s narrative this week.
But no matter who starts Sunday and beyond, Miami will struggle to beat much of anybody if its run defense doesn’t significantly improve.
The offense has been iffy — at best — for years.
But the front seven?
It used to be the constant.
The Dolphins went 22 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher between 2011 and 2012.
An indication of how things have changed: Kansas City’s backup running back went for 132 yards on Sunday. Knile Davis spearheaded a Chiefs ground game that churned out 174 yards on 4.2 yards per carry.
It has been the continuation of a troubling trend for Miami’s defense, which hasn’t been this generous in some seven seasons.
Miami’s rush defense ranks 20th in the NFL out of 32 teams. The Dolphins have allowed 125.3 yards per game, which would be the most since 2007 — when the team won just one game.
They are also middle of the pack in yards allowed per rush (4.0).
“When it boils down to it, you have to look at yourself and see what we did wrong,” linebacker Jason Trusnik said. “Whether it was a guy not aligned or a guy not in the right spot, these are NFL running backs. They’re able to see the opening and take advantage of it.”
Teams used to barely try to run the ball against the Dolphins. Now, they’re making it a major part of their game plan.
Just four teams have been run on more times than Miami (94). That means the Dolphins’ rush defense ranking is more a function of volume than weakness.
“Whatever stat it is, in terms of run defense, that’s not really in our favor, it’s something we have to work on,” defensive end Jared Odrick said. “It’s something we need to focus on. There are some things that we need to tidy up that would fix some of those statistics.”
Any Dolphins struggles against the run are puzzling, considering they have three of the league’s 13 best defensive tackles, per Pro Football Focus. Earl Mitchell has been a rock in his first year with the Dolphins, teaming up with Odrick and Randy Starks to clog up the middle. (Starks has been hampered this week with a back injury.)
So why exactly are teams moving the ball on the ground?
“We’ve got to tackle better,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “Football is still a game of blocking and tackling, and we have to do a better job, absolutely.”
Again, the stats tell the tale. The Dolphins had the most missed tackles in the AFC East last year, and again lead the division in that dubious category (25 through three weeks).
But, unlike last year, the linebackers aren’t to blame. That group has missed just four. The secondary, meanwhile, has been a turnstile. Cornerback Brent Grimes has missed six tackles already. Safety Jimmy Wilson has missed five.
The Dolphins’ linebackers, meanwhile, have been solid — which is remarkable, considering how beat up they are. Dannell Ellerbe played just a handful of snaps before sustaining a major injury. Koa Misi finally has a real chance to play Sunday after missing the past two weeks with an ankle injury.
But reserves like Trusnik and Jelani Jenkins have filled in well.
“It’s unfortunately the nature of the NFL a little bit,” Trusnik said. “It happens across the league. Guys get hurt and things like that. I’ve had to step up on defense. I’ve got to get better.”
Added Philbin: “When you play defensive football, you still have to tackle. I don’t care what position you play, you still have to tackle. There’s no excuses; we have to do a better job.”
If they don’t this week, it could be an indication of a real and lasting problem. The Raiders are one of the league’s worst rushing teams, averaging just 64 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.