Bill Belichick, this generation’s most successful NFL coach, was on a conference call with South Florida reporters earlier this year when he explained how he measures a defense’s success.
“The most important statistic is points,” Belichick said. “And the next most important statistic is turnovers.”
And with that, the man who won two Super Bowl rings coaching the New York Giants defense before he won five more coaching the New England Patriots, didn’t quite dismiss all the other defensive stats you hear tossed around — but he certainly put them in their place behind what he deems important.
So now I present to you what’s important about the Miami Dolphins’ defense.
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This defense that is heading to Kansas City for a Sunday matchup with the NFL’s sixth-highest scoring offense has had its good and bad moments in 2017.
And as we close in on the season’s last couple of games, the overall picture of this unit is kind of strange because it’s not quite living up to last season’s Dolphins defense. And last season’s defense was not very good.
Last season’s defense allowed 23.8 points per game and finished 18th among the 32 NFL teams in that category.
This season’s defense has allowed 24.4 points per game and is currently 26th in the league in the category Belichick believes is the most important.
The Dolphins last season had 25 takeaways on defense — or an average of 1.56 per game. The Dolphins this season have 15 takeaways — an average of 1.07 per game.
The point is the Dolphins have regressed from last season in the two most important statistics a defense can be measured. And, yes, there are still two games left so this is an incomplete assessment. But the 1985 Chicago Bears aren’t likely to walk through those doors the final two games, folks.
This unit that isn’t good enough is what the Dolphins’ defense is in 2017.
And this raises a serious issue because one thing the organization really wanted to fix for 2017 was, you guessed it, the defense.
The Dolphins spent five of seven selections in the 2017 draft, including the top three, on defense.
The team signed safety T.J. McDonald, traded for defensive end William Hayes, re-signed defensive end Andre Branch, signed linebacker Lawrence Timmons and extended contracts for Cameron Wake, Kiko Alonso and safety Reshad Jones last offseason.
All those moves were done to improve the defense — except it’s not fixed.
It has had moments of clarity. The 27-20 victory over New England on Dec. 17 looks like a close game on paper, but the defense truly whipped Tom Brady and the Patriots offense that evening.
The problem is those moments of clarity have been fleeting. The problem is several of the moves the Dolphins made with their best players haven’t paid dividends.
Last week against Buffalo is a good example because throughout that game, players the Dolphins expect to be their best on defense lost on matchups more than anyone expected. Wake missed a sack. Jones missed a tackle or two and got beat in coverage. Alonso struggled in coverage and missed tackles.
“I think in general, this will apply to Kiko but also to sum up some of the other guys from Sunday,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “Our good players can’t miss on plays. He missed a couple of tackles that he can’t miss. Period. If we want to be the defense that we want to be and we want to win games that we want to win, he can’t miss a couple of those plays.
“Reshad can’t miss a tackle. Cam can’t miss a sack. That’s just facts. So Kiko did a lot of good things. I feel like one of our issues is, with a guy like Kiko, we say there’s 60 snaps in a game and he played really good for 55 of them but there were five that he didn’t.
“We can’t have those five. That’s the next step for Kiko and for a lot of the guys on defense, especially from Sunday. He made a lot of good plays. He had a lot of tackles. He was active — very active — but he missed a handful of plays that he can’t miss for us to be the defense we want to be.”
Burke wants a defense on which the best players consistently make plays. That’s what the Dolphins hoped would happen when they spent all those resources on the defense.
But some of the players on which the Dolphins spent big contracts or draft picks haven’t paid dividends. Timmons hasn’t. Second-round pick Raekwon McMillan got hurt in training camp and didn’t play a down at linebacker. McDonald has been OK but not great. Same with Branch.
Alonso and others haven’t become the stars the Dolphins hoped.
So the results of all that offseason activity? Not enough achievement.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero