Armando Salguero

Expectation and reality for Miami Dolphins linebacker differs. Here’s how it must adjust

Miami Dolphins Raekwon McMillan shares what he needs to change for the upcoming games

Miami Dolphins Raekwon McMillan tells the media what he needs to improve on September 17, 2018 at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University.
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Miami Dolphins Raekwon McMillan tells the media what he needs to improve on September 17, 2018 at the Baptist Health Training Facility at Nova Southeastern University.

When the Miami Dolphins used their second-round draft pick on Raekwon McMillan in 2017 the idea was to, at least initially, break him into his role slowly.

The team wanted to start him out playing special teams in the preseason and compete for the starting middle linebacker job. The expectation was he would win the MLB job and then play 25-30 snaps per game, all of them on running downs.

And then life happened.

And the plan got shredded.

McMillan, as you know, injured his knee last preseason on the very first special teams play he participated. Out for the year.

Fast forward to 2018 and that long-ago vision that seemed measured and logical is only a memory that no one seems to remember, except of course, me.

McMillan didn’t break in on special teams.

He didn’t compete for the middle linebacker job, it was awarded to him.

And he’s playing on running downs in the base defense. But also on passing downs in the nickel defense and other substitution packages. McMillan has played 126 of 134 defensive snaps so far this season. That’s 94 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps.

The problem with this is McMillan may be a year older and his head knowledge of the defense is greater than last year. But his practical experience is still that of a rookie.

And, let’s face it, he’s not a nickel linebacker.

The Miami Dolphins are asking McMillan to do things they themselves didn’t initially plan on asking him to do.

And guess what?

He’s struggling.

The early plan was smart and calculated. But the reality is something went awry and the Dolphins are putting McMillan in a spot he’s not wholly ready to succeed at because they need to fill a hole.

Vision versus reality.

Let’s begin with where this has gone askew

Anyone with eyes can see McMillan is going to be a good downhill, run-stopping, gap filling middle linebacker. Even though Miami’s linebackers play off the line of scrimmage, McMillan’s run fits are good.

That was part of the original vision. And McMillan is close to being that so he’s making that vision come alive on game days.

But the problem is when the game gets into passing downs. McMillan, never exceedingly fast or super nimble, is being asked to cover running backs and sometimes tight ends when he’s one of the two linebackers, along with Kiko Alonso, on the field.

And that’s not going according to the vision. Because, again, the vision was not for him to play in nickel, especially not in his first year on the field, which this is for him after last year’s injury.

As colleague Barry Jackson noted, McMillan has allowed eight of nine passes in his coverage area to be completed for 107 yards. That’s in only two games. He’s allowed the only passing touchdown the Miami defense has given up so far this season.

That touchdown came last week on a 19-yard completion from Jets QB Sam Darnold to running back Bilal Powell.

“Listen, he had poor technique on that,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said of McMillan on that play. “He opened his hips up on it and he was worried about … He kind of over-committed to the flat route and Powell angled back underneath him.

“But we should have a little bit of help there. We shouldn’t isolate him like that. It’s not just him. We need to get that down on the ground and live to fight another play. I put him in a hard spot. But he can help himself with better technique. He kind of flipped his hips and tried to run and (said) ‘I’ve got to get out there right now,’ and then when the guy angled back, he couldn’t get his hips back to kind of plant and come underneath it.

“I put him in a tough spot, he didn’t have great technique and then we didn’t get help from anywhere else that we probably should have, from a couple of spots. So it was kind of a multitude of things. It wasn’t just on him. I think everyone sort of highlights that but I don’t know if you noticed him the rest of the game in the passing game.”

Well, Powell did catch five passes for 74 yards. And Isaiah Crowell had two other catches out of the backfield. Not all of those were on McMillan, but the season stats are the season stats.

Burke is quick to defend his player. That’s good.

But I find it hard to blame Reshad Jones for missing the tackle that allowed the Powell touchdown when I come to find out Jones was playing through a shoulder injury at the time..

But none of that is really the issue -- not the missed tackle, not Burke’s call putting McMillan in man coverage, and not McMillan himself.

The problem is the Dolphins envisioned another player covering Powell on a play. They didn’t think it would be McMillan against players such as Rex Burkhead or Sony Michel or James White (next week) or Giovani Bernard (in two weeks) or LeSean McCoy (two times this season).

The Dolphins expected McMillan on the sideline in passing downs when those opponents are out on routes. And they expected someone else covering them.

And the problem is someone else hasn’t stepped up. It hasn’t worked out.

Someone else last year was supposed to be Lawrence Timmons. That failed.

Then the trade for Stephone Anthony was maybe, hopefully supposed to bring in someone else as a good coverage linebacker. It didn’t.

Someone else this year was supposed to be Jerome Baker. That hasn’t materialized.

Why?

Well, Baker is faster and quicker and perhaps more instinctive in man pass coverage than McMillan. But he’s also less experienced. And his knowledge of the Miami defense isn’t as good. He’s a work in progress.

So the Dolphins haven’t trusted him to be the second linebacker in the nickel.

The good news is ...

This is a fluid situation. Baker is not forever bound to being on the sideline in nickel. Maybe Chase Allen starts to figure in the equation. And there are ways to mask for McMillan’s coverage flaws in the meantime.

Baker, the team’s third-round selection this season, is competing for a chance to get playing time in nickel. That competition has not ended. It better not because, you must remember, James White and Giovani Bernard and those guys are looming.

“He got a couple of reps last week,” Burke said of Baker. “Maybe that’s a place where I can get him a little bit more work in that world – a matchup like that, putting a little bit more speed on the field.

“He’s got to earn it. He still has a ways to go in some areas. Yes, he’s done a good job in that. We keep kind of spoon-feeding him a little bit more and more. It’s sort of trickle-down economics and getting him a little bit more every day. Hopefully it fills him up a little bit and he’s ready to go. He’s fine. It’s not that we don’t have confidence in him. It’s just finding the right time and right spot to get all of those guys on the field, whichever matchups we like.”

Simple translation: Baker has to learn his assignments and play the right techniques to get the playing time. And when that happens, the Dolphins will have a better nickel linebacker in the game than they currently deploy.

Allen, meanwhile, seems to be kind of an under-appreciated player in my opinion. He played well in the preseason and I think he’s better than he was last year. So maybe he could be an answer, although he’s played only nine plays on defense this season.

(I’m throwing it out there, but the Dolphins won’t go for this because it’s a gamble).

In the meantime, look for the Dolphins to avoid putting McMillan in situations where he has to cover an offensive player man-to-man.

“He does a good job of closing windows in zone coverages and recognizing route concepts and those sorts of things to put himself in a good spot,” Burke said. “If we’re playing those types of coverages, he usually doesn’t get targeted a lot because he’s in the right spot and he’s closing down whatever windows he’s supposed to be closing down.”

Good. The Dolphins can finesse the difficulties until the circumstances change and they can get closer to realizing what the original plan and vision for this was.

Because the original vision wasn’t putting Raekwon McMillan on the field in nickel in his first season playing in the NFL.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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