Last we saw the Miami Dolphins defense, it was getting torched in the cold climes of Western New York last December.
It was giving up 42 points to the Buffalo Bills and their rookie quarterback, which would have been a shocker except for the unit allowing 41 points at Minnesota and 42 points at Houston and 38 points at New England.
Last we saw that troubled defense, Adam Gase was still the coach. And one of the primary reasons he was no longer the coach the following day is because he turned over the defense to Matt Burke in 2017 and ‘18.
And that was like handing the keys to a new car to someone who had never driven before because Burke had never been an NFL defensive coordinator.
So last we saw the Dolphins defense it was not good enough.
We’re going to see the Dolphins defense for the first time since that day on Thursday night. And things have changed, folks.
It’s not just that the personnel is different. It is. But everything, it seems, is different.
The Dolphins replaced the offensive-minded Gase with a defensive coach in Brian Flores. Flores last year was the New England Patriots defensive play-caller in a season the team won the Super Bowl and, oh yeah, did so by keeping the Los Angeles Rams out of the end zone in the most important game of the season.
So the mind-set is different now. Flores thinks kind of like a defensive coach. Gase had a beautiful mind for offense and passing and expected his team to score a lot of points.
Flores expects his team to punch somebody in the mouth.
“I want a tough, smart, disciplined team,” Flores says over and over.
That’s a different vibe. And it starts on defense.
The past few years the Dolphins relied on going after the quarterback with something called the Wide 9 front. On the boundary the Dolphins wanted long, tough cornerbacks to play man-press coverage much of the time.
The idea, everyone was told, was the pass rush would be so ferocious that quarterbacks would have to get rid of the football quickly. That would help the cornerbacks, who merely had to be physical with receivers for a blink or two before the quarterback would be forced to throw.
But it didn’t work.
The Dolphins were 29th in sacks last season. The Dolphins were 27th in points allowed. The Dolphins were 21st in passing yards allowed.
So starting sometime this preseason — cannot promise it will be in the preseason opener because the Dolphins are not going to show everything — the new Miami defenses will be on display.
Please note the plural on defenses.
That’s intentional because the Dolphins will not be running one defense in 2019. It’s going to look like multiple different defenses — at least three to start.
Possibly more later.
Flores learned under defensive guru Bill Belichick the past 15 years. And Belichick has forever been a 3-4 coach.
So the Dolphins will run the 3-4.
And the 4-3.
And the 5-2.
And sometimes something else altogether different.
Flores calls them different “groups,” and different “packages.”
And the different groups and packages asks players to do different things.
“There are different schemes that we run, and I have to be able to set the edge, play inside,” defensive lineman Tank Carradine said Tuesday. “They’re trying to move me all over the field. That’s something that I like. It’s giving me a chance to play different positions and be all out there and be an every-down player.”
Carradine has mostly been a run defender during his six-year career. Yes, he has to do that in Miami, too. But he also has to set the edge and will get a chance to rush the quarterback. The Dolphins are going to get after the quarterback in ways unlike you’ve been accustomed to.
In the past, the Dolphins relied on an accomplished or even elite pass-rusher to get upfield. That was Cameron Wake’s job. That was supposed to be Robert Quinn’s job. Also, Andre Branch’s and Charles Harris’.
Only Harris survives on the Miami roster now. And he’s working as an end in the 4-3 with his hands in the dirt. But don’t be surprised if he gets a chance to rush from a two-point stance, too.
That’s the point of this new defense. Players live to serve it. It doesn’t live to serve the players.
So if Bobby McCain is a good nickel cornerback but his communications skills could potentially stop receivers blowing the top off the defense, then McCain becomes a safety.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is probably best suited to play nickel corner. But he has to play safety. And maybe a couple of other spots. Same with T.J. McDonald. Same with Reshad Jones when he gets healthy again. Same with Kiko Alonso when he gets healthy again.
The Dolphins are evaluating all their players on defense to see what pieces can be fit in what roles because, again, there are a lot of different jobs.
“He’s running with all of the different groups,” Flores said of Alonso. “Again, there’s a lot of packages. He fits in a lot of those packages. I think we’re still — him having missed some of that time, we didn’t really get a full evaluation. Now we’re just trying to get him back in there and see exactly what that is.”
The NFL has become a matchup game. Offenses try to exploit weaknesses they believe they can create with certain personnel groupings.
It’s the defense’s job to match up and turn those in its favor. So that’s why the Dolphins don’t seem worried that McCain is playing safety and McDonald is a safety and Jones is a safety and Fitzpatrick might be a safety. That apparently is not how the team even thinks anymore.
“It really comes back to trying to put the right personnel groupings out there to match up with what the offense is doing and try to maximize the skill set of our players,” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “If it’s five or 10 safeties, then that’s what it is.
“Again, whether it’s the safety position, linebacker or D-line, what we’re going to try to do is for that situation and particular down and distance, we’re going to try to take advantage of our guys’ strengths and try to capitalize on their weaknesses on offense and we’ll see how we deploy our defensive players and see who’s the best fit.”
This defense needs versatile players. It’s a must if it is going to work. So despite the fact first-round pick Christian Wilkins came to the team with a body of work doing a couple of things well at Clemson, the Dolphins want him to do more.
“I hope all of the guys are versatile because the more you can do, the more value you bring to the team,” Graham said. “That’s how you get to stick around. He’s been doing a good job. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s worked hard at it and we’ll see about the production as we get going forward.”
Oh, yes, the production. About that:
Forget about yards. Forget about first downs. The defense’s job is to keep the other team from scoring points, not to keep the other team from moving the football. The Dolphins have given up nearly 400 points or more each of the past two seasons.
That has to decrease in dramatic fashion. That’s a big reason the franchise has undergone such a drastic change for 2019.
Now we see if that change works.