Barry Jackson

Ugh: Dolphins run defense has actually gotten worse

Linebacker Jelani Jenkins does linebacker drills during Dolphins training camp on July 31.
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins does linebacker drills during Dolphins training camp on July 31. Sun Sentinel

The Dolphins hoped to see a change in their run defense this season. And they have, but not the change they wanted.

They’ve dropped from 28th last season to 31st this season, barely ahead of No. 32 New Orleans.

Last year, the Dolphins allowed 126.2 yards rushing per game. This year, it’s 147.3.

Unacceptable.

“Last week, it was the edge,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “This week, it was down the middle. We have to do a better job of feeling blocks, fitting our gaps, our backers coming down hill. It was five explosive plays [Sunday against Cleveland] and two popped because of gap responsibilities and the other three were because of missed tackles.

“Five explosive passes in the game, nothing thrown over eight yards. Most of our explosive passes this year have been thrown inside of five yards. So that’s tackling, being in position to make a play. I’m not concerned about explosive passes. It’s been tackling for the most part.”

But he said “run game we’ve got to fix. It’s been an issue.”

Jelani Jenkins’ explanation? He blamed some communication breakdowns and said “all 11 have to be on the same page.”

Joseph said the play of the defensive tackles other than Ndamukong Suh has been “OK to inconsistent.”

• Joseph wasn’t sure if Jenkins or Koa Misi will play because of injuries.

Donald Butler would start in place of Misi and Neville Hewitt would start in place of Jenkins if they cannot play, Joseph said.

But Joseph made clear that Jenkins is the starter if healthy: “Jelani has played well all summer, played well all fall so far. I am pleased with Jelani. Obviously, he’s got to stay healthy. That’s been an issue over the years.”

• With two starters injured and another coming off a late-game benching, the Dolphins are dealing with offensive line issues. And it’s happening at an inauspicious time, with Miami about to face a Cincinnati defense that is tied for the league lead with 12 sacks.

The Dolphins aren’t sure if left tackle Branden Albert or center Anthony Steen will play; both have ankle injuries.

Albert was non-committal Tuesday. Steen said he expects to play. With Mike Pouncey still out with a hip injury, Kraig Urbik would play center if Steen cannot.

There was some measure of clarity offered Tuesday, when offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said Ja’Wuan James would remain the team’s starting right tackle even though he was benched in overtime against Cleveland after allowing a strip-sack late in regulation, as well as a glaring earlier error. Billy Turner replaced him.

“He’s a good player, he’s a good athlete,” Christensen said of James. “The thing everyone wants out of him is for him to establish himself as an elite right tackle, be a leader. We are dying for guys who will be owners in this thing. He does a lot really well. I think he can be a premier right tackle in this league. The expectations are high on him.”

James said of his benching: “Of course I'm upset, just because the game was out of my control at that point, just watching from the sidelines.”

James said coaches told him Sunday “that the whole game wasn't overall bad, but you had two big plays that were. I respect [Adam Gase’s] decision. He holds everybody accountable and that's a good thing. I hold myself to a high standard too.”

• Asked who the team’s best offensive lineman has been this season, Christensen said: “Steen been pleasant surprise. He’s played really steady. They’ve done a good job.”

Christensen said he holds out hope of both Albert and Steen playing Thursday.

“I give him my credit card and those 1-800-healing-numbers,” Christensen said. “We’re not above trying anything to get well there. I am teasing him, is Oral Roberts still up and running? Having two starters in the same predicament is extremely complicated and sensitive. That’s what makes it extremely tough. I hold out hope for both of them. We have all the way through the night.”

• Like last season, the Dolphins continue to struggle with third down conversions, ranking 28th in the league at 30.3 percent. Christensen called that “sick, anemic.”

Overall, he said: “We’ve all taken turns screwing things up, starting with me. First interception [Sunday] was me on the play design. That wasn’t [Ryan Tannehill’s] fault. Everyone has taken their turn. We all have to play better. It’s not near good enough. Everyone is in agreement.”

• Christensen said Kenyan Drake – “did some nice things” Sunday but also “had a couple of missed assignments in the fourth quarter; I don’t know if it was playing too much” because of special teams responsibilities.

• With Jordan Cameron out with a concussion, the Dolphins have full confidence in tight end Dion Sims, who has come on recently after spring challenges from Gase to be more consistent.

“Dion is playing really, really good football,” Christensen said. “I don’t foresee there being a drop-off. They’re not that much different. He’s a little bit more inline grind it out. He’s shown he can catch balls, do those things. Everyone has confidence he will play really well. [MarQuise Gray] had a good camp and don’t think much drop-off when we have two tight ends.”

The Dolphins didn’t strongly consider promoting seventh-round rookie Thomas Duarte from the practice squad. “I wouldn’t say he’s not ready but he’s probably not ready,” Christensen said. “He does need some more seasoning.”

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