Barry Jackson

Miami Dolphins dealing with defensive problems, challenge defensive backs to improve

Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase with special teams coach Darren Rizzi (left) and assistant speacial teams coach Marwan Maalouf, during practice at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fl, August 4, 2017.
Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase with special teams coach Darren Rizzi (left) and assistant speacial teams coach Marwan Maalouf, during practice at the Miami Dolphins training facility in Davie, Fl, August 4, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The good news for the Dolphins’ defense: Their run defense appears more stout, with the addition of William Hayes and rookie defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, coupled with Reshad Jones’ return to health, among other factors.

The bad news: They’re a mess at linebacker amid injuries and the Lawrence Timmons fiasco.

And the pass defense was far too leaky in the opener.

After watching the Chargers’ Phillip Rivers complete 31 of 39 passes for 323 yards with a 110.6 passer rating against his unit, Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke said Thursday that his defensive backs must simply be tighter in coverage.

“Here’s what I told the guys,” Burke said. “Opposing offenses are not going to want to deal with our pass rush. I think the message to the linebacker and defensive backs, is we have to challenge throws better on the outside part of the field and match up our underneath progressions a little bit tighter.

“[Rivers’] average release point was 2.1 seconds. He was not going to give a chance for our guys to get going. That’s going to be a theme [against Miami]. Our job on the outside part of the field is be tighter and challenge some of those throws to give those guys that extra second to work. That’s something we have to address going forward.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Xavien Howard allowed more completions (10) than any NFL cornerback in week 2, for 87 yards on 13 throws against him. And Byron Maxwell was beaten on crossing routes and other patterns.

Still, Burke was non-committal about whether he would play cornerback Alterraun Verner, who drew raves from coaches during preseason but didn’t play a defensive snap against the Chargers

“I’m not ready to make that determination,” Burke said about whether Verner would have a role Sunday at the Jets. “Verner has done a good job.”

Safety Nate Allen also was victimized in coverage some, with PFF ranking him 52nd of 79 safeties.

The Dolphins’ predicament at linebacker also remains precarious. Rey Maualuga again missed practice with a hamstring injury on Thursday and his status for Sunday’s game at the Jets is highly dubious.

“I want to make sure he’s healthy,” coach Adam Gase said. “I am excited to see him when he does get out there. He’s a good piece to the puzzle.”

Stephone Anthony, acquired from the Saints on Tuesday, would seem a natural fit at strong-side linebacker, where Chase Allen started last Sunday amid Timmons’ going AWOL. Timmons remains on indefinite suspension, which can last up to four games.

But Burke said he’s not sure where Anthony will play.

“We’re still trying to get to know him,” Burke said. “We didn’t expect him to practice [Wednesday] and he did. My thought with him is to put him in one spot and let him learn. By end of this week, we get a feel for what his best role is and throw him in the deep end. Physically, he can play every spot. He’s a big kid. He can rush. He can hit.”

Burke said Timmons’ absence forced significant strategic adjustments last Saturday night. He said there was a scenario in which defensive end Terrence Fede would have played strong-side linebacker, but that never materialized in the game.

“We went through it last year, played a bunch of different guys; it’s like old hat for us,” Burke said.

Burke credited Kiko Alonso for helping galvanize a young group of linebackers.

“Kiko has really grown into his role, knowing he’s going to be here long-term,” Burke said. “Kiko’s level of communication has been awesome. He’s the alpha dog in the room. They feed off his energy.”

He also liked how Allen responded, with four tackles in 13 defensive snaps.

“Chase was great,” Burke said. “I’ve dog cussed him pretty much since the day he walked in this building. I’ve been killing him.

“In the stretch line [on Sunday], I grabbed him by the shirt and said this is why I’ve been [cursing] you all year and this is why you’re here. I yelled at him about two minutes. And he looked at me and said ‘OK coach.’’’

As for the run defense, which limited the Chargers to just 44 yards and 3.1 per carry, Burke said it helped that players took better angles than a year ago.

“Last year, one of our issues was our ends were going too vertical up the field and creating run lanes underneath,” he said.

And Burke credited Godchaux for seizing a significant role. With Jordan Phillips in a walking boot as a precaution Thursday because of an injured ankle, Godchaux’s snap count could be high on Sunday.

“He’s a very mature, tough kid,” Burke said of Godchaux. “The one thing I appreciate about him is he knows his role. He talked to me on Sunday and said, ‘Maybe I’m not necessarily part of the rush plan and third down but I know what I’m here to do. I’m here to stop the run and be physical and tough.’ He’s been great from the start.”

The Dolphins has a historically bad defense last year. It's up to defensive coordinator Matt Burke to fix it.

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