December 7th 2021
There is often an opportunity that discomfort creates if it is welcomed.
It’s called growth, and that is what we’ve been witnessing from the Miami Dolphins defense the past five weeks, where that unit’s development, and tightening of the screws has helped the Dolphins (6-7) transform from an NFL laughingstock due to their seven straight losses into a franchise deserving some respect.
Tua Tagovailoa’s accuracy, anticipation and pocket presence have allowed the offense become respectable during Miami’s five-game winning streak. But it’s the defense that is doing the heavy lifting once again.
If there’s one thing the 2021 season has taught us is that expecting things to carryover from one season to the next in the NFL is shortsighted.
The slightest alteration of your roster — like a swap from safety from Bobby McCain to Jevon Holland, a change at outside linebacker from Kyle Van Noy to Jaelan Phillips, the absence of an edge setter Shaq Lawson — could drastically alter your team’s chemistry, shift the unit’s strengths and weaknesses, and impact the team’s style of play.
Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer got a crash course on this earlier this season when he tried to run the same scheme that produced one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses in 2020 with different personnel.
While the defensive play-calls might have been similar — if not the same — the execution wasn’t, and the product on the field left plenty to be desired considering the Dolphins sat at the bottom of many important NFL statistical rankings before the wins started piling up.
Then comfort set in, roles were adapted, and the screws tightened. During this five-game winning streak Miami’s defense allowed just four touchdowns, a stretch where Miami’s opponents averaged 11 points per game.
“I feel like we’re back to that level,” Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard said, referring to the sack-producing, turnover-creating unit the Dolphins possessed last season. “I feel like everybody is confident, everybody is having fun.”
But the road back to respectable wasn’t easy, and featured some growing pains.
For instance, Miami’s run defense tightened once nose tackle Raekwon Davis returned from the knee injury he suffered in the season opener. In the nine games Davis has played since his return only three teams have rushed for 100 or more yards against Miami.
As a result, the Dolphins rank ninth against the run now, allowing 103.8 rushing yards per game, heading into this weekend’s bye.
Clamping down against the run set the table for everything else, but Miami had to overcome some injuries, and be patient with its young players’ development to get here.
Howard and Byron Jones, Miami’s two upper-echelon cornerbacks, the talents whose skill-set this defense is built around, were each nursing a groin injury at the same time earlier in the season. Their injuries impacted their performance, and the schemes Miami could run for nearly a month.
It also took Holland, the Dolphins’ 2021 second-round pick, half a season to become comfortable in Miami’s defense. Now the former Oregon standout is one of the team’s top playmakers, and a leader the secondary leans on.
He’s proof that sometimes teams have to wait for young players to blossom.
That seemed to be the case with not just Holland, but Phillips, whom the Dolphins selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2021 draft. The former University of Miami standout struggled to quickly learn everything that came with being a linebacker in Miami’s scheme.
The Dolphins eventually scrapped (or tabled) the outside linebacker role, and began to use Phillips exclusively as a pass rusher. Last Sunday Phillips set a Dolphins rookie record by reaching 8.5 sacks on the season, and seven of them have come in the past five games.
To simplify things for Phillips, Jerome Baker became an edge player, returning to the outside linebacker role he held in his rookie season. That opened the door for Duke Riley to get more playing time at inside linebacker.
Miami’s defense evolved into what it is today through trial and error and ultimately found a formula that works for this unit — not last year’s defense.
Last year the Dolphins defense allowed a touchdown 57.4 percent of the time teams reached the red zone, which ranked Miami seventh in that statistical category.
This year Miami is allowing 50 percent of red-zone opportunities to turn into touchdowns, which ties Miami with Buffalo for fourth in the NFL.
Only Baltimore, New England and New Orleans are better, and that’s good company to keep.
“It’s about trusting the process. Believing in what you’re doing. Believing in the scheme, and believing in the players,” Boyer said. “From the players, from the coaches, even when things haven’t been good. We all understand that we’re approaching things the right way. We’re working the right way. We haven’t always gotten the results we wanted. Just because you work hard, prepare the right way, coaching it the right way, it really comes down to execution on Sundays.”
The evolution will continue as Holland, Phillips and Baker become more comfortable in their new roles.
The hope is that the growth we’ve seen this past month will carry on throughout the final four games of the regular season, and maybe next year’s defense will start out the 2022 season with less discomfort.