Upside, Downside, Most likely - Dolphins Defense

This is the second part of the best case/ worst case/probably look at the 2010 Miami Dolphins.  As I mentioned in the first part, rather than discuss the merit of these individual changes, or the perceived failure to address certain apparent areas of need, we are looking at the bigger picture.  Where is each overall unit at today?  What do these units look like heading into the season if everything goes right?  And what are the biggest risks if things don’t go as planned?  For this post, we will focus on the Defense as a whole.

The effectiveness of a unit depends as much, and maybe even more so, upon how the different parts work together, as the individual ability of the parts.  And this is especially true on the Defensive side of the ball.  For instance, on Offense, you can have a great QB/WR combo that will move the ball and score points despite deficiencies in other areas, like RB.  For an example of this, look no further than most of the Marino years.  And on Offense, you only need to be successful in moving the ball into field goal range, or hitting one big play to be considered "successful".

The Defense, on the other hand, needs to be almost perfect in order to be considered successful.  It only takes a handful of broken plays or missed assignments in order to lose a game.  Just look to the Colts game or the Saints game last season.  In both games, the Offense played very well – making long, sustained drives to keep the other teams’ Offenses off the field.  But in each case, only a few plays given up by the Defense resulted in a loss.  And often times, the failure of a Defense to stop a play can be the result of just one or two weak links.

For that reason, it is much easier to see the potential Downside of the 2010 Miami D, than to predict the Upside.  It only takes a couple of things to go wrong; a key injury, or a draft pick or second year player not developing as expected, and the unit could struggle; but to be successful, we will need 5 or 6 new players to step up.

The Miami Defensive Line uses a 3 man front as a base.  The reality is that you can’t fairly evaluate the performance of a 3 man front, in a 3-4 base package, without considering the LBs.  Rarely does a 3 man front get pressure on the passer without help.  The help does not have to come in the form of an extra pass rusher or two… it can actually come from perfect pass coverage from the LBs and DBs.  On obvious passing downs, it is not too unusual to see the D rush three and keep everyone else back, and eventually have one of the DEs or the NT get to the QB.  But most often, we are looking at the LBs being part of the pass rush, and integral in stopping the opposing run game.

As for the DBs, we will talk about a base 4 man secondary.  They have to be able to stand on their own in limiting opposing receivers to little or no gain.  But their overall effectiveness is directly tied to the effectiveness of the pass rush, and to the predictability of the opposing offense by being put into obvious passing situations.


Upside

You can’t talk about Upside, without first talking about Mike Nolan.  I like the potential talent upgrades we have made to the defensive personnel, but in my opinion, the single biggest upgrade made to the Miami Dolphins 2010 defense over 2009 is the addition of this man.

When I look at the players from last season, I see the deficiencies we had in positions like Free Safety.  But when I look at games lost, most of the time, I believe it boiled down to play calling.  Paul Pasqualoni pulled when he should have pushed; zigged when he should have zagged.  When playing from a lead - a time which the Defense should have pinned their ears back and made it a priority to keep the opposing passer out of rhythm - our Defense would almost go into a Prevent.  Hey, if I am the Defense trying to stop Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, and I have them back on their heels, the last thing I want to do is give them time to get their feet back under them!   I think that Nolan’s more aggressive Defense might have turned those loses into wins last season, and I fully expect him to make the best use of the considerable talent we have at several positions on Defense this season.

With everyone discussing Mike Nolan’s hybrid defense, there are many different looks that we can show, but for the sake of a base package, let’s talk about a standard 3-4.  In this case, the Defensive starting lineup would probably look something like this (hat tip to Kdog92, I am just going with his assumptions on this one):

DL - (DE) Jared Odrick, (NT) Randy Starks, (DE) Kendall Langford
LB - (OLB) Cameron Wake, (ILB) Channing Crowder, (ILB) Karlos Dansby, (OLB) Koa Misi
DB - (CB) Sean Smith, (SS) Yeremiah Bell, (CB) Vontae Davis, (FS) Chris Clemons

We are talking about upside, but I want to try to keep it real.  Of the rookies, only Odrick and Misi could likely be expected to start, barring injuries.  And with this lineup, we still have new starters at 6 positions.  That is over HALF of the Defense!  And of those 6 positions, only Starks was a starter for the Fins last year at a different position.  The remaining 5 spots boast 2 rookies, and 2 second year men in Wake and Clemons who saw limited action last season. 


This lineup is far from written in stone. 

There are ALL kinds of different ways this could go:  You could have Tim Dobbins come in and win the starting spot next to Dansby; you could have another rookie in Reshad Jones come in and light up camp and start at FS; you could have the coaches decide that Odrick needs to be eased in to the role, and start Marques Douglas instead… and so on and so on….  In fact, the only truly established positions are Starks at NT, Langford at one DE spot, and Dansby at ILB.

"WHAT???  HOW CAN YOU THINK THAT BELL ISN’T A LOCK?  OR SMITH?  OR DAVIS?"
I am glad you asked.  THIS question is at the heart of this season’s upside on defense! 

And the ANSWER is – Competition.

We KNOW how good Bell, and Smith, and Davis can be… and while Bell is consistently solid, the expectations for Smith and Davis are for a big improvement over their rookie seasons last year. 

So let me ask YOU a couple of questions:

How much better would Will Allen have to be to come in and snatch his starting position back? 

And would that be a bad thing, to have him playing so well that he sends Smith or Davis to the nickel spot?

Same with Bell.  Reshad Jones is projected by many to be a "Troy Polamalu" type of ball hawking, "knock you into next week" Strong Safety.  We know what we have in Bell.  How good would Jones have to be to beat out Bell?

Same if Dobbins, or even (long shot to start) A.J. Edds, beats out Crowder.

And there are still Quentin Moses, Charlie Anderson, Erik Walden, and (long shot) Chris McCoy looking to compete at OLB.

So upside-wise, with just the talent in the projected starting lineup above, and Mr. Mike Nolan calling the plays, we could easily make the kind of jump in Defensive effectiveness that Denver saw last season.  But with the competitive talent at so many positions; with just a few guys who step up and take positions away from projected starters because they are just that doggone good, the Dolphins have the potential to be a top team in terms of sacks and takeaways this season.  How exciting would that be for us Fin Fans to watch on Sundays?  I am almost getting more pumped up about the improvement on Defense than on Offense this year!

 

Downside

But when you swing for the fences, you run the risk of striking out, and there is significant risk associated with the Dolphins Front Office plan this year.  These are some of the things that could go wrong:

  • Letting Joey Porter and Jason Taylor go could prove to be a mistake.  I was glad to see Porter go, but it still seems like a negligent decision to let Taylor go before knowing whether or not one of the young guys would step up.  I would have signed Taylor and let him be in the competitive mix during training camp.  Right now we hope that between Wake, Misi, and maybe Anderson or Moses, someone can replace the outside QB pressure that came from JP and JT.
  • Right now, the most irreplaceable guys on that side of the ball are Starks and Dansby.  An injury to either would severely limit the effectiveness of the entire Defense.  Everything is being built around these two guys.
  • Randy Starks doesn’t work at NT.  The risk is not just that Starks will be inadequate at NT; it is also that by moving him we degrade the DE position.  If Starks has trouble holding down the middle, or Odrick doesn’t develop fast enough, we will get less inside pressure on the pocket than last year, and end up with either a 4-3 front, or having to commit a LB on just about every play.  Another option in this case would be to move Randy back to DE, and put Paul Soliai back at NT.
  • Our young CBs run into a sophomore slump.  We are counting on Smith and Davis to take a step forward, because they were good for rookies last year, but NOT quite good enough to be a starting CB tandem in the AFC East this season, without improvement.
  • No one outright claims the FS position.  Since we do not actually have a known starter to provide a benchmark to beat, we could end up with a bunch of guys trying to learn the position, and going with Tyrone Culver as the "safest" Safety choice.  This would not really scare opposing QBs away from the deep ball.
  • And, as has been pointed out by others, without adequate talent, D.C. Mike Nolan will have to resort to ever more elaborate "schemes".  This can be effective early in the season when all things are new to all teams, but can become less effective as the season progresses and teams have seen most of the tricks.

 

So what is the most likely scenario?

In spite of the worst case scenarios, the downside is fairly limited by the depth of options and the fact that Mike Nolan can tailor the D to the best available players.  With the return of Will Allen, I think you can count on our CBs being solid, with the worst of the top three going to nickel.  The FS position is a concern, but Culver is serviceable as long as he plays deep and doesn’t let anyone get behind him.  I would guess Clemons will get the job if all things are even, just because they want to try to develop him.

Crowder and Dansby will play most of the season at ILB.  Dobbins will get some reps.  Edds will only play in garbage time, or if Crowder and/or Dobbins get injured.

Both OLB spots are in question, but I think Wake will be okay.  I don’t think he will be the Pro Bowl talent that everyone is hoping for, but even if last season was as good as he gets, that is pretty good.  We will just need to rotate guys at both OLB positions, and I think Nolan can do that effectively between Wake, Misi, Moses, Anderson, and maybe Walden or McCoy.

Starks will excel at NT.  He has the talent, and I have been expecting to see him play there since he came over from Tennessee.  I think he will be above average and solid at least.  And Nolan will also probably give Soliai some opportunity to improve.

The D-Line is solid, even without Odrick.  Just starting Langford, Starks, and Douglas in a 3 man front does not look bad.  And you have Soliai, Ryan Baker, Lionel Dotson, and Tony McDaniel who can rotate in at either DT or DE.
Odrick will play.  A lot!  He may not begin the season as a starter, but he can be expected to play both DE and DT during the season.

 

Bottom line

Barring catastrophic injury, this Defense will be very good, and could end up being top 5.  Nolan is the main reason, because the Dolphins actually have quite a bit of talent, and Nolan will rotate schemes to make the best use of that talent. 

Whether he uses 2 NTs side by side as the down linemen and 5 LBs, or 4 DEs and 3 LBs, the Dolphins have adequate "position flexibility" in their players to pull it off. 

The DBs will improve greatly!  Yes, greatly!  Nolan’s pressure schemes and random blitzers will create more opportunity for turnovers.  A healthy Will Allen, and a 2nd year for Smith and Davis will help cover up any potential weakness at FS.  I actually, think Chris Clemons will end up with the job and play well.

I bet Mike Nolan is just licking his chops, waiting for the chance to take this Defense out for a spin in Training Camp, open’r up, and see what she’ll do!

 

P.S. - If you haven't read it, i suggest you take a look at vaneasy2338's article below for a great look at some of the key pieces to the puzzle this season:

Pieces to the Puzzle: 3-4 hybrid and Mike Nolan's 2-4-5

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