A lot of the Miami Dolphins' defensive focus this preseason has been on the anticipated dominance by the starting cornerback duo of Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. However, there is another aspect of the team that is getting overlooked - the Dolphins have a stellar linebacking corps.
In the 2010 off season, Miami made a couple of personnel splashes. They traded for Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall and signed free agent linebacker Karlos Dansby after six years in Arizona. Dansby became the highest paid inside linebacker in NFL history (since surpassed), and was seen as the anchor for the defense for years to come.
The pieces around Dansby may have needed some growth and refinement in 2010 - even though they finsihed sixth in the NFL in yards allowed. Now in 2011, they are ready to really show the NFL what they can do.
Next to Dansby as the other inside linebacker is Miami newcomer Kevin Burnett. Burnett spent his first four years in the league playing with the Dallas Cowboys, while the last two years he was a member of the San Diego Chargers. Burnett was added to the team with one objective in mind.
Stop the all-you-can-eat buffet that was the Dolphins defense against tight ends last year.
Dolphins General Manager Jeff Ireland recently expressed something all of us as Dolphins fans screamed throughout the 2010 season. "Last year on third downs - and even on first downs - our linebackers were getting exposed in space," Ireland stated.
And that's why they went out to get Burnett. When he's teamed with Dansby, the two have the potential to shut down the tight end position. "He's real quick," Dansby told the South Florida Sun Sentinel about Burnett. "He thinks he's better than me, but he's not."
Outside linebacker, Cameron Wake, added, "He's all over the place, making plays all over the field. We tease him, and tell him he's a big [defensive back], sometimes." Burnett actually played safety all through high school, only making the position change to linebacker when he got to college. His performance thus far has shown why the Dolphins felt they could move on from former starter Channing Crowder.
Backing up the two starting inside linebackers is A.J. Edds, Miami's 2010 fourth-round draft pick. Edds was placed on injured reserve last year with a torn ACL, resulting in him missing the entire campaign. Drafted by Miami out of Iowa for his coverage abilities, having shutdown tight ends through the Big Ten, Edds is showing that ability now at the NFL level.
"We're going o play a lot of athletic tight ends, guys that can stretch the field," Edds explained. "It starts from Week 1, and we'll see some of these guys multiple times. That's kind of become a there in the NFL" big, athletic tight ends that can block well enough and can run and catch."
Wake, meanwhile, finished the 2010 season with 14.0 sacks, a sack-and-a-half short of the NFL lead. It's something he has thought about ever since. Mike Bernandino, from the Sun-Sentinel, explained that when he reimnds Wake taht the title was "his for the taking," Wake simply whispers, "I know...I know."
Wake lost the sack title to his former Penn State teammate, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hall, in large part due to a three game stretch to end the season. During those games, Wake failed to record a sack. Since then, Wake hasn't stopped watching the tape.
"You put it on and really critique yourself," Wake said yesterday. "You look at yourself and say, 'Is that the best way I could have played that?'"
Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano spoke about Wake, stating, "I think Cam is really motivated. I don't think he's a guy that ever rests that way. No shortcuts for Cam. He plays with a chip on his shoulder." The entire coaching staff has tried to warn Wake that his 2010 performance will make 2011 that much harder. The Dolphins expect their opponents to slide more protection towards Wake, a trend they saw start near the end of last year.
"I always say, the tackle I'm facing, he's at home right now studying me," Wake says of the increased attention. "If I'm watching whatever sitcom on TV, he's studying plays, when that third and long comes, or that play needs to be made, he knows something about me that I don't know about him. You always want to outwork your opponent. When they're sleeping, I'm working. It will all show on game day."
Wake isn't the only outside linebacker making a difference in Miami, though. second year player, Koa Misi is trying to learn everything he can to improve his game. New Dolphins "pas rush" coach, Bryan Cox, recently said of Misi, "Koa is a guy who's eager learning. He's tried to find me, he's tried to get into my back pocket, he wants to be everywhere I am. 'Hey Coach, what about this?' 'When can I get back to you?' So, you know, when you have guys that are eager to learn and eager to do things, it kind of excites you, and it kind of get you motivated to gou out there and show them and really try to help them any way you can."
And, finally, there's the biggest name to come to Miami this offseason. Future Hall of Fame defensive end/linebacker Jason Taylor came home (again) this year. Recognizing his role as a backup linebacker, a pass rush specialist, and a pseudo-coach to the younger players, Taylor is working hard to ensure he stays a defensive presence, while trying to pass along everything he can to Misi, Wake, and the rest of the defense.
"I'm here to be a reserve," the NFL's 2006 Defensive Player of the Year stated when he first got back to Miami. "I understand how old I am. I've got a lot of miles. I'm here to help scratch where it itches, help whatever spot I can play to help this team be successful. It's not about playing time, or generating stats. This is about winning football games.
Taylor might want to look at the stats, just a little, though. As the Sun-Sentinel's Omar Kelly points out in this article, Taylor is just six sacks short of sixth pace all time. That would place him behind just Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Chris Dolemand, and Michael Strahan. He would surpass Lawrence Taylor, Leslie O'Neal, John Randle, and Richard Dent.
The Dolphins clearly have the potential to move from last year's sixth best defense to number one this year. While the cornerbacks are getting all the "swagger," it's the linebackers who are quietly putting together the pieces. With the Dolphins looking to be even more explosive toward the quarterback, while finally shutting down the sieve that was tight end coverage the last few year, it could be a rough year for opposing offenses.
As Mike Berardino reported about Wake:
"'So many plays you see where it's this: Just miss and the ball is completed and it's a first down,' Wake said. 'you almost got to the quarterback, but you were right here and he threw the ball.'
"He snaps his fingers.
"'How small is that?' [Wake] said. 'That's why you sit down and nitpick. What could you have done better to there quickier or get back that one step you lost because you hesitated on the line or your hand placement was wrong or whatever?'"
Is this demand to be great that will propel the Dolphins to be elite. It's this demand to be perfect that will carry the Dolphins this year. And it's this defense that will make sure Miami is a force to be watched in 2011.
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