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What's wrong with the Dolphins defense?

We've talked a lot this season about the obvious need on the offensive side of the ball. By now, we all know that one position that needs an upgrade is the wide receiver position. But we haven't talked about just how bad Miami's defense has been this year. But they've been quite bad. In fact, if somebody was to ask me for one word to describe this defense, I'd probably say, "awful."

Just how bad has it been? Just browsing the season numbers tells you the story - in a nut shell, at least. The Dolphins are 26th in points allowed per game (25), 19th in yards allowed per game (341), and 21st in yards allowed per play (5.6).

Of course, you have to look at all the numbers - which show it hasn't been all bad. The Dolphins have 35 sacks - only the Vikings have more. And they are only allowing opponents to convert 33% of their third downs - tied for the lowest figure in the league.

If the Dolphins can rush the passer and they can get off the field on third down, what the hell is the problem here?

That's the question I've had in my head for weeks now - and has consumed me since the loss to Buffalo on Sunday. Even in that game, the Dolphins sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick six times and limited the Bills to just 3/10 on third down. But still, the Bills gained 336 yards - with Fitzpatrick throwing for 246 yards against the Dolphins.

As far as I can tell, there are two major issues regarding Miami's defense. The first is that they are prone to surrendering the big play. The Dolphins have allowed 39 passing plays of 20+ yards (4th most in league) and 10 passing plays of 40+ yards (also 4th most in league). In fact, the only teams with more plays of 40+ yards allowed? The Chiefs, Lions, and Raiders. Not good company to be grouped in with. And Miami's 7.9 yards allowed per pass attempt is also the 4th highest in the league - again only trailing those same three teams.

When you factor in those numbers with the fact that 38.5% of all pass attempts against the Dolphins result in first downs (only the Lions have a higher percentage), it's easy to see how the Dolphins can have the best third down defense in the league and still stink on defense. They have only forced their opponents to face a third down 136 times - the 4th fewest third downs faced in the league.

What good is it being effective on third down if you give up large chunks of yardage on first and second down?

The other problem, of course, has been this defense's performance in the fourth quarter.

The Dolphins have surrendered 134 fourth quarter points in 2009, which is an average of 12.2 per game and is obviously dead last in the NFL. But that isn't even the ugliest statistic.

I went back and calculated some disgusting statistics from the fourth quarters of Miami's eleven games in 2009. The results made me sick, to be honest.

In the fourth quarter alone (and not counting a drive in which only kneel downs were run by the opponent), the Dolphins are allowing 118.4 yards per game, 6.9 yards per play, and an astounding 40.7 yards per possession.

So what in the world is the problem during the fourth quarter? Is the coaching staff not making the proper adjustments? Are the players just tired?

As far as Miami's tendency to allow the big play, I guess you have to chalk some of it up to having to start two rookie cornerbacks. But is it time to worry a little bit about those young corners?

And just how do the Dolphins fix this in the offseason? Do they bring in a veteran corner and move one of their rookies out of a starting job? So they bring in a new safety and bench (or cut) one of the two expensive safeties that they gave big contracts to last offseason?

I know there's been a lot of talk about spending a high draft pick on a linebacker. But is the linebacker position (inside or outside) really the problem?

All I know is that I have many more questions than I do answers - which is not a good feeling.