An interesting detail that's been lost as the Dolphins have gone 2-0 is the fact that rookie defensive end Dion Jordan simply hasn't been getting on the field. Against the Cleveland Browns, Jordan played just 18 out of 81 snaps. He was mostly shut down by left tackle Joe Thomas, which is understandable given the quality of the opponent. Jordan's biggest play was a sack that was marred by Jordan committing a facemask penalty on Brandon Weeden.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, who have a far less accomplished left tackle than Joe Thomas, Jordan's snaps actually went down to just 8 snaps against the previously struggling Colts LT Anthony Castonzo. Jordan produced a QB hurry and a QB hit, but that total includes a play in which Jordan infamously pulled up short when he had a clear shot at Andrew Luck because he was fooled into thinking that Luck had already thrown the ball. Instead, Luck took off running for a first down on that critical third down.
While Dion Jordan probably wishes he was known for two big plays rather than two big mistakes in his first two career games, the fact is, he simply hasn't been on the field enough to try to atone for those mistakes. That needs to change for 4 reasons.
1. There's Only So Much a Player Can Learn in Practice
There's a missed-tackle epidemic in the NFL, and the Dolphins defense hasn't been immune with 17 missed tackles in just 2 games so far. The NFL has spent the past couple of years instituting new rules that heavily regulate hits to a QB, hits near a ballcarrier's helmet, and hits with the crown of a defender's helmet. In addition, rules negotiated by the player's union in the current NFL CBA severely limit on-field practice time with pads. Combine those two together, and defenders nowadays have less practice tackling than they used to despite there being more rules than ever regulating how and when they can hit certain players. Unsurprisingly, sloppiness by defenders has come as a result.
To me, it's notable that our rookie pass rusher has had clear shots at a quarterback in each of our two first games, yet he couldn't finish correctly either time. In the first game, despite Brandon Weeden not exactly being "mobile," Jordan grabbed his facemask instead of his torso when trying to bring him down. In the second game, despite Andrew Luck still being in a throwing motion while performing a pump fake, Jordan later admitted that he pulled up short because he thought Luck would get the throw off before the hit landed, and he was afraid of getting flagged for a late hit.
In other words - Dion Jordan is having trouble finishing sacks, and that's not something that will improve in practice against QBs wearing Red Jerseys that mean, "DO NOT TOUCH." Live-hitting has been mostly extinguished nowadays in practice. Dion Jordan isn't going to get better at it unless he's on the field more.
2. Training Camp Standout Olivier Vernon Is Struggling
Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked Cameron Wake as the best 4-3 defensive end in the NFL - by far - last year, and currently ranks him in the top-5 overall. Fellow undrafted free agent DE Derrick Shelby has been one of the most productive backup 4-3 defensive ends in the the NFL. Shelby has been so productive (2 sacks, 1 QB hit, 1 QB hurry) that he's earned 37 total snaps on the field (compared to Dion Jordan's 26), despite the fact that he only comes on the field when we take Wake off the field.
If Olivier Vernon was performing as well in games as he did in training camp, I'd understand why the coaching staff would prioritize getting Vernon out there instead of giving Jordan some valuable in-game experience. However, Vernon has been struggling. The same PFF metrics that have Wake as a top-5 player at his position in the NFL have Vernon ranked dead last as a 4-3 DE in the NFL. Vernon is ranked as the second-worst 4-3 DE pass rusher in the NFL after 2 games. To put that in perspective, Vernon has rushed the passer 4 times as much as Derrick Shelby (88 snaps for Vernon compared to Shelby's 22), yet he's produced arguably worse stats (0.5 sacks, 1 QB hit, 4 QB hurries). Meanwhile, Vernon has been one of the reasons why our run defense is worse this year than last year. Jared Odrick last year wasn't great rushing the passer as a defensive end, but he was a steady force against the run. Vernon is ranked as the worst 4-3 DE against the run so far. Now, part of those poor numbers is the fact that Vernon was up against an elite left tackle in Joe Thomas in week 1. However, in week 2, he was up against an average left tackle in Anthony Castonzo who had played poorly the week before against the Raiders, yet Vernon was still invisible.
Vernon played well last year in limited snaps on both defense and special teams, and it could be that the starting role - and the additional stamina/strength a high snap burden demands - may be too much, too soon for our sophomore 3rd round pick. If that's the case, then playing Dion Jordan more not only gives our rookie valuable experience, but it could give Vernon a much needed breather every now and then. Vernon has played only 2 fewer snaps than Cameron Wake this year...which doesn't seem right.
3. There's No Injury Excuse
This will be short and sweet - Dion Jordan told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald that he feels healthy. Though he's still listed as having a shoulder injury in practice reports, Jordan is a full participant in practice. Last, he plays on kickoffs, which are the most dangerous (in terms of injury risk) plays in the NFL, which is why the NFL has contemplated eliminating kickoffs. If Jordan says he's healthy, goes at full speed in practice, and is healthy enough to play in the most dangerous plays in the NFL, he's healthy enough for more snaps on defense.
4. With the Dolphins' Injuries at Cornerback and the Weapons the Falcons Have at Wide Receiver and Especially Tight End, an Effective Pass Rush Is a Must
The Dolphins drafted Jordan hoping to help Wake by bringing pressure from the opposite edge. Instead, Wake's help so far has come in the form of Jared Odrick, Paul Soliai, and $8.4 million backup Randy Starks forming arguably the most productive pass-rushing defensive tackle rotation in the NFL. However, with Soliai out this week with a knee injury, our defensive tackle rotation has become less talented. Starks will be spending more time against the run, and while he's more than capable of holding up in that role, more snaps on running downs leaves him less fresh on passing downs.
So for this game, the Dolphins cannot afford a situation where Olivier Vernon isn't producing opposite Wake because we might not get as much pressure up the middle. Also, when both of Atlanta's offensive tackles were healthy this year, the Falcons had concerns about both their left tackle, Sam Baker, and their right tackle, struggling first-time starter Lamar Holmes. By PFF's grading, Holmes has been the fifth-worst right tackle in the NFL, and Sam Baker has been the worst left tackle in the NFL. Now, Baker has been ruled out for tomorrow's game due to injury. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are listing 4 of their top 6 cornerbacks on the injury report, with only Brent Grimes, Nolan Carroll, and RJ Stanford healthy. Also, Dolphins free safety Chris Clemons is dealing with a hamstring injury that could sap his speed against a team that features multiple big-play threats.
This is a game where the Dolphins' pass pressure will be needed to make up for potentially questionable coverage of Atlanta's pass catchers. While in my last article, I discussed why concerns about our ability to cover tight ends are legitimate but a little overblown, there's no doubt that Tony Gonzalez is a bit more accomplished as a receiving tight end than the Colts' Coby Fleener and the Brown's Jordan Cameron. The best way to defend Gonzalez is to have a pass rush so ferocious that the Falcons force him to stay in-line to pass block. If Cameron Wake and Derrick "Destroyer of Worlds" Shelby do their thing against the Falcons' backup right tackle, and Dion Jordan abuses Lamar Holmes, who is switching to left tackle for this game, that virtually guarantees Gonzalez will be spending a lot of time blocking. That's a victory because Gonzalez can't kill us catching jump-balls in the middle of the field or the endzone if he's blocking. Also, as I discussed in my last article, Coyle has been asking Vernon and Shelby to drop into coverage on some blitzes, and both have been burned on a big play by a TE. Jordan, at least in theory, should be better than them in that role.
Until our young backup cornerbacks get healthier and more experienced, we'll need pressure to protect our coverage. Dion Jordan potentially boosts both our pressure and coverage...but he needs to be on the field more to do it.