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What has happened to the Miami Dolphins defense?

The Miami Dolphins are supposed to be a defense-led team. They have not been that this season.

NFL: OCT 09 Dolphins at Jets

The Miami Dolphins are a team led by a strong defense, able to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks while creating mismatches through a position-less front seven and a dominating secondary. The defense forces turnovers through confusion. “You know, it was cover zero the majority of the whole game,” Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Miller said of the Dolphins after Miami beat the Ravens. “They just got hot each and every time. I was dropping back, just couldn’t do nothing about that.”

Except, that quote was after Miami’s 2021 win, not this year’s win. And, the Dolphins defense is not performing at that kind of level this year. In fact, they are pretty much the opposite of that dominating unit who confused a former MVP and shut down teams during the season.

The Dolphins defense is allowing 386.8 yards per game this season, ranking them 25th in the league. They have allowed 276.8 passing yards per game, 28th in the league. The 110.0 yards per game allowed is 13th in the league. And, they are giving up 26.2 points per game, ranking them 29th in the league.

A defense that is built to create turnovers simply has not been the same this season. They recorded 14 interceptions in 2021, or an average of 0.82 interceptions per game. This year, they have one over five games, giving them a 0.20 interceptions per game average. In 2021, they recovered 28 fumbles or 1.65 fumbles per game. This year, three fumbles recovered thus far for a 0.60 per game average. Miami finished the 2021 season even on turnover differential, with 26 takeaways and 26 giveaways, but their takeaways was good enough for the eighth most in the league while the giveaways was the sixth highest total in the NFL in 2021. It was not the fault of the defense that the offense gave up the ball so often. This season, Miami is tied for 23rd in turnover differential at minus-two, and they are 30th in the league in takeaways.

“Just got to do your job and splash plays will happen,” safety Jevon Holland said this week when asked about the limited turnovers Miami is forcing.

The Dolphins brought back most of their defensive starters this year, including re-signing defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to a four-year, $65-million contract. They kept most of their defensive coaching staff under defensive coordinator Josh Boyer despite a change to the head coach. Miami expected to see the 2022 defense pick up where the 2021 edition left off.

And it just has not happened.

Injuries, of course, have played a part in all of this, especially when it comes to the cornerback spot. Starter Byron Jones has been on the physically unable to perform list due to an Achilles surgery from which his recover is taking longer than expected. All Pro Xavien Howard has been trying to play through groin issues sustained in Week 3, slowing him in Week 4, and causing him to miss the team’s Week 5 game. Not having your top two cornerbacks obviously impacts what the defense can do. No longer do the Dolphins have players who are guaranteed to lock down the opposing top receivers, but you also have to adjust the blitz package and rate for the team when you need more people to assist in coverage in the secondary.

“It’s large,” Holland said of missing Howard and Jones. “Those two guys are very important people on the team and not just on the field, but also in the locker room. So not having them out there is definitely a blow that the defense takes. But like I said earlier, guys got to step up and do their job. We are professionals and we are grown men, so you got to take it on the chin. You’ve got to go into the game knowing that you don’t have those guys and execute.”

“What changes? I mean, the guy is a superstar in this league,” linebacker Jerome Baker said of missing Howard. “He’s one of the best corners in this league. So you can just imagine, our defense is going to change a little bit. You can put him on any receiver and he’s going to pretty much lock them down or get interceptions off of them. So, of course it’s a blow to our defense, but we have great guys that come in and they can do a pretty good job. So the expectations don’t change for our defense when he’s out. We still have to get it done.”

According to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins have blitzed on 27 percent of their defensive plays. Compare that to last year, when they were blitzing on 39.6 percent of their plays, the second most in the league.

Miami created pressure on 28.5 percent of their defensive snaps in 2021. They are only generating pressure on 14.3 percent of their plays this year, the 30th ranked team in terms of pressure.

The cornerbacks are not there, so the blitz packages are not being used. The base package is not getting to the quarterback, either, though. Miami’s starting defensive line, Ogbah, Raekwon Davis, and Christian Wilkins, along with Zach Sieler and John Jenkins, are not getting into the backfield. The outside linebackers who should be creating pressure as edge rushers in the 3-4 scheme, are not getting there either. Jalen Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel are struggling to get after the quarterback. The only player who really has had any success is Melvin Ingram, who was named the first Defensive Player of the Month this year.

If you take out Ingram’s two sacks and two fumbles recovered this year, Miami has a total of seven sacks and one fumble recovered. Safety Brandon Jones has two sacks and Baker and Holland each have 1.5 sacks this year, sacks that resulted primarily because of the limited blitzing the Dolphins have done this year. You take away another five sacks away from the team, and you are left with just one sack each from Phillips and Ogbah. The Dolphins are not creating pressure without the blitz, and they are not blitzing nearly as often as they did last season.

Maybe the Dolphins will be able to correct the issues when they get Howard and Jones on the field. Maybe the amoeba, cover zero blitz packages will come back into use. But, until the Dolphins are able to get their starting cornerbacks back to full strength, the team still has to create pressure and get after the opposing quarterback. Right now, something is not right with the Miami defense and they have to figure it out quickly.