We’re going to start by pointing out that, yes, since last season ended, the Miami Dolphins have cut their most talented defensive player, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
But he cost too much and wasn’t the ideal leader, so there are reasons. Valid reasons.
We’re now going to note that Miami’s defense should be better in 2018 than it was in 2017. And it had better be. And who else believes it’s going to be? Defensive coordinator Matt Burke.
“We have high expectations in the defensive room, on this staff, for this unit, and I expect that we’ll perform better. If not, I’m sure I’ll hear it from you guys,” Burke said at a recent press conference.
The defense should be better because it is more balanced and deeper and because since since the arrival of Burke and coach Adam Gase in 2016, the Dolphins have heavily invested in the types of players Burke says he needs, especially in the draft.
NFL teams are truly built in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. Since the new regime change, Miami has invested five such picks on defensive players and only two such picks on offensive players.
Miami’s salary cap is also tilted toward defense, an overarching organizational philosophy.
Burke has been provided top prospects at all levels — physical corners Xavien Howard and Cordrea Tankersley, athletic middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, edge rusher Charles Harris and dynamic, playmaking defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Frankly speaking, it is more than enough to be better. Now. This season.
“I have high expectations,” Burke said. “I do every year. Obviously, we’ve been fortunate the last couple drafts and offseason to add some pieces. Chris Grier and those guys have done a good job in trying to get … I’m like the broken record in terms of me always wanting more, more, more and ‘Give me this,’ and ‘I don’t have this,’ and all of that. They’ve done a good job of providing some of those weapons and pieces.”
In 2016, Miami was scorched by opposing running backs. The Dolphins’ defense was among the very worst in the league in rushing yards per game allowed and rushing yards per carry allowed.
In 2017, Burke, in his first season as defensive coordinator, made adjustments that successfully, for the most part, addressed that.
But Miami’s pass defense suffered. Last season, Miami was among the worst in the league at opposing passer rating, turnovers, interceptions, and sacks. As a result, Miami was among the worst in the league at points per game allowed.
Simply put, this must be a year the entire group steps forward. This must be the year Miami plays better overall team defense. And there are reasons for optimism.
There are zero excuse for Miami to not produce much, much more pressure and many, many more sacks. Cam Wake, newly acquired Robert Quinn, Harris and Andre Branch should be among the best pass rush groups in the league.
If they are not, something is wrong.
And Burke, who is scholarly and diligent, now has an extremely versatile collection of assets who can both cover and blitz. That group includes Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kiko Alonso and Jerome Baker.
It is on Burke to make it work. It is on Burke to figure it out.
“We’ve got some different body types and some versatile players in there that may end up shaking out,” Burke said. “Again, looking ahead, it’s sort of package to package or week to week and things like that.”
Barring injury (McMillan’s season-ender dealt an early and crippling blow last year) Burke will have matchup advantages, and must capitalize on them. Burke made it clear last season he didn’t have the ideal player to cover tight ends and running backs, especially tight ends, on a consistent basis.
Miami drafted Fitzpatrick and Baker, in large part, because they can both do just that.
Burke and a new group of defensive position coaches must also facilitate growth in Miami’s young corners (there must be more turnovers), maximize Fitzpatrick’s massive talents and somehow, get more from Miami’s front seven. They must do this while not regressing so badly in the area of run defense that it’s deja vu all over again in the middle.
Miami’s defense was 18th in scoring defense and 29th in total defense in 2016.
Miami’s defense was 29th in scoring defense and 16th in total defense in 2017.
There is enough talent and depth on this roster for Miami’s defense to be in the top half of the league in both scoring defense and total defense in 2018. There should be more sacks, more turnovers, improved pass defense and fewer points allowed.
“You put me on the spot,” Burke said recently. “Yes, Again, right or wrong, I have high expectations every season. But the more that we develop these guys and the more we kind of get the pieces that we think fit our scheme… The more of those guys that we keep adding to the puzzle and the more we can get them comfortable playing the techniques we want to play and doing the things we want to do, obviously the better we should play.”