The last time Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke held a press conference, he was asked — once again — about what it’s going to take to slow down opposing tight ends.
Only the Oakland Raiders allowed more receiving yards to tight ends and only the New York Giants allowed more touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
Something must change.
For the second half of this season, safety T.J. McDonald — ramping up from a half-season suspension — was most often asked to play centerfield, while Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones played closer to the line of scrimmage.
Using McDonald more often in a hybrid safety-linebacker role in 2018 could be considered.
“It could be,” Burke said. “(McDonald) has obviously got a skillset that fits like that type of role. Obviously, he’s a bigger safety. Again, the issue you get into is if you have small safeties and you put them down and maybe they’re too small in the run game or if you have linebackers that can’t run with tight ends, that’s just sort of the contrast. He definitely has a skillset that we feel like we can utilize.”
In 2016, McDonald played for the Rams, who fell to the Falcons in a playoff game on Saturday. In that game, you may have noticed McDonald’s former teammate, Mark Barron, playing linebacker.
Barron was a highly-drafted safety from Alabama, but has made a successful conversion.
You may also have noticed Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, a former LSU standout. Jones is a classic example of what NFL defensive coordinators now crave — a player who is physical enough to stop the run but also athletic enough to cover pass receivers.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn utilizes Jones in various roles, depending on down and distance. It’s something Burke wasn’t able to get to often enough with McDonald last season, in large part because of injuries to safeties Nate Allen, Michael Thomas and Mo Smith.
In particular, Smith is a player to watch in 2018, as the organization has relatively high hopes for the former undrafted rookie from Alabama and Georgia. (Think he’ll be watching Monday night’s national championship game?)
“We’re a little thin at safety position right now to be honest with you,” Burke said before the season finale. “I try to work some different things. It has been… Again, it’s always a big picture in terms of how you’re utilizing the roster. Again, if you try to move T.J. down into the box or wherever, you’ve got to put somebody else in. As I always say, if you’re taking somebody off the field, you’ve got to put somebody in. We haven’t necessarily had the matchups to be able to do some of those things.”
In the last game, Burke tried to use safety/cornerback Walt Aikens in a unique role. Burke has shown a desire to be creative, if he believes in the depth of personnel at a position as well as in the matchups he can create.
McDonald is excited about the prospect of playing an entire season alongside Jones. And even though he made many of his most eye-opening plays when featured near the line in 2017, he is open to any role.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I can do,” McDonald said last week, on pack up day in Davie. “I definitely feel with the skill sets that we have that we can do multiple things and you know it can be difficult for offenses to pick up on exactly what we’re going. So I’m excited about that.”
On the surface, it seems Jones and McDonald have some of the same skill sets, in terms of ability to make explosive plays near the line of scrimmage as well as creating game-changing plays with big hits and forced turnovers.
McDonald said he’ll be in a player place mentally when next season begins.
“It was different, ” McDonald said of this season. “That’s how I would describe it. I wouldn’t have a situation like how I had this year. Playing half the season. I’m excited to come back and hit the ground running. Better. And with a clear head.”
McDonald said starting fast will be a key for he and Jones next season.
“Being able to establish our identity as a safety combination,” McDonald said. “And just starting fast. Being physical. Going and get the rock. Being able to be the anchors on the back end.”
Burke concedes he was searching this season for the best players to match up with tight ends (and running backs and running quarterbacks and slot receivers). As the league has moved toward more spread offenses, it creates unique matchup issues for defensive coordinators.
“I think that’s sort of a task for us is finding similar hybrid defenders that can do those type of things, whether it’s safeties of linebackers, that we feel can cover those guys,”Burke said. “I think that’s just sort of an ongoing movement.”
DAVIE — Zach Sterup is in line to make his first NFL start on Sunday.
It will be easy to notice Sterup, and not only because he’s playing left tackle for the Miami Dolphins, where players tend to be trusted to block the opponents’ best pass rusher one-on-one.
It would be hard to miss Sterup (#71 in your final Dolphins game program of 2017) because he’s 6-foot-9, 318 pounds.
“I don’t think I’ve been around a guy that tall and long,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Friday.
Veteran defensive lineman William Hayes is on injured reserve now. But when he was practicing against Sterup, he told Gase something that might be a bit encouraging for Miami on Sunday.
“He’s got really good punch,” Hayes said of Sterup. “He’s hard to get around.”
Last season, Sterup spent time on the practice squads of the Chiefs, Jets and Browns. Before this season, the Dolphins found another diamond-in-the-rough who had appeared on the Jets practice squad in similarly gigantic guard/tackle Jesse Davis.
Davis has performed so well he has staked his case for a starting spot next season. Sunday is a great opportunity for Sterup, the undrafted first-year player from Nebraska.
“We felt good, especially early, and (Sterup) has kept learning about everything that’s going on,” Gase said. “When he has been up (active), we’ve had those bigger packages to try to get him involved slowly. He has just been working, taking quite a few reps in practice.”
Miami has utilized Sterup as an extra lineman in a few games this season. He is projected to start because Laremy Tunsil has not practiced at all due to an ankle injury. And Sam Young is playing right tackle. And Jesse Davis is playing right guard. And Eric Smith is more focused on right tackle than left tackle right now.
“I think that’s the only guy we’ve got left,” Gase said of Sterup.
This was not in any way a derogatory remark. Gase was simply stating a fact.
But it is intriguing to take a look at Miami’s offensive line on Sunday, featuring both Sterup and Jesse Davis (6-foot-6, 321 pounds).
In the Dolphins locker room on Friday, the consensus was that Davis would win a steel-cage wrestling match among all the offensive linemen. Others receiving votes included Laremy Tunsil and Ted Larsen.
These are the sorts of things that are discussed in a locker room on a Friday before the season finale.
In a humorous interview with colleague Hal Habib earlier this season, Sterup noted that when you’re 6-foot-9, it’s hard to find pants that fit and you sometimes have to wear socks to sleep because your feet hang off the bed.
Anyway, count Dolphins center Mike Pouncey is also interested to see how Sterup does.
And yes, he’s noticed Sterup is towering, mountainous and colossal.
“Huge,” Pouncey said. “Huge. He’s a big body. It’s hard to get around him. He’s good in pass pro. I just hope he does well when he gets his opportunity. Because he’s worked from the bottom all the way to the top. He’s got the right mindset each and every day to get better as a football players. These opportunities don’t come often and whenever you get them you have to make the most of them. I think he’s going to do that.”
But for the national television audience that has been fed this Dolphins team for two straight weeks (and yes, there is yet a third with a Monday night game at 6-3 Carolina on the horizon) it sure must seem that Miami is not yet ready to take the next step.
There are just too many flaws.
Even in a game in which Jay Cutler shows flashes of the best version of Jay Cutler, and Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake flaunt their explosiveness and DeVante Parker shows off his star potential and even Julius Thomas makes a positive contribution, Miami’s underachieving offensive line put the Dolphins in a hole time and time again.
And as for those (start with me) who touted Miami as a Top 8 NFL defense, yeah, not so much.
Miami’s linebackers have begun to be exposed in the passing attack.
Miami’s back seven has begun to miss tackles.
And Miami’s secondary has proven vulnerable to way too many big plays.
Dolphins coach Adam Gase has been through denial (we can’t possibly be this bad!), anger (if they don’t do it right they’ll be gone!) and bargaining (maybe if we just make a few tweaks!)
One can only wonder if and when depression (maybe we don’t have the right players) finally gives way to acceptance (maybe this isn’t our year).
And maybe it isn’t.
We can go through the litany of incredible misfortunes and events, because — why wouldn’t we?
Ryan Tannehill, Raekwon McMillan, Tony Lippett, Hurricane Irma, Ted Larsen, Lawrence Timmons, Chris Foerster…
Every team has injuries. Not every team has a home-opener postponed and a bye week lost due to a hurricane.
And not every team loses an offensive line coach because of… well, you know.
Gase seems well-equipped to deal with adversity. And the Dolphins players like, trust and respect him.
But two recent roster transactions seem pointed as much or more toward the future than this season.
Gase and the Dolphins cut veteran corner Byron Maxwell (who could have at least provided injury insurance) and Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi (this was not a trade, but a dump, as Miami viewed it as addition by subtraction) because those two didn’t fit in the longer-term view of the organization.
And now Miami faces a very difficult second-half schedule, so difficult that the widespread Vegas preseason predictions of 7-9 are no sure bet.
It’s easy to manipulate statistics, but points scored and points allowed are pretty cut and dry.
The Dolphins have scored 116, and allowed 179, which is a differential of -63.
This type of negative differential clumps Miami in with the likes of the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, as in, unflattering company.
This type of negative differential has been experienced in Miami only once in the past decade, and that was when Joe Philbin was at the helm.
This is not to suggest that there may not an upset or two in the Dolphins’ second-half future. Or that there won’t be some promising young players who show signs of why they are a part of Gase’s long-term vision.
But sometimes you have to trust what you see and what you feel.
This 2017 Miami Dolphins team?
No matter what the AFC Standings show, for Miami to make the playoffs would, at the moment, have to be considered a long shot.
DAVIE — It turns out there are parts of the Miami Dolphins offensive scheme that suit Jay Cutler better than the offensive scheme he and Adam Gase ran in Chicago.
But there is something about Gase that hasn’t changed, and Cutler likes it.
“He has got an aggressive nature at heart,” Cutler said of Gase on Wednesday. “He wants to score points. Three (points) at halftime (against the Chargers), he knew that wasn’t going to win the game. We were going to have to do some stuff offensively, push the ball downfield to win this one. He’s not dumb. He’s the head coach here for a reason. He has been successful for a reason.”
Cutler said that after a long layoff and a postponed season opener, he knew Gase wanted to rely on running back Jay Ajayi and short passes to Jarvis Landry in the first half at Los Angeles.
But in the second half, Cutler also knew Gase would want to open things up.
“We kind of wanted to get things going a little bit,” Cutler said. “With the last 10 days, things being crazy, I think easing things in there, trying to get the ball to different guys and trying to keep it third-and-manageable. I think that was the biggest thing – not getting into third-and-longs, not getting into situations where we were fighting the sticks.”
Gase said that Miami is less drop-back than Chicago was and utilizes more play-action passing. The Dolphins’ offense also utilizes a different variations zone-blocking run scheme.
“When you start putting that stuff in there and you start getting eight-man boxes and some one-on-ones outside, it can really open up the field,” Cutler said.
DAVIE — The Miami Dolphins are going to practice with the Philadelphia Eagles twice in advance of their road preseason game next Thursday.
And Dolphins coach Adam Gase believes using the Eagles practice schedule will be a good change of pace.
“For our guys to have a different sense of what we do compared to what they do,” Gase said. “And it’s nothing but good experience when we do these joint practices.”
Gase said to expect traditional practice drills on Monday and Tuesday. In other words, not much live scrimmaging with tackling to the ground, if at all.
“You are in practice, but there is a game feel to it,” Gase said. “And it’s very competitive. And really, the hardest thing is just to keep everybody focused on what they need to do, in practice, to get better. They do know there are no flags. You’re not going to get ejected from the game, or fined, and that’s where it can get kind of messy and guys get in fights. If you can keep your guys focused on what they need to do, it’s great competition. It’s fun for guys to go against somebody different.”
Most likely Dolphins to engage in a joint-practice scrap?
The call here is Ndamukong Suh, William Hayes, Andre Branch, Bobby McCain, Jarvis Landry or Damien Williams.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and team president Jonathan Kraft have recently made comments indicating their franchise almost sees more value in the joint practices than preseason games.
New England notably held out many players from a recent preseason game.
“They become a really great place for certain types of competition to take place in a controlled environment that you couldn’t do before in the preseason games,” Kraft told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “Now it allows other players and other situations to play out in the preseason games. These [joint practices] have become a great adjunct to the first few weeks of preseason. I think it makes a big difference. It actually allows you to evaluate your talent in a way you couldn’t before. I think it is a real plus.”
Gase said if a team were to visit South Florida, the Dolphins would likely set up the practice plan.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Gase have a good rapport so if he wanted to request some specific drills, he always could. But Gase feels both teams will benefit from the way practice is structured.
“Everybody is working on the same things,” Gase said. “Third week of the preseason you’re working on almost game-planish type stuff. So you’re getting those situations in. So there is nothing missing. If there was something missing I would just ask hey have you guys done this before. Or any interest in working on this? And usually you can make some kind of compromise or change something around. But I mean for what they do it kind of matches up to what they do.”
DAVIE — Before Cameron Wake starting running around offensive tackles and overpowering running backs and torpedoing himself through quarterbacks last season, he was, well, on the bench a lot.
The Miami Dolphins had a plan and that plan was to ease the wily veteran into the lineup and conserve his body for the most important snaps. There was medical research and some coaching input on the decision, which seemed to make some sense.
But then the Dolphins started the season slowly. And they started games slowly. And Wake wasn’t on the field enough or at the right moments (before the Dolphins got in major holes) to make the kind of Pro Bowl impact he’s capable of.
So, then first-year coach Adam Gase made a change. He played Wake more. He played him more and he played him earlier. And Wake and Andre Branch, also inserted as a starter, started to dominate games.
And credit to Gase, as he almost always does, he admitted he was wrong.
On Wednesday, as Miami’s minicamp grew nearer to close, Gase said he flat-out got it wrong.
“You’re trying to throw the first five games in my face there?” Gase said. “I mean, I made a mistake. I should have been playing him more early. We were trying to think long-term and think let’s get him in the most important snaps during games. And when you’re getting down, it puts us in a bad spot because we didn’t want to stick him out there and all they’re doing is pounding the football. You know we wanted him in there when teams were passing it. We just kept getting behind. And that was putting us at a disadvantage. And that’s when we decided we just have to make sure he’s out there more. So that’s kind of why we made that switch. We thought we were being smart. And it really kind of backfired on us. What we should have done is just let him play.”
And this is all part of what endears Gase to his players.
He doesn’t stonewall. He doesn’t evade. He doesn’t dodge.
The word “TRUTH” is on the wall at the Dolphins facility, and Gase delivers it.
Could Wake, now 35, have handled playing more early last season?
Of course, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh agreed Wednesday.
“I think at the end of the day what they wanted to do was ease Cam back in to his progression of playing at a high level,” Suh said. “At the end of the day I think they did a great job handling that. It’s proven in the pudding of what Cam produced. Obviously we could have done it earlier it could have been probably better but that’s in the past. And I think the future is where we’re at.”
What Suh loves is how Gase addressed the circumstance head on. He was even standing in the corner of a meeting room, waiting for his turn to speak with the media, as Gase wrapped up his session.
“I think coach is very accountability -oriented, for himself and his players and everybody in this building,” Suh said. “And that’s something that’s great because he doesn’t put himself on a pedestal to say, ‘everything I say is perfect.’ And we’ve had some great conversations this offseason even when I wasn’t here of that nature about how he can get better and we can get better as a team. He’s a great head coach and he’s only going to get better because he has that mentality.”
Veteran offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, who also played for Gase in Chicago, said Gase is all about identifying and correct mistakes, those made by anybody.
“(Gase is) always going to shoot you straight,” Bushrod said. “He’s always going to tell you how he feels about every situation that we’ve been in – good or bad – or how he could have been better and how we could have been better. That just makes us evaluate ourselves that much tougher, that much harder. So when your head coach can take accountability like that, then it’s just a trickle-down effect. We’re professionals and that’s just how it needs to be so you can fight to win.”
Gase said Wake, who has yet to speak with reporters following any of the 12 previous offseason organized team activities or mini-camp practices, sets a fine example on how to take care of his body and help facilitate career longevity.
In particular, Gase noted Wake is a fine role model for defensive end Andre Branch.
“We happen to have the guy that probably is the poster boy for doing it right,” Gase said. “For a long period of time. And making everyone else feel like he’s 38 and he looks like he’s 26. And (Wake) goes harder and longer than most of the players that we have that are 25, 24. (Branch) saw every day that if you do it right you can play for a very long time in this league.”
The Miami Dolphins announced they have tendered four exclusive rights free agents.
Linebacker Mike Hull, cornerback Lafayette Pitts, center Anthony Steen and tight end Thomas Duarte have been offered one-year contracts they are expected to sign.
Exclusive rights free agents don’t have the opportunity to shop their services if offered a deal by their club.
Hull played 16 games with one start and had an interception. Hull was also one of Miami’s best special teamers, finishing second on the team with 18 tackles.
Pitts played in eight games and was a very valuable special teamer. Like Hull, Pitts was signed by Miami as an undrafted free agent and spent time on the practice squad.
Steen played in 15 games (despite lower-body injuries), including seven starts at center. Steen had never started a game at center in his football career, and held up capably at times. However, his value may be as a depth guard and emergency center.
Duarte was the only member of this group that was drafted. Duarte, a developmental receiving tight end, played in one game and spent the first eight weeks on the practice squad prior to a promotion to the active squad.
Restricted free agent tight end Dominique Jones and restricted defensive lineman Nick Williams will not be tendered, league sources told the Palm Beach Post.