‘Championship-caliber defense’ or not, Miami Dolphins knew Matt Burke was their man

Matt Burke confers with linebacker Kiko Alonso. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — Dolphins coach Adam Gase said Thursday that he brought Matt Burke aboard last year knowing he’d be the heir apparent as defensive coordinator to Vance Joseph, who left after one season to take the head coaching job with the Denver Broncos.

“I really felt like Vance was only going to be here a year,” Gase said.

It’s hard to envision how the plan could have worked much better. The defensive improvement through five games this season is such at Showtime analyst Boomer Esiason said on this week’s “Inside the NFL” that the Dolphins have “a championship-caliber defense.”

Informed of that Thursday, Burke nearly winced, as if someone waved kryptonite in front of him.

“I’m just trying to win a ballgame, guys,” Burke said. “Man. I mean, look, I don’t hear that stuff. I really don’t.

“ … These guys (the Jets) beat us pretty good last game, so we’re not looking past anybody. We’re not thinking about defensive stats or championships or any of that crap. We’re trying to win a ballgame and we’re going to do whatever it takes this week to do that. I don’t think that’s even crept into any of our guys’ minds.”

Although a “championship-caliber defense” is strong language to be tossing around this early, it’s undeniable that the defense has made strides under Burke.

Burke has taken a defense that was ranked 30th against the run last season and elevated it to No. 4 on the ground. Overall, the Dolphins’ defense ranks 11th in total yards allowed, 22nd against the pass and No. 3 in fewest points allowed.

A good portion of the credit should be assigned to Gase’s succession plan, which he revealed Thursday.

“That was the main reason why we wanted to make sure that we had him, because we knew what direction we were going to head,” Gase said of Burke.

Knowing Joseph would pack up after one season, Gase said, “We wanted to get the system in place and then we didn’t want to change it. So we wanted to make sure that we had somebody that knew the system, that could step up and really just take it over.”

Step 1 for Burke was streamlining what the Dolphins tried to accomplish defensively last season.

“I think we were probably doing too much,” Gase said. “Vance was really trying to figure out what was best for us.

“That’s what’s tough about that first year. It’s a little trial by error and I think this year, coming in, Matt had a better feel for what our players did well. He could lean on that, and that’s what he did.”

Reluctant to take much credit, Burke said, “Oh, man. I don’t know. Just trying to put the guys in good position to make plays.”

Whether he gets on players’ nerves with his preaching, he knows it’s working.

“I preach a lot, ‘Hey, everything matters. Every play. Every rep in practice. Every technique that we do. It all matters.’ ” Burke said. “And guys are buying in.”

Defensive back Michael Thomas is one.

“Love what coach Burke brings, explaining to everybody the ‘why,’ ” Thomas said. “Why are we running certain coverages? Why he wants guys to play with certain leverage. That’s been the biggest difference and I think it gives guys a different sense of purpose.”

Players are buying in, but the results haven’t been perfect. Despite the second-half shutout of the Falcons, Burke said tackling wasn’t what it could have been. Too many big plays were conceded.

In other words, no one is getting fitted for any rings.

“We’ve definitely not played our best game — by far,” Burke said. “I mean, by far. Which is good. There’s a lot of work to be done and I haven’t seen one sniff of those guys believing anything else.”

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