After overhaul, defense remains Dolphins strength
The Miami Dolphins hired an offensive coordinator as their coach, then used their first-round pick to draft a quarterback who will give the ball much of the time to their best-known player, Reggie Bush.
And yet if they win this season, it will be with defense.
Dolphins defenders get overlooked and believe they're underrated.
''We don't have a lot of superstars,'' linebacker Karlos Dansby said, ''but we all feel like we're superstars. That's our confidence level.''
For the first time since the 1960s, the Dolphins have endured three consecutive losing seasons, but don't blame the defense. Miami ranked eighth in the NFL in offensive points allowed each of past two years, and went 6-10 in 2011 despite ranking in the top 10 in rushing defense, sacks and third-down stops.
The offense sputtered through most of the four-year Tony Sparano era. So the Dolphins hired Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as coach, then courted Peyton Manning before drafting Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who won the starting job in training camp.
There were also changes on defense. Philbin hired as his defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who had been defensive backs coach for the Bengals. Coyle switched from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. And the Dolphins jettisoned two starters in the secondary, the weakest part of the defense in recent seasons.
This hasn't changed: Defense remains the strength of the team.
''We're going to have a bunch of guys that do their job at a high, high level each and every day,'' Coyle said. ''I've got faith in this group.''
Miami is especially stout up front, where the charge is led by end Cameron Wake, who has 28 sacks in three NFL seasons.
''Big players have to step up and make big plays,'' Wake said. ''I consider myself one of those guys.''
The Dolphins also expect to be strong inside, where the 4-3 alignment allows them to double up with Paul Soliai and Randy Starks. Each has made the Pro Bowl, and at a combined 650 pounds, they're the biggest reasons the defense should be good.
''In the scheme that we play, to have two interior dominant players is absolutely key,'' Coyle said. ''It forces the offense into situations where they can't single block them, and then we'll have our linebackers freer to the football, which is what we want. They're guys that can not only eat up blockers, but they can make plays as well. That's what we're counting on them to do. We have to be really strong inside for us to be successful on defense.''
The Dolphins ranked third in the NFL in run defense last year, giving up just 3.7 yards per carry. A repeat performance would put the defense in a position to force mistakes, Philbin said.
''That gives you a starting point,'' he said. ''If you can make a team get into a situation where they have to throw the ball, and they can't knock you around for 4 or 5 yards on first down on a consistent basis, I think that gives your defensive play-calling an advantage.''
While the front seven returns mostly intact, the shaky secondary has undergone a shakeup. Safety Yeremiah Bell, a five-year starter, was released in March at age 34, and cornerback Vontae Davis was traded after losing his No. 1 job in training camp to newcomer Richard Marshall, who has 17 career interceptions.
Fourth-year pro Chris Clemons replaces Bell, and Coyle is hoping the changes will produce better ball-hawking. Over the past three years the Dolphins have 59 takeaways, fewest in the NFL.
Safeties Clemons and Reshad Jones have three career interceptions between them. Linebackers Dansby, Kevin Burnett and Koa Misi have not a single fumble recovery in a combined 76 games with Miami. Even Wake, a Pro Bowl selection in 2010, has not a single career recovery or interception.
''It's a point of emphasis in every meeting we have and everything that we do,'' Coyle said. ''It's kind of the type of thing that snowballs once you start to get a few early in the season. There's a tendency to expect it, and that's what hopefully will happen with us as we go through the season.''
The offense could use the help. With a rookie quarterback, blocking issues and perhaps the NFL's worst receiving corps, points will likely be hard to come by. Dominating defense would take a lot of pressure off Tannehill.
''Next to the running game, we're his best friend,'' Burnett said.
Kicker Dan Carpenter and punter Brandon Fields are among the NFL's best, which means the Dolphins may find themselves counting on field position to win field goal contests - as was often the case under Sparano.
''Expectations for this team outside our locker room are pretty low,'' guard Richie Incognito said. ''People don't expect us to do much, which is fine. We have to prove their expectation levels are wrong, and we can only do that by having success on the field.''
Following an offseason overhaul, dominating defense remains the Dolphins' best hope.
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