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A Look at the Dolphin Defense
For years the Dolphins were known for an explosive offense keyed by the passing of Dan Marino. But in recent years it has been the defense that has carried the team and been the key to the Dolphins success, this year shouldn't be much different. In previous years, what is considered an undersized but fast defense has struggled down the stretch of the long, brutal NFL season. Last year was no exception as the defense really struggled against the run in the last month or so of the season. We can blame it on injuries, little help from the offense, or an undersized defense. They all contributed. There are some changes in the defense this year personnel wise and the coaching staff insists they will cheat a safety up more this year to help support the run. While all this is intriguing and we still have a solid defense that could once again potentially be the best in the league, there is some cause for concern.
In football everything begins up front at the war in the trenches, the offensive line vs. the defensive line. The Dolphins defensive of line took some major hits with the free agent losses of Kenny Mixon and Lorenzo Bromell and the release of Daryl Gardener. If you add Trace Armstrong and Rich Owens from two years ago, this unit has lost 5 solid players in 2 years. But there is a reason Dolphin fans had considered the defensive line the deepest unit on the team the last couple of years and we still have a very solid core here.
DE Jason Taylor and DT Tim Bowens will be the backbone of this unit. Both have been Pro Bowl players and are needed to lead this unit. Even though his sack numbers dropped last year, Jason Taylor had his best all around season. Not only has he become a solid pass rusher, but he has become very good against the run and a great all around DE. He will be a handful for opposing tackles and should draw many double teams, which hopefully will open up opportunities for others along the line. Tim Bowens battled injuries last year and had a sub-par season. Alongside new DT mate Larry Chester, Bowens will need to step back up to his Pro Bowl level to stuff the run and keep LB Zach Thomas free.
The Chester signing drew high marks by many in the NFL. He may be a great signing but he has some huge shoes to fill and hasn't proven himself over a 16 game season. I still like this signing and believe him and Bowens will do a tremendous job clogging the middle. Backups Earnest Grant and Jermaine Haley should finish out the DT rotation. Both had flashed potential in the past but really struggled last year when Daryl Gardener went down. They are both healthy now and they hopefully realize they need to step back up. Rookie James Adkins could be a surprise in camp and push for a roster spot.
The other DE position is up for grabs with the release of Daryl Gardener, but look for four players to get playing time. New acquisition Jay Williams is the favorite to win the starting job as Rob Burnett figures to be used in the limited role that Trace Armstrong had so much success with. Both players had subpar years last year as well. Williams is known for more of a run stuffer while Burnett could be the pass rusher we desperately need opposite of JT. Personally, I'm not sure on Williams but I look for Burnett to have a solid year. Another key is both of these players are able to move inside on passing downs. The other two in the mix is Ogunleye Adewale fan favorite David Bowens. D. Bowens showed tremendous energy last year and should see plenty of action, you can't have enough guys like him on the team. "Ogun" seems to be stuck low on the depth chart and needs a big camp to get any type of consistent playing time.
Grade: B Overall this unit could be very good, but we need a lot of guys who had sub-par 2001 seasons to bounce back and play big.
Nothing has really changed with the Linebacker unit this offseason. MLB Zach Thomas is still the heart of the defense and we still lack proven depth. Thomas is the only given we have with our linebacker corp. He'll be a tackling machine, making the routine and big plays from sideline to sideline. The only worry with him is will he stay healthy the whole year? One can't question his heart and desire, but he is undersized and the beatings he puts on opponents has taken a toll on him the last couple of years. Hopefully an improved D-Line and improved play by fellow linebackers will help Zach stay healthy.
Derrick Rodgers and Morlon Greenwood are slated to start at the outside linebacker positions. Rodgers has had a solid, if not at all spectacular career, and we know what we will most likely get from him. He doesn't make the big plays, but he is lockerroom leader and should make the routine plays. Hopefully his recent off the field problems stay off the field. Morlon Greenwood made tremendous strides as a starter last year, but still has much improvement to make. He has worked hard this offseason and appears ready to step up to the next level. Both of these guys need to play solid and smart football and we should be fine.
The probable backups include Twan Russell, Tommy Hendricks, and Scott Gaylon. All 3 play solid Special Teams. All 3 filled in nicely when called upon last year but are unproven as every week players on defense. Rookie Justin Seaverns could be the wildcard here and may earn a roster spot.
Grade: C I feel kinda bad grading a group that includes Zach Thomas as average. This group should be fine as long as injuries don't take anyone out for a long period of time or more than one out at a time. If Morlon Greenwood can take it up a few notches as expected, him and Thomas will be a very solid core at linebacker.
Arguably the best unit in the NFL, especially at cornerback. Cornerback Sam Madison and Safety Brock Marion are Pro Bowlers and Cornerback Patrick Surtain should be.
The ability of Madison and Surtain to play press coverage and blanket receivers should have a major positive impact on the rest of the defense. While Madison is the Pro Bowler, many believe Surtain is actually the better of the two. Surtain will move inside to cover the slot in the nickel and dime packages while 2nd year player Jamar Fletcher will take the outside. Fletcher, last year's controversial first round pick, will be on the hot seat to perform or be considered a bust. He has huge shoes to follow with Madison and Surtain and fans will expect him to live up to they hype. Plus the team let last years surprise, Terry Cousin, leave through free agency after having a very solid season. If he fails, the Dolphins could be in big trouble with flashbacks of two seasons ago when the nickel backs got consistently smoked.
At safety, Brock Marion is back and will once again be key to our defense. He has played big the last couple of years and there is no reason to believe that it won't continue. Starting opposite of Marion in place of free agent loss Brian Walker is Arturo Freeman. Freeman isn't the hitter Walker was, but should be better in coverage. He has been prone to an aggressive mistake once in a while, but has improved in that area. He played well last year when called upon and is primed to take advantage of his starting opportunity.
There seems to be a logjam at depth here. Safeties Shawn Wooden, Trent Gamble, Scott McGarrahan, and Ray Green are all in the picture as is rookie CB Omar Lowe and Zebbie Lethridge. There is no doubt that special teams play will be a major factor here and McGarrahan and Gamble both excel there. Wooden is a former starter and proven veteran which gives him an edge. I still believe that alone gave him a roster spot over Daryl Porter last year. Wooden needs to stay healthy though. Green has gotten a lot of talk to be competing for the dime back. With Wannstedt's apparent fascination with defensive backs, it's hard to say how many will make the team.
Grade: A Madison, Surtain, and Marion alone make this group an A. If Fletcher plays up to his potential then this group could be special. If he fails and nobody else steps up in the nickel package, then we will frustrated on many occasions on 3rd and long. I wouldn't be surprised if the Dolphins pick up a veteran who gets cut from another team late in camp.
You know the saying, "Defense Wins Championships" and this defense needs to play at a championship level if we expect to have a shot at that Lombardi Trophy. On paper this defense looks great, and it very well could be. But if you dig a little deeper you will see there is much cause for concern. We need many players to step up from subpar 2001 seasons (Rodgers, Burnett, T. Bowens, Grant, Haley, Williams...umm basically most of the D-Line) and improvement from others (Greenwood and Fletcher). I personally don't see any reason to believe that enough of these players won't step up and give the Dolphins a solid defense that is already loaded with star players. Hopefully an improved offense and running game will take some pressure off the defense and that may be the key to the whole season. An improved running game and offense will keep this defense off the field, which would keep them fresher down the stretch and in the playoffs. This defense has carried the team in recent years and they know their window of opportunity is dwindling and the time is now.