Much has been made of the Miami Dolphins‘ inability to protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill and run the football in the aftermath of the team’s most embarrassing loss of the season — a 19-0 shutout loss to the Buffalo Bills. What should also be concerning for the Dolphins and their fans is the team’s shortcomings defending the run on the other side of the ball.
The Dolphins were projected to have a stout run defense in 2013 after finishing in the top half of the league against the run over the past three seasons, including the top 10 in 2010 and 2011. But after being gashed for a season-high 203 rushing yards on Sunday it became quite clear that the Dolphins have one of the league’s leakiest run defenses, as evidenced by ranking 25th in run defense this season. It’s not just underachieving; it’s flat out no good.
But where does the blame lie for this issue? Can it be pinned on one or two players or is the entire unit collectively responsible? Let’s take a look at some metrics.
There’s no denying how awful the linebacker corps has been in virtually every way, but especially against the run. Replacing Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in an effort to get “faster” and more “attacking” on defense was a gamble that has exploded in GM Jeff Ireland‘s face.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ellerbe ranks 53rd of 55 eligible inside linebackers, and his -17.1 run defense grade is the second lowest at his position. He’s also missed 14 tackles, which is tied for the fifth most at his position.
Wheeler, meanwhile, leads the Dolphins with 109 tackles. But that is quite the deceiving statistic as many of those tackles have come downfield instead of near the line of scrimmage after failing to disengage from a block or after getting abused in coverage. Through 15 games, Wheeler is finally in the cellar at his position according to Pro Football Focus. That’s right; no other 4-3 outside linebacker in the entire NFL has graded worse than Wheeler has. His -15.2 run defense grade is the second lowest at his position and the 17 tackles he’s missed ranks third.
Ellerbe and Wheeler were signed to $35 million and $26 million contracts, respectively, back in March. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that wasn’t money well spent, but have they been exclusively the problem?
The Dolphins’ defensive line, which features three talented defensive tackles, doesn’t seem like a culprit. On Sunday against the Bills, Randy Starks, Paul Soliai and Jared Odrick had their worst game of the season, but they’ve been one of the league’s best three-man interior rotations otherwise. Each rank in the top 17 of 67 interior defensive linemen according to Pro Football Focus. Starks ranks fourth, Soliai ranks 12th and Odrick ranks 28th defending the run.
But a unit cannot field a stout defensive line with solid play between the tackles alone. Consistently setting the edge at defensive end is also crucial. Miami’s ends haven’t been liabilities against the run, but they could be doing much better defending it.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cameron Wake currently has -0.1 run defense grade while Olivier Vernon is at 0.0 for the season. Wake’s play in particular has been disappointing considering he’s been one of the league’s best run defenders at his position in the past. For example, in 2012 he owned a +10.4 run defense grade. Also keep in mind that Odrick started at defensive end in 2012, so Vernon replacing him at right end has inhibited the Dolphins’ ability to set the edge as effectively as they did last year.
At safety, Reshad Jones‘ falloff has also contributed to the decline. In 2012, Miami’s scheme gave Jones more free reign which allowed him to play a larger role in the running game. He doesn’t play in the box nearly as often in 2013 and his run defense grade has dropped from +7.0 last year to -1.5 this year.
There’s certainly blame to go around, but the Dolphins’ new linebackers deserve the majority of it. Miami’s inability to stop the run has given it a statistically below average defense, especially considering the strides made in the secondary. If the Dolphins don’t make the playoffs in 2013, a porous run defense will certainly be a major reason why.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.