Miami Dolphins' Run Defense Won't Improve Without Better Linebacker Play

By Matthew Cannata
Dannell Ellerbe
Getty Images

The Miami Dolphins will head into the 2014 season with almost the same rotation at the defensive tackle position as the one in 2013. The only difference is that Earl Mitchell has replaced Paul Soliai. How will that impact the rotation and what can we expect going forward? Let’s break it down.

Despite the fact that there are two defensive tackle positions, they are quite different. Jared Odrick and Randy Starks play the same position, so those two players will be rotating in and out with each other as they did for the most part last season.

Mitchell will be on the field for just about every down and will be the anchor of the line. His primary job will be to stop the run and take on the double team. This usually means he will be getting blocked by both the center and the weak-side guard. This is important because when taking on the double team, it frees up the linebackers to make a play.

Starks and Odrick will occupy the other defensive tackle position, which is also referred to as the under tackle or three-tech. They call these guys a three-technique because they line up on the outside shoulder of the strong side offensive guard. Their job is to prevent the run, keep the guard off the linebackers and rush the quarterback on pass plays.

While many think the run defense starts and ends with Mitchell, Starks and Odrick, that’s not the case. The reason is because of the linebackers.

If the defensive tackles do their job, the linebackers should be free to make a play. However, with the current crew of Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe and Koa Misi, that’s not good news. According to Pro Football Focus, Wheeler had an overall run defense grade of -16.8, Ellerbe had an overall run defense grade of -17.0 and Misi had an overall run defense grade of +7.4.

As you can see, this is pretty bad. If we take it a step further, we see that Wheeler was the worst 4-3 outside linebacker in the league when it came to missed tackles on running plays. Out of 424 run snaps, he missed 12 tackles and only had a run stop percentage of 7.1, which was towards the bottom half of the league. With inside linebackers, Ellerbe was ranked 36th out of 40 with a run stop percentage of 6.3. The run stop percentage is the percentage of a player’s run defense snaps when he is the primary person responsible for a stop.

How can the Dolphins get better? According to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins are talking about moving Misi inside to middle linebacker, which would be a very good first move. Misi is not a superstar, but he is a very solid linebacker who always shows up ready to play and is always in position to make things happen.

How about Ellerbe and/or Wheeler? If Misi moves inside, Ellerbe will likely move outside. He last played outside linebacker in 2011 and didn’t do a bad job where he had an overall run defense grade of -0.5 in limited action. With that said, swapping Misi with Ellerbe would be a good second step.

Now, how about Wheeler? He had one good year with the Oakland Raiders, and the Dolphins pounced on him and paid him an outrageous sum of money. If you had watched him on film and his full career, you weren’t surprised. The Dolphins realize this, though, and know they have to upgrade that position.

There are quite a few playmakers in the draft such as Ryan Shazier and Anthony Barr. If one of them falls to the Dolphins in the first round, you would have to think they consider selecting one. Doing so would instantly improve the linebacker corps and would solidify the Dolphins’ run defense.

If they don’t upgrade and/or make these moves, you can count on looking at pretty much the same run defense the Dolphins had in 2013, which was ranked towards the bottom of the league.

Matthew Cannata covers the Miami Dolphins for Follow him on Twitter @PhinManiacs. Like him on Facebook, and add him to your Google Network.

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