Miami Dolphins coaches spent the weekend fixing the defense.
Well, that was the assignment over the time the Dolphins had to spare following a Thursday night massacre at Houston. Embattled defensive coordinator Matt Burke, along with head coach Adam Gase and others were supposed to do in one weekend what they had failed to do the past 2 1/2 years.
How so, you ask?
Well, you’ll recall the Dolphins supposedly fixed the defense in the 2017 offseason.
And then fixed it some more in the 2018 offseason.
And yet … not fixed.
So the idea that one weekend of work can fix all that is wrong with this defense is laughable because one weekend will not fix fundamental issues that trouble any defense.
These problems are philosophical.
These problems are in the personnel department.
These problems are in the coaching ranks.
And these problems all manifest on the field.
Let’s begin with the philosophy. The Dolphins want to have a big, fast, attacking defense. They want to play press on the outside with long cornerbacks. They want to attack the quarterback and do it almost exclusively with a four-man rush. And they want their linebackers that play off the line to roam and clean stuff up in the run game while being able to run well and cover.
It sounds pretty cool.
Except the philosophy has not worked. This is not an opinion. This is a statement of fact.
The Dolphins allowed 23.9 points per game in 2016, the first-year Gase was the head coach and he hired Vance Joseph to be his defensive coordinator. The Dolphins finished 18th in points allowed that year and it was enough to help Joseph land a head coaching job in Denver.
But everyone knew giving up almost 24 points per game as the Dolphins did when the league’s better defenses were yielding about a touchdown less than that per game was not good.
So the Dolphins began a “fix” of the defense in the 2017 offseason. Defensive end Charles Harris was selected in the draft’s first round. Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan was selected in the second round. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley was selected in the third round.
Those three should be the nucleus of a good future. Along with the selection of Xavien Howard in the second round of 2016 and the addition of defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Jerome Baker in the first and third rounds respectively in 2018, the Dolphins clearly have invested significant draft resources on the defense.
And those six players — all taken in the first three rounds of three drafts — should be the core of a good defense if the players were delivering as expected.
Howard is a very good player. He’s the best defensive player the Dolphins have acquired through the draft during the Gase-Mike Tannenbaum-Chris Grier administration.
Fitzpatrick, the first-round pick in 2018, has been good. I mean, he seems to not make mistakes. He rarely seems to miss an assignment. But has he taken over a game, delivered a handful of big turnovers or sacks? No.
So he’s good but he has so far not changed the course of the defense.
Harris, meanwhile, is a disappointment. He has two sacks in 21 games. I know Gase says sacks are unimportant and what is actually important is pass disruptions, but that is simply coach spin.
The Dolphins disrupted Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson a bunch last Thursday evening. And Watson simply got out of the pocket and proceeded to light them up with five touchdown passes.
Sacks is the thing, folks. Getting the quarterback on the ground while he has the football and is not doing any damage with it is better than making the guy uncomfortable. It’s been like that way since Adam and Eve. It will remain that way until Judgment Day.
Anyway, Harris is not alone in the disappointment department. Tankersley has been a disappointment so far in that on a team that badly needs cornerback help, he cannot get on the field.
McMillan has gotten on the field. But he often seems a step slow or slow to recognize things. Perhaps some of that is inexperience. Perhaps some of that is he hasn’t fully recovered from last year’s ACL surgery.
But the excuses don’t change the fact he has not performed as billed. He’s definitely not Zach Thomas nor John Offerdahl as rookies.
Baker? He’s a starter but not a playmaker of any sort yet. Maybe as he grows in experience he can develop into that. But not yet.
While we’re at it, let’s take inventory of the other defensive additions during the current administration and judge what has been done:
T.J. McDonald … Not a complementary free safety for Reshad Jones. He’ll likely be gone after this season and Fitzpatrick will be at safety.
DT Davon Godchaux …. I like him, he has a great work ethic and attitude and he makes some plays. Also, he was a fifth-round pick.
DT Akeem Spence … The Dolphins took a backup caliber defensive tackle from Detroit because his position coach loves him. Except Spence is starting and he’s not a quality starter.
LB Kiko Alonso … He’s having his second good season in three years with the Dolphins. He’s around the ball a lot. No issues with this addition.
OLB Lawrence Timmons …. Terrible signing. Terrible free agency bust.
DE Mario Williams … Joseph spent most of the 2016 season talking about how Williams wasn’t trying hard enough. That says it all. Terrible signing.
DT Vincent Taylor …. Sixth-round pick in 2017. Has made plays, including on special teams. Good pick relative to where he was chosen.
Harris is not good.
Tankersley is not good.
DE Andre Branch … Was good as a cheap, late free agent signing in 2016. And then the Dolphins paid him after that season, which was a mistake. Branch is costing the Dolphins $10 million on the salary cap this season and he has one sack.
DE Robert Quinn … I don’t know why this isn’t paying dividends but it isn’t. The Dolphins traded for Quinn, giving up a fourth-round pick for him. He is costing the team $11.4 million on the salary cap this season. He has one sack.
OLB Stephone Anthony … The Dolphins traded away a fifth-round pick for him in 2017. He’s a special teams player.
CB Byron Maxwell … He was good for about eight games in his Dolphins tenure. And then he reverted to playing the way he played for Philadelphia before they unloaded him on the Dolphins, which is to say poorly.
William Hayes … Here’s something that is so Dolphin. They think he was a good player for them. And, no, he was not. And that is how fundamentally flawed Dolphins thinking is.
It’s not that the defensive end didn’t perform when he got on the field. It’s that when this season is over, Hayes will have played only 13 of a possible 33 games for the Dolphins in two seasons.
Availability is an ability, friends. Players that cannot play on Sunday are not good players. It should not surprise that a 33-year-old lineman who finished 2017 on the injured reserve list is right back on IR this year.
And you wonder why the defense that was “fixed” is actually performing worse now than ever since Gase-Tannenbaum-Grier took over? Because that’s where the Dolphins find themselves.
They allowed 23.9 points per game in 2016.
They allowed 24.6 points per game in 2017.
They are allowing 27.4 points per game now.
There are other reasons beyond sheer talent, however, that Miami’s defense has been a turnstile in recent games.
Back to philosophy one moment: So Burke wants to create pressure with his four down linemen. Except they’re not getting the job done.
The Dolphins are 29th in the NFL with only 11 sacks. Of those, only six sacks belong to defensive linemen still on the team because Jordan Phillips and his sack are gone, Hayes and his two sacks are watching TV on the couch again, and Jerome Baker has two sacks from his linebacker spot.
So the problem is that while the Miami defense is meant to pressure the QB with the front four, that front is failing.
The obvious fix for this is to blitz. Bring an extra defender and help the guys up front.
The problem with that is when teams — particularly the Dolphins — blitz, it creates problems in the back end of the defense.
Teams that rely on the blitz must be sound in their coverages and assignments behind the blitz. And this is where you have problems because the Dolphins are not sound in their assignments.
Many teams struggle with assignments early in the season because practices are limited and simply are not what they used to be before the 2011 collective bargaining agreement limited the workouts.
But those teams get better as the season progresses.
The Dolphins are going in the other direction now.
After keeping the Titans, Raiders and Jets under three touchdowns the first three games of the year, this defense has allowed 28 or more points in four of the past five games. In the last three games the Dolphins have yielded 28, 32 and 42 points.
It’s been getting worse.
After holding Tennessee and the New York Jets under 400 total yards the first two weeks of the regular season, the Dolphins have yielded over 427 yards of offense in five of the past six games.
So what are the possible fixes?
This is difficult. The long-term fix is the Dolphins need to add a good talent to start with. They need a starting boundary cornerback and two starting caliber defensive ends who neither draft nor free agency busts.
If they had those, they could move Bobby McCain back to the slot where he’s supposed to be. They could move Fitzpatrick to free safety. And they would have pressure on the quarterback.
And my guess is some of the simply unacceptable busts we’ve been seeing on defense would stop because Fitzpatrick typically is exactly where he needs to be, McCain would be playing a more familiar position, the new boundary cornerback would not always be a weak link to get picked on, and the quarterback would actually be worried about being sacked.
The problem with this fix? The NFL for some reason is not allowing the Dolphins to draft a starting corner and two starting defensive ends today.
So the only way the Dolphins can fix this is to apply a temporary band-aid to a deep wound years in the making. Which, I doubt will work.
As to coaching …
Look, this coaching staff blames the players.
“First, I always look at players because to me, at the end of the day, they have the final say on a lot of this stuff,” Gase said the day after the Dolphins lost to Houston, 42-23. “…I just think the entire group — players and coaches – on that side of the ball just need to do a great job of working together and making sure that everybody is on the same page and everybody is trying to do the same thing on the call.
“You can say all you want about scheme but all of that [bleep] doesn’t matter. Play what we’re all supposed to play.”
And it’s indeed up to the players to play what they’re supposed to play. But guess what?
It’s up to the coaches to teach the players to play what they’re supposed to play. And if the players aren’t doing it, something is wrong with them but something is also wrong with the teacher or the teacher’s methods.
Final word of warning: The Dolphins play the New York Jets again on Sunday. The Jets are horrible on offense. When the Dolphins limit the Jets in that looming game, you’ll want to believe this past weekend delivered fixes. You’ll want to think all is well.
I advise you wait until the following week to make that determination. Because the Dolphins travel to Green Bay and play Aaron Rodgers the following weekend.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero