Entering Week 13, Dolphins fans surely didn’t expect themselves to be in this position. Miami currently has a 61 percent chance of landing in the top ten of the upcoming NFL Draft. Blame falls nearly everywhere throughout the organization, including rookie defensive coordinator Matt Burke. The defensive unit that Burke has captained started off blazing hot. In the Dolphins’ first 6 matchups, they boasted a measly 18.67 points allowed per game. They coupled that with 308.17 yards allowed per game, good enough for 7th and 10th in the NFL, respectively.
During those six contests, the Dolphins collected a 4-2 record. The Dolphins found themselves in a manageable position to acquire a playoff spot later in the season. However, since the Week 7 victory against the Jets, Miami has been deplorable on defense. During the five-game losing streak that’s been bookended by abhorrent performances against Baltimore and New England, the Dolphins have collected three total sacks and forced four turnovers. The lack of quarterback pressure has been paired with an inability to create turnovers. This, when combined with a totally inept offense, only magnifies the Dolphins’ defensive issues.
Comparison to the Competition
The first issue worth examining is the complete waste of athletes along the defensive front for Miami. Matt Burke is blessed with a stable of able pass-rushers and run stoppers. Despite this, he has failed to develop a scheme where he takes full advantage of the personnel at his disposal. The Dolphins have allocated over 51 million dollars to the defensive line for the 2017 season, 2nd in the NFL; yet have not been anywhere close to producing on par with their investment (18 sacks in 11 games, 3rd fewest in the NFL).
When looking at the defensive line production of teams such as New Orleans and Chicago, who spend nowhere near the money Miami has (23 million and 20 millions respectively), you have to chalk up their success to quality scheme design and coaching. New Orleans and Chicago have Dennis Allen and Vic Fangio, two of the more experienced and gifted defensive minds in the NFL. They can thank them for their impressive pass rush productivity despite an average payroll. It’s all in the scheme and design. Putting players in the right position to succeed is key. To do this, defensive coordinators have to know what they’re working with and how to use the talent at hand.
Allen has been a defensive positional coach in the NFL since 2006. His time in the league includes a fruitful stint in Denver where he had a defense in the top 10 in sacks. He also contributed to winning a Super Bowl trophy when on staff with the New Orleans Saints. Allen’s defensive prowess landed himself the head coach job in Oakland for 2+ seasons.
Fangio has called the NFL home since 1986, most notably being the defensive mastermind that led San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2012. These illustrious credentials play a major role in explaining how teams such as New Orleans and Chicago can find themselves in the top 10 in sacks (6th and 9th, respectively) despite spending near the league average on defensive lineman.
Mismanagement of Personnel
Burke’s inexperience as the head of an NFL defense has squandered the talent seen on the 2017 roster. It wouldn’t be completely preposterous to wonder whether Burke’s scheme can work in Miami, if not the entire NFL level. Burke has been blessed with one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in NFL history in Ndamukong Suh. Despite this, he cannot devise a scheme where he uses this to his advantage. Burke was also the linebackers coach in 2016 for Miami. During his time in this position he failed miserably schematically as the Dolphins possessed a putrid run defense and linebackers were frequently exploited in the passing game.
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It is not unreasonable to think that a defensive coordinator must develop a gameplan where 2 future Hall-of-Famers in Suh and Cameron Wake can be used to get pressure on the quarterback. This is a task that shouldn’t be too difficult considering the supporting cast of Andre Branch, Charles Harris, Davon Godchaux, and playmaking safeties Reshad Jones and TJ McDonald. The talent is on the roster. However, it is up to Burke to come up with the necessary schemes in order make Miami’s defense a unit to be feared.
Further along the lines of developing an effective gameplan, Burke has failed repeatedly when it comes to substitutions and personnel matchups. Kiko Alonso has been an unmitigated disaster in coverage and has been taken advantage of by offenses all season. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Alonso has a coverage ranking of 40.3, ranking 68th out of 77 qualified linebackers. Also, Alonso has allowed a passer rating of 133.3 when targeted this year and has allowed the most yards per snap when in coverage. Essentially, he is worthless in coverage.
Mismanagement of Personnel, continued
Despite this, Burke head-scratchingly continues to put Alonso in situations where he must cover opposing players. Most recently, Rob Gronkowski made a circus of Alonso to the tune of 5 catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns. Another questionable defensive decision from Burke has been the persistent play of Xavien Howard. According to PFF, Howard ranks 115th out of 116 qualified corners, which basically means he stinks out loud in coverage. Howard has 691 snaps and a laughable three passes defended along with zero interceptions.
Bobby McCain, Miami’s highest graded corner, has 367 snaps, despite having three passes defended and two interceptions. Howard has proven to be inept when assigned on the outside. With this being the case, it begs the question as to why he continues to receive similar assignments. Perhaps just the thing Howard needs is to lineup against more favorable receivers who normally play in the slot. The Dolphins allow the 4th highest completion percentage in the NFL, so a change is justified.
There have been countless situations throughout the season where substitution and personnel packages ought to have been utilized. Burke has failed to recognize these times and the on-field product has suffered as a result. Far too often has Miami’s highest rated corner not been on the field. Far too often has a coverage liability been on the field during certain passing downs against beyond unfavorable matchups. These oversights fall directly on the shoulders of Burke.
Something to Look Forward to
Matt Burke has a laundry list of game situations and schematic concepts to better understand in order to get the most out of his defense. Luckily for Burke, the pieces are in place, especially along the defensive line. You have to believe Raekwon McMillan coming back next year will only help this group. Hopefully, Kiko Alonso will not string together back-to-back horrendous years. Cordrea Tankersley is a solid young player in the secondary. Jones and McDonald combine to form a very solid group of safeties. NFL defenses do not always have to be perfect, but another cornerback will be necessary if this unit hopes to improve. Ultimately, only through growing pains will Burke learn the necessary in-game adjustments and gameplans that will be successful in the NFL.