After four games, the Dolphins defense doesn’t look like 2021. What to make of the unit

There is a bit of cognitive dissonance when examining the Dolphins’ defense in the first month of the NFL season.

The unit provided a dominating performance in a season-opening victory against the New England Patriots and delivered key fourth-down stops in pivotal moments in wins over the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills.

But as the Dolphins enter the second month of the NFL season and Sunday’s road game against the New York Jets, they have a defense that ranks toward the bottom of the league in most major statistical categories and efficiency metrics.

Defensive players and coaches aren’t keeping close tabs on their league marks but know they need to improve to continue their winning ways.

“I don’t really get caught up in stats in general,” defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said Thursday. “Basically what you’re trying to do is you’re trying to get the ball back to the offense.”

The Dolphins, despite their 3-1 record, have fallen short in Boyer’s goal. According to the play index site nflfastR, Miami’s defense has ended a series with a turnover or punt 17 percent of the time, the third-lowest rate in the NFL.

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The Dolphins rank 16th in points allowed per game (22.8) and 28th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, both underachieving figures for a group that finished the 2021 season as one of the league’s top units.

The issues are multifaceted.

Despite the league’s fourth-highest blitz rate (37.9 percent), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Dolphins’ pressure rate (23 percent) and sacks (seven) both rank in the bottom 10 of the NFL. However, the team’s pass rush win rate, defined as how often defenders beat their blockers in 2.5 seconds, ranks second at 53 percent, according to ESPN. It signals that Dolphins defenders are winning their individual matchups more than the raw numbers suggest.

Defensive coaches attributed the low marks to factors such as teams attempting to counter their blitz schemes with quick passes. In other instances, a player’s responsibility on the play was to keep an athletic quarterback such as Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen in the pocket and impact the game in another way, such as batting a pass down.

“Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Zach Wilson, you’ve got to rush these guys a certain way,” defensive line coach Austin Clark said, “versus a quarterback that maybe doesn’t move quite as much.”

Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer speaks to the media before practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday, October 6, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.
Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer speaks to the media before practice at Baptist Health Training Complex in Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday, October 6, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

In the secondary, the Dolphins are seeing a position of strength turn into a question mark.

Both Xavien Howard (groins) and Keion Crossen (glute/shoulder) missed their second consecutive day of practice Thursday, further placing their availability for Sunday’s game in doubt. Their absences would only further thin a cornerback room that has played the first four games without Byron Jones, who coach Mike McDaniel said would not be activated from the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list this week.

If Howard and Crossen cannot play, Nik Needham and rookie Kader Kohou would likely start, and Noah Igbinoghene could see his first defensive snaps this season. Elijah Campbell and Justin Bethel could also see an increase in snaps.

Though what the Dolphins do on defense is intrinsically linked to their top cornerbacks being available, Boyer said other players would have to be ready to play if needed.

“Over the NFL and the course of the season, you’re very accustomed and used to guys being in and out,” Boyer said. “You kind of understand that even when you’re in [organized team activities]. I doubt that there’s a team that goes wire to wire that all 11 starters, whether it’s on offense or defense. I think we’re very accustomed to guys being in and out and that’s why even the guys that aren’t playing, they need to prepare mentally. And you give them as many reps as you possibly can. They need to prepare mentally like they’re going to play in the game anyway.”

The Dolphins aimed for continuity on their defense, from bringing back Boyer to re-signing all of their top contributors. Thus, their core tenets won’t change, whether it’s wanting to pressure the quarterback or force turnovers.

Last year, the Dolphins started slow before taking advantage of a favorable second-half schedule.

They could take the first step toward better resembling the 2021 defense on Sunday, facing a Jets offense that ranks 19th in scoring and is still gaining its footing with Wilson, who will be making his second start of the season after returning from a knee injury.

“I definitely think you’re never satisfied as a defense, and we’re always looking to get better each and every day,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “So even if we had the best defense in the league right now and stopped them on every drive, did everything we were supposed to do, you’re still not satisfied. So we’re always striving to be our best and the best. So that’s really the goal each day, each week, and we’re going to continue to make those strides.”