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  Dolphins Should Re-think Defensive Changes
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that the final score of the first preseason game is meaningless; a glorified scrimmage intended primarily to hone skills and evaluate players. A win is always nice, but not the most important thing. Rather, it’s the formation of a team, and refining individual abilities, that matter most.


For the Miami Dolphins, it was another step in the process of implementing fresh offensive and defensive systems under new head coach Joe Philbin. It was also an early reminder to Philbin, and all of us, that the roster has a ways to go before it reaches championship potential, and a warning to the coaches that they may not have all the pieces they need to do what they want out of the blocks.


Nowhere was this more evident than on the defensive side of the ball.


Philbin and new defensive boss Kevin Coyle have made it clear that they intend to move away from the inherited 3-4 defensive scheme to more of a full-time 4-3 philosophy. Yes the Dolphins showed 4-3 looks plenty of times during Tony Sparano’s tenure, but that was more of a change-up rather than a steady diet. What Philbin really intends here is a return to a similar approach that Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt introduced and refined in the mid-90s and through the early part of the last decade, years that produced some of the most dominant defensive performances in franchise history.


Ironic, isn’t it? On the very day Philbin and Coyle put their new defense on the field for the first time, the club announced newly selected Dolphin Honor Roll inductees Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas. Those two made Hall of Fame careers in the 4-3, swallowing opponents whole and making superstars like Tom Brady seem like average joes.


But if you were hoping some of that magic would rub off on the current edition, you were only seeing a mirage of what used to be as the current corps were flat out run through by the lowly Bucs.


Getting blown up for 14 first half points is not what the coaches or team watchers expected. It was not what we’ve been seeing in the training camp practices. It was flat out disturbing.


Should we be suspicious that a green west coast offense was masking the defensive shortcomings, making them look better than they were?


To an extent, yes.


Here’s the bigger worry: the Dolphins simply do not have the right players to implement the 4-3 full time.


Time and again, Tampa Bay’s offensive front gashed the Miami front seven, especially along the weakside where two of the Dolphins’ best players, Cam Wake and Karlos Dansby, need to make an impact. Both men have been moved to new positions and/or have been given different responsibilities by Coyle; both looked out of place and overmatched. So it was no coincidence that the Bucs earned a healthy 4.6 yards per rush. Bucs QBs Josh Freeman, Dan Orlovsky, and Brian Ratliff weren’t sacked or really pressured.


Wake, now playing the role of Taylor at RDE, looked like he had gotten into the “Way Back” machine, only it was back to that bad time when he struggled against the run. Bucs head coach Greg Schiano decided to test Wake, not convinced he was capable of standing up as a full time DE. Again it was only one game, but Wake wasn’t up to it.


Dansby wasn’t much better at MLB. He was regularly eliminated at the second level, forcing the DBs up to limit damage. This, obviously, is not good.


Could it just be a case of a learning process still in motion, with players thinking more than reacting? Sure it could. But it was still disturbing watching Wake get physically mauled while Dansby seemed a step slow covering ground at a position that demands decisiveness and speed. Consequently he was erased by the aggressive Bucs. Could these shortcomings be physical limitations exposed by asking guys to do things they aren’t very good at?


It’s not all bad by any means. Clearly the strongside guys upfront are coming along smartly as Randy Starks and Jared Odrick held up fairly well. And DT Paul Soliai looked to be a natural for the scheme, regularly occupying two blockers and notching a couple of tackles in limited time.  


Soliai is a dominator now, a guy that has gone from Player 53 to legit Pro Bowl talent. The early signs in 2012 are very good, revealing a player who is primed for a monster season, perhaps his best one yet.


Yes, we’ll need to see more from Koa Misi and Kevin Burnett. Burnett sat this first scrimmage out; he should get his first licks in this next game at Carolina. Misi was his usual non-descript self, which is OK but not in-line with the expectations this coaching staff has for him. But overall, not a bad outing for him.


Meanwhile, the secondary is another headache. Coyle is asking his CBs to play differently and must source two new starters at Safety.


CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis, last year’s incumbents, have been told by Coyle to play lean, low, and with better pure technique. This is a different set of priorities from last season. For example, Smith was asked to lose weight and clean up his technique. And Davis was told to start playing to his talent and come to camp in shape this year.


Both have yet to fulfill Coyle’s demands.


“This year there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the QB, and that puts a lot of pressure on the secondary to make plays”, Smith told Phins.com. “We’re (going to be) blitzing a lot of guys at different angles, so the secondary has to make plays on the ball and create turnovers. That’s something we weren’t really good at last year. We were more of a man defense base, and everybody dropped back. We didn’t have a lot of pressure, we relied more on coverage. This year when the ball comes out, (Coyle) wants us to stay low and break on the ball when it comes out.”


Smith struggled with the new mandate against the Bucs; he looked hesitant in coverage and his tackling was poor. Davis, who has lost his starting job for the moment to newcomer Richard Marshall, also had coverage issues and was roasted repeatedly by Freeman and Orlovsky. He was also exposed by Hard Knocks cameras as being out of shape, which he was for most of last year.


At Safety, Coyle will struggle to replace the veteran leadership and ability of the departed Yeremiah Bell. But Reshad Jones is clearly ready to play full time, and he has thus far validated the faith put in him. He looks very legit at strong safety, and should be an upgrade over Bell in coverage versus tight ends, long a Bell weakness.


On the other side the free safety position remains wide open with Chris Clemons, Jimmy Wilson, and others battling it out. It’s hard to separate them right now and that means the Dolphins may not have a solid starter. Wilson had a chance at a big interception that could have separated him in the competition, but he badly mis-timed his jump and allowed a red zone completion which led to a Bucs TD.


Will the secondary settle in and perform better? Probably, if for no other reason than they couldn’t have been much worse. Here again there are signs that players are being asked to do things that may not play to their individual strengths.


It’s a legitimate worry for Philbin, Coyle, and the defensive coaches. Further evaluation of these players is needed, and will happen. But that’s not enough; they should also take a critical look at their defensive ambitions and ask yet again if they are putting their guys in a position to be successful.


The bottom line is that Jason Taylor is not walking through that door. Neither is Zach Thomas. The Dolphins need to make do with what they have, not what they wish they had.

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