HOUSTON -- The Dolphins tonight will get their longest look of an outstanding opponent this preseason will offer because the playoff-good Texans are likely going to keep their starters in the game at least one quarter and probably longer.
And while many people will continue to focus on the offense because fans are interested in QB Ryan Tannehill's progress and his chemistry with new WR Mike Wallace and the progress of the running back competition that Lamar Miller has yet to fully win, I will also be looking at the defense.
Yes, the defense.
The Texans, you see, will provide the Miami defense its best test of the preseason. (New Orleans might have done so in the preseason-finale but everyone knows the starters in that game will play perhaps one series and be done).
So this will be Miami's longest view of a solid offense that not only has playoff potential but is considered among the elite units in the NFL.
So why my focus on defense?
Well, I have to admit sometimes when you cover a team, one can overlook the forest from the trees. I admit I did that with this defense. It wasn't until reader Kareen Troitino asked for a critical study of Kevin Coyle's defense that I began to really question this unit.
Now, let me be clear: Last season the Dolphins defense under Coyle as their first-year defensive coordinator was good. They were probably good enough to get a team to the playoffs and if it wasn't for an offense that was bottom-of-the league bad, the Dolphins might have ended up in the postseason.
But the Dolphins defense was good before coach Joe Philbin arrived and hired Coyle to turn the unit from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 scheme. And, in truth, the change in staff and scheme was actually a step backward last year.
That's not an opinion. It's fact.
In 2011, Miami's 3-4 defense was No. 6 in the NFL in scoring, allowing 19.6 points per game. Last year, the Dolphins 4-3 unit was No. 7 in scoring, allowing 19.8 points per game. Slight difference but ... Worse.
In 2011, Miami's 3-4 defense gave up an average of 345.1 total yards per game. That was No. 15 in the NFL. Last year, the 4-3 unit gave up an average of 356.8 yards per game. That was No. 21 in the NFL. Worse.
In 2011, Miami's 3-4 defense was No. 3 against the run, allowing 95.6 yards per game. Last season, the 4-3 was No. 13 in the NFL, allowing 108.4 rushing yards per game. Worse.
The 2011 unit had 16 interceptions. Last year's unit had 10 interceptions. Worse.
The 2011 unit had 19 takeaways. The 2012 unit had 16 takeaway. Neither is very good. But 16 is less than 19 so ... Worse.
The only area where Coyle's 4-3 defense showed improvement over the previous 3-4 defense was in passing yards per game and even then, the improvement was modest. The 2011 Miami defense gave up 249.5 passing yards per game, which was 25th overall in the NFL. The 2012 Miami defense gave up 248.4 passing yards per game, which was 27th in the NFL. So even as the pass defense got one yard better per game, it lost ground in the rankings.
I'm not convinced this 4-3 approach is an upgrade. It's good. But it was good before. And if the Dolphins are looking to be a "first in class organization" as owner Stephen Ross likes to say, the defense needs to be better than merely good. It needs to be great.
It needs to be better than it was.
It needs to be Super Bowl good.
By the way, last year's Super Bowl teams -- San Francisco and Baltimore -- employed a 3-4 defense. The NFL's No. 1 unit overall (yards per game) was Pittsburgh. The Steelers run a base 3-4.
I'm not saying the 3-4 is a better approach than the 4-3, but the facts suggest Miami's personnel might be better suited for the 3-4.
Remember: Paul Soliai went to the Pro Bowl while playing in the 3-4 as an NT, not the 4-3 as a DT. Randy Starks had his most productive season and went to the Pro Bowl playing in the 3-4 as a DE, not the 4-3 as a DE. Jared Odrick was drafted by Bill Parcells as a 3-4 DE. Koa Misi was drafted for the 3-4.
Dannell Ellerbe played the 3-4 in Baltimore.
"I'm still getting used to being in the middle," Ellerbe said this week.
A good player is a good player is a good player. And many good players will be good regardless of scheme.
Cameron Wake is good as a 4-3 defensive end although he started out as a 3-4 OLB for the Dolphins. And once he gets healthy, I assume rookie first round pick Dion Jordan will be comfortable as a 4-3 DE although at Oregon he was often utilized and seems tailor-made for 3-4 OLB work.
But sometimes one scheme turns a good player into a dynamic one. Remember that Jason Taylor was an outstanding 4-3 defensive end. But his best season when he won the Defensive Player of the Year award came when Nick Saban used him in the 3-4 as an OLB.
My points is if the Dolphins are going to be a base 4-3 team, they need to prove that's really the best approach. They need to improve on what they were as a 3-4 unit not just keep pace or, as they did last year, lose ground.
The Texans last year scored 26 points per game and that made them the NFL's sixth-most productive offense. Tonight is a good night for Miami's defense to start showing it is ready to take another step.