The biggest challenge the Dolphins defense faces against the New York Jets on Sunday? Well, the Dolphins certainly don't think it's rookie quarterback Geno Smith throwing the ball.
"We can’t allow them to run the football against us," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "That is going to be our big challenge."
It's Miami's biggest challenge on Sunday because, frankly, run defense has been the biggest challenge for Coyle's unit all season long. The Dolphins are the NFL's 25th-ranked run defense. They've been hovering in that neighborhood all year but the 203 yards rushing allowed against Buffalo last week was a stunner.
"That’s unacceptable, as far as we’re concerned," Coyle said.
The problem is the Dolphins have had to accept the fact they've struggled in their rush defense all year long.
They gave up 154 yards to San Diego.
They gave up 152 yards in the first meeting against New England.
The Dolphins have given up 133 rushing yards or more in nine games this season. Opponents have averaged 4.5 yards or more per rush in six games and at least 4.0 yards per rush in 10 games. Bottom line, when teams stick with the run, the Dolphins often give up lots of yards.
So why is that? Why has a team that was No. 3 in the NFL against the run in 2011 (in Tony Sparano's final season) gotten so much worse so quickly?
Well, I'd suggest to you the decline wasn't necessarily quick. Last year (in Joe Philbin's first season) the Dolphins were No. 13 in the NFL in rush defense with generally the same personnel as in 2011. Yes, that's a drop from 2011 but the worrisome thing is the trend continued this year and this year the run defense has fallen off the table.
And this has happened in a season where both interior run stuffers Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are playing for a contract and, guess what, doing a good job against the run.
The fact is the poor run defense doesn't necessarily start in the middle of the defensive line where the problem lies for most teams with such issues. Starks is having a great season stopping the run. He's the No. 4 rated defensive tackle against the run in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Soliai is similarly playing well against the run. He's the No. 12 rated defensive tackle against the run. And Jared Odrick is rated No. 28 against the run. All three have plus-grades for the season against the run.
Yes, they've had struggles here and there. And sometimes one or two plays well while the other is not so good. But generally, these guys are not the problem.
So what about the edge guys? Obviously if the Dolphins are solid on the first level up the gut, perhaps they're soft on the edges.
Um, no. Not really.
The edge players were bad against Buffalo. It was a terrible performance. But taking the whole season into account, Olivier Vernon, Cameron Wake, Koa Misi, even Derrick Shelby and Dion Jordan have been solid against the run. Misi and Shelby in particular have been good against the run.
None of this translates to No. 25 against the run.
Middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside linebacker Phillip Wheeler have been, well, atrocious against the run a majority of the 2013 season. Both have struggled all around but for Ellerbe, has been particularly bad against the run.
The man who was supposed to take over for Ray Lewis in Baltimore hasn't been able to fill Karlos Dansby's shoes in Miami.
Ellerbe is the 53rd-ranked middle/inside linebacker overall in the NFL according to ProFootballFocus.com which is almost as bad as one can get because there are only 55 players rated. And he's worse against the run. Ellerbe is rated 54th out of 55 against the run.
The ratings are fair.
Anecdotally, I see a lot of Ellerbe's 58 solo tackles four- and five-yards down the field. He has not been what I would call a gap filler. And he rarely makes plays in the opponent's backfield. He has two tackles for loss the entire season.
Last year Dansby had nine tackles for loss. He had 100 solo tackles or 42 more than Ellerbe currently has.
(Dansby is also having a better year than Ellerbe out in Arizona and way better than he ever had in his time with the Dolphins. He's the No. 5 rated inside linebacker overall and No. 14 against the run, according to ProFootballFocus.com).
The issue also bleeds over onto Wheeler, who if possible, is having a worse season than Ellerbe statistically.
Wheeler is rated No. 33 out of 34 outside linebackers against the run by ProFootballFocus.com. Overall, he's dead last. While Ellerbe stays in the game despite his obvious shortcomings, the Dolphins have routinely subbed Wheeler out of games for rookie Jelani Jenkins -- not a good sign for a player making big money and hoping to stay around a few years.
Meanwhile, the NFL's No. 2 rated outside linebacker against the run?
Kevin Burnett, the player Wheeler replaced. Burnett is rated No. 11 overall by ProFootballFocus.com. It should be noted Wheeler is not any worse this year than Burnett was last year. He misses more tackles but Burnett had issues with calls at times and was often out of position. But the fact Wheeler came to Miami as an upgrade rather than to simply continue the trend of not-good-enough is a disappointment.
Now, let me just say, I think part of the problem we have here is coaching.
Consider that Miami's defense against the run started declining with the arrival of the new staff. Also consider that Ellerbe and Wheeler were pretty good in Baltimore and Oakland, respectively, last year. And the guys who were no great shakes here the past couple of years -- Dansby and Burnett -- are turning in great to very good seasons the very year they leave Miami.
So players are better elsewhere. When they come here they get worse. When they leave here they get better again. That is not coincidence. That's on the coaches.
But the fact is Ellerbe and Wheeler are not anywhere else. They're in Miami.
And from the PFF tape study of their games, their statistics and what we've all seen with our eyes, they are major factors in Miami's struggling run defense.