Lots of Dolphins chatter on a Monday afternoon:
### A day after an exhilarating win against New England, the Dolphins were dealt a setback Monday: Starting linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is out for the season with a hip injury that required surgery.
And concerns about the linebacker position do not end there.
Starting middle linebacker Koa Misi remains out indefinitely with an ankle injury.
And the Dolphins are unsure when starting strong-side linebacker Phillip Wheeler will be able to play with a thumb injury that hampers his ability to tackle.
Ellerbe, one of the team's highest-paid players, was placed on injured reserve. The Dolphins will not use their early-return IR designation on Ellerbe --- teams can use one of those per year --- because they do not believe he would be able to return this season.
The Dolphins signed fourth-year linebacker Kelvin Sheppard to fill Ellerbe’s roster spot. Sheppard, a third-round pick by Buffalo out of LSU in 2011, started nine games for the Bills as a rookie and 15 games in 2012 but was traded to Indianapolis for Jerry Hughes in April 2013.
Sheppard started seven games for the Colts last season and had 46 tackles, then started two playoff games, but was cut in late August. He has three career sacks and three career passes defended but no forced fumbles.
Though most of his work in a 4-3 defense has been at middle linebacker, he has the skill set to play outside linebacker in that formation.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle called Sheppard "a big, physical linebacker. Has been effective in the league playing against the run. We’re excited to have a good athlete that has size and strength.”
Pro Football Focus rated Sheppard 43rd of 55 inside linebackers last season --- 45th against the run and 32nd against the pass. Quarterbacks had an 88.9 rating in his coverage area.
Misi played just 17 snaps before his ankle injury and left the stadium in a walking boot Sunday. The timetable for his return is undetermined.
Ellerbe left after 19 snaps, leaving the Dolphins without any of their starting linebackers for most of Sunday’s 33-20 victory against New England.
Jason Trusnik opened the game at weakside linebacker, in Wheeler’s place, but shifted to middle linebacker when Misi left, with Jelani Jenkins filling Ellerbe’s position. The Dolphins played part of the game with two linebackers on the field, and used five defensive linemen instead at times, which Joe Philbin said was not the result of injury but instead “a package we’ve been working on in our scheme. I thought it was good.”
Trusnik, who played 66 defensive snaps, and Jenkins (59) both received high marks for their work against the Patriots.
“We went through three quarters of the game without a starting linebacker,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. “The other guys stepped in and played like starters. I was really impressed with the entire group. I can’t say enough about those guys.
“Trusnik was calling the defense, playing on special teams. He did it all and did a great job.”
The Patriots completed 3 of 7 passes for 27 yards in Jenkins’ coverage area, and Coyle said he did a good job against the tight ends.
Coyle also praised Jonathan Freeny, who played 14 snaps.
Another option at linebacker is Chris McCain, who had a sack and a blocked punt on Sunday. An undrafted free agent out of California, McCain signed with the Dolphins as a linebacker, but all but two of his 15 defensive snaps Sunday were at defensive end, linebacker coach Mark Duffner said.
“He prepared to play both defensive end and linebacker last week and he’ll do the same this week,” Coyle said.
The Dolphins also are hopeful that Jordan Tripp will return soon from a bruised sternum sustained in the fourth preseason game. He had been receiving work at all three linebacker spots.
Duffner said coaches planned to discuss what linebackers would play which positions in various scenarios. Most of the reserves have the versatility to play more than one position.
Coyle bemoaned the loss of Ellerbe, who ranked 44th in the league last season with 101 tackles in 15 games.
"Dannell is a heck of a player," Coyle said. "We were excited about him moving back to the will position and playing as effectively as he could. You have to have people step up and fill in."
Ellerbe, 28, is in the second year of a five-year, $35 million contract, and his future with the team is in doubt.
He has a $9.8 million cap number next season if he’s on the team, $4.2 million if he’s not. Those numbers would be $7.9 million and $2.9 million for 2016.
### The Dolphins’ 33 points Sunday were their most in a home game against New England in 20 years. But offensive coordinator Bill Lazor wasn’t remotely satisfied Monday.
“My number one feeling is that we better get better fast, particularly in the passing game,” Lazor said when asked about Ryan Tannehill. “I feel like there were a lot of plays that we should have made and didn’t make. Some might have been the throw or the decision. Some were the drop. We are going to have to be better to win tighter games. We are going to have to be more productive in the passing game when the plays are there. They were there and we didn’t make them. It’s going to be a real clear message that we’ve got to get better.”
Lazor was bemoaning several passing plays that could have gone for touchdowns but didn’t --- two to Mike Wallace, another to Dion Sims that was dropped and another to Charles Clay that was overthrown in the corner of the end zone.
Lazor also saw room for improvement with his offensive line, even though the Dolphins gave up only one sack (which wasn’t the line’s fault) and helped create holes on a day the Dolphins churned out 191 yards on the ground.
“We had too many hits on the quarterback,” he said. “And really when we analyze it, a lot of it was mistakes that we didn’t expect to have happen. So I can’t quite say we’ve arrived, but the production in the run game made a big difference. I feel like, for the first game, they did enough positive for us to feel like we are just going to keep getting better.”
### Though Lamar Miller started the game, Knowshon Moreno played more snaps, 48 to 27. Moreno ran for 134 yards on 24 carries (5.6), Miller 59 on 11 (5.4 average).
Lazor said he did not even think about who should be the starter until a team official mentioned to him Monday that reporters might ask him about it during his one weekly availability.
“The question about who takes the first snap, now it’s on my mind, but I hadn’t considered it really yet,” he said. “I expect them both to contribute. There might be days (where) sometimes they may rotate by series and sometimes they may rotate by play if there are particular things they want.
“Sometimes a guy may just need a blow for a moment and, when he comes out because he’s had a couple of plays in a row, we happen to call three straight runs. Some of it is going to be luck of the draw and the flow of the game. If a guy, if it’s his turn to play and he runs for three first downs in a row, he’s going to get to play more. They also get to earn some of it.”
Lazor said Miller’s self-esteem would play no factor in the decision: “I’m hoping that we’ve built a culture where they expect that they’re all going to contribute and they understand that it’s a production kind of a business. I’m not worried about anybody’s ego.”
### Lazor, on Miller: “I feel like since we’ve been playing real games here that Lamar’s shown the ability to understand when it’s time to put his shoulder down and go, and that he’s done it. I’m expecting big things from him. When you have a guy that can make big plays in space and also shows the willingness and ability to put his shoulder down and get the tough yards, I think you have a chance to have a complete back. I think Lamar’s on track to do that. I think he understands it and he wants to.”
### The Dolphins mixed in some no-huddle offense Sunday, and Lazor said he wants the Dolphins to play at a faster pace when they do huddle.
“When I say tempo, I mean how quickly our guys were breaking the huddle and getting set up,” Lazor said. “A couple of times when the pace of our shifts and motions was slower than what I expect and we mention it so that the coaches are grabbing guys on the sideline and can remind them and get it going. I think we’ve got a ways to go. I don’t know if that’s conditioning or just mental conditioning of reminding them, ‘Hey, we’re trying to get something accomplished and have a certain identity.’
“I think when we decided to go no-huddle, we feel pretty good about it being the right time. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that we have the ability to do it. Some weeks we may decide to do it more than others and that’s part of the whole game plan. But I think our players like it. I think they feel like it’s a weapon that they can use at times, but maybe some games we don’t use it at all.”
### Last year, the Dolphins followed their home December win against the Patriots with a loss at Buffalo. The Dolphins hope to avoid a repeat of that this year. “I do think we’ve grown a lot” since then, Joe Philbin said.
### Philbin, on Ja’Wuan James’ first regular season start at right tackle: “There’s obviously a lot of work to be done, but I thought overall it was solid. He didn’t look confused out there. He wasn’t tentative very often. There were a number of things fundamentally that we would like him to do a little bit better.”