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Exploring reasons behind UM's defensive improvement; Simms sold on Tannehill; Dolphins, Heat

BUZZ COLUMN

The UM defense that faces its biggest challenge Saturday is so improved from a month ago that it actually ranks higher than undefeated FSU’s defense in most significant statistics, including yards allowed per game (11th; FSU is 50th) and scoring defense (27th to 34th).

So with UM allowing just 314 yards per game over the past three, what's the explanation for the turnaround?

Here are 10 reasons cited this week by coaches, players and others inside the program:

### Dramatically better linebacker play, which is critical to this defense. “I don’t know if anybody is more improved over the past four weeks than Raphael Kirby,” Al Golden said.

Denzel Perryman --– somewhat neutralized against Nebraska and Georgia Tech --- has been a force the past three games against Cincinnati/Virginia Tech/North Carolina (27 tackles, his most over a three-game stretch this season).

Thurston Armbrister has continued his surprisingly good work (he has a team-high seven tackles for loss), and Jermaine Grace (two sacks and two fumble recoveries in this three-game stretch) is blossoming before our eyes.

### Alignment tweaks and maximizing blitz calls. Strategy is the topic that many fans gravitate toward in discussing this defensive resurgence because their eyes tell them UM is playing more aggressively and taking more chances.

Safety Nantambu Fentress conceded today that UM has “made some adjustment” with alignments, with safeties lining up closer at times, including on the goal line, and “wider” some other times.

"We want to be precise in the alignments," Fentress said of the linebackers and defensive backs. "It's fine-tuning."

But aside from that, Fentress insists coordinator Mark D’Onofrio “hasn’t changed anything.” Al Golden maintained “we haven’t changed play calling.” 

Raphael Kirby said D’Onofrio is “not changing the scheme. He’s been calling the same calls. Just the way we execute them is different. We don’t feel we can be stopped.”

And though some fans and ex-players are skeptical of this --- judging by social media ---  D’Onofrio absolutely swears UM hasn’t blitzed any more the past three games than previous ones.

But here’s the difference nobody can dispute: The blitz calls have been more successful recently.

To wit: When D’Onofrio had safety Deon Bush blitz against Nebraska, the Cornhuskers threw a 40-yard TD pass. Against North Carolina, Bush, Artie Burns and Corn Elder got to the quarterback for sacks on blitzes.

“We’ve been running corner blitzes all year,” Golden said, bristling when asked by another media person if this is something new.

When D’Onofrio sent Kirby on a run blitz on a third and inches on Virginia Tech’s first possession, Kirby made a tackle for loss. “The time he calls the [run blitz], he’s doing a great job,” Kirby said.

D’Onofrio said Monday UM’s cornerbacks actually are playing less man coverage than a year ago. Cornerbacks are lining up closer to the line at times, with some of UM’s corners more comfortable doing that than others.

But players insist there has been no philosophical change, and in fact, D'Onofrio --- much earlier in the season --- encouraged one of his cornerbacks to play closer to the line.

Though UM fans tweeted still shots from the Nebraska and Georgia Tech games showing corners playing well off receivers, I’ve also seen still shots of UM corners playing very tightly on receivers in the Nebraska game. So this issue shouldn’t be overstated.

### UM has been forcing more turnovers (eight the past three games) and been much better defending third downs (UNC and Virginia Tech were 8 for 27).

### Simple stuff such as better tackling. “So much better than earlier in the season; dramatically better than a year ago,” Golden said. “If we miss a tackle, we’re missing to our leverage so we don’t give up explosive plays.”

And UM is making fewer mental errors; it’s no coincidence that UM hasn’t had a practice shortened or moved inside by weather in the past few weeks after more than 15 were interrupted in August and September. Fact is, UM can't accomplish nearly as much when practices are moved inside.

As Tyriq McCord said, everyone on defense now knows where they’re supposed to be, and practice and experience are significant reasons for that.

### Personnel changes. On third-down passing situations, UM is now often using Chad Thomas, Anthony Chickillo, McCord and Darrion Owens --- a quartet that has played well together… Elder and Burns are playing more at cornerback, and though Tracy Howard still plays, he has been less prominent. Why? Elder and Burns are faster than Howard and more consistent tacklers.

### Time of possession. UM, which has lagged in the bottom quarter nationally in TOP, has a 99 to 81 minute edge over the past three games largely because its running game is thriving. That means the defense is on the field less and isn’t being worn down. That's big.

### Level of competition. Don’t overlook this. Stopping the run has been UM’s biggest weakness until recently, and Georgia Tech is third nationally in yards rushing per game and Nebraska 10th.

The last three opponents? Cincinnati is 72nd, Virginia Tech 98th and North Carolina 103rd.

FSU, by the way, is 101st, but Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene, etc. compensate for that in the passing game.

### Young players developing. Newcomers Thomas, Owens, Calvin Heurtelou, Courtel Jenkins and Michael Wyche have made strides in recent weeks, as have sophomores Burns, Elder and Grace.

### Bush's good work. Tentative last season because of a sports hernia, he’s playing faster and has done his best work recently, including a sack and interception against North Carolina and a forced fumble vs. Virginia Tech.

### A more stout defensive line and a much-improved McCord. Again, level of competition is a factor here. But McCord --- who at one time was undersized to play defensive end --- has held up better against the run recently and has two sacks in the past three games. And his 46-yard interception return vs. Cincinnati was exceptional.

“He’s gotten stronger, is playing more physical,” Golden said. “He’s stronger than he has been. He always had the ability to pass rush. He’s better on first and second down than he has been.”

Anthony Chickillo has been very solid recently, and the defensive tackle work has been competent. But McCord has made the biggest strides among the defensive linemen, considering his previous shortcomings against the run.

By the way, some have asked whether Golden has become more involved in defensive game-planning in the past month.

I asked him that today, and he said he has not been, but quickly added that he always has been involved in game-planning on offense, defense and special teams. Fentress said Golden hasn't attended any more defensive meetings recently than he has in the past and hasn't spent any more time with the defense during practice.

### The comparison of the UM and FSU defenses might surprise you. As noted, UM is 27th in scoring defense (21.9); FSU 34th (22.3). UM is 10th in passing yards allowed per game, FSU 80th.

UM is 31st in rushing yards relinquished per game, FSU 35th. UM is 33rd in sacks, FSU 83rd.

And UM is 46th in third down defense, FSU 81st.

"For the coaches and players, I think they deserve some credit for doing a great job thus far," D'Onofrio said Monday.

By the way, FSU has played five games without end Mario Edwards, one of three five-star players who start for the Seminoles, along with Eddie Goldman and Jalen Ramsey. UM has two five-star defensive players (Howard and Thomas), but neither starts.

CHATTER

### CBS lead NFL analyst Phil Simms, who works his first Dolphins game of the season Thursday, said by phone Monday that Ryan Tannehill “so far this year has won me over. I definitely notice a difference. I’ve been really, really impressed; he’s finding the right guys, throwing in rhythm, he looks stronger. And what really impresses me is he is more natural and really letting the ball go.”

Simms now believes Tannehill can be an above average NFL starting quarterback.

But even though he likes Tannehill’s ability to run the read option, he cautions that when an opponent “is fairly good and they’re ready for it, it’s useless. It’s a good thing but I wouldn’t want to see a steady diet” because of the injury risk.

### Simms likes this Dolphins team and “was fairly impressed with how they adjusted” Sunday after losing Branden Albert.

“They’ve got guys who can make plays to win games: wide receivers, the quarterback, many guys up front, their safeties, their corners,” he said. “It’s hard to pick out a severe weakness in this team; I don’t know if there is one.

“What stands out is how many dynamic players they have. You can see it forming for them. [But] they let the Green Bay game get away and they lost a tough one to Detroit. Those are the kind of situations that determine your year.”

### After being thrown just one pass Sunday, Brian Hartline is on pace for 76 targets --- well below his 127 last season. The NFL’s 18th-most targeted receiver last season, he’s 60th in targets last season. No wonder he’s gone from 23rd in receiving yards last season (1016) to 73rd this season (269).

Agent Drew Rosenhaus, on his weekly WSVN-7 Fox segment Sunday, good naturedly called for the Dolphins to find ways to maximize Hartline’s talent, as any good agent would.

Hartline said Tuesday he doesn’t want to broach the issue with coaches: “Coaches can use me as they see fit.”

### For viewers in South Florida who don't have NFL Network, don't despair: WFOR-4 will simulcast Thursday's Dolphins-Bills game.

### Rookie Shabazz Napier is shooting just 37 percent and has a mediocre 1.89-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. So why is he playing so much in the fourth quarter?

The Heat plays well with Napier in the lineup. Consider that Miami has outscored opponents by 21 points with Napier on the floor (that's plus 21, for those unfamiliar with plus/minus), compared with a plus 1 for starter Norris Cole. Mario Chalmers, who also plays a lot late in games, is plus 18.

"Things are just settled when he's in there," Erik Spoelstra said of Napier. "He does a good job of getting the ball to the right places."

### Chris Andersen, who has missed five of the Heat's first seven games with a rib injury, is probable for Wednesday's game against Indiana.

### Twitter: @flasportsbuzz

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