A Playoff Formula for the Miami Dolphins: Defense

Playoffs??? Don’t talk about — playoffs??? You kidding me? Playoffs?? That’s right; I want to talk a little playoff football. Yes, in regards to the Miami Dolphins and how exactly they are going to get in.

The pessimist in the group, and believe me they’re here, may channel their inner Jim Mora. How is a football team capable of making a playoff run in the heated AFC East, playing third fiddle to the Jets and Patriots?

How exactly does a team that was two games under .500 in 2010 and was plagued by a tumultuous offseason that included the courting of Jim Harbaugh while Tony Sparano was still under contract, stand a chance in a conference loaded with elite teams?

Well, there’s this trend in the playoffs. Actually, it’s more than a trend. Its 15 years strong. It’s more of a rule. Over the past decade-and-a-half, five teams that made the playoffs don’t make it back the next year. Obviously, that means five teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2010 are posed for a run at the postseason this year.

Why not the Dolphins? Why can’t a team that beat the Super Bowl champion Packers, lost to the AFC champion Steelers on a unanimously disputed call, and went into the Meadowlands and beat the AFC runner up New York Jets at their own game be a playoff contender?

The Dolphins also handed games to teams they clearly outplayed late in the season when they were edged by the Browns (Henne’s three picks), Bills (Dan Carpenter’s four missed field goals), and Lions (fourth quarter collapse) in the month of December. That’s a three game swing.

You can’t make excuses and the fact is we can go through all the coulda-woulda-shoulda scenarios we want, but what’s done is done. I’m simply stating what last year’s Dolphins were capable of.

Take away some mind-boggling mistakes and a horrific call and we could easily be talking about an 11-5 team. That means nothing now, but I think it shows that these Dolphins may not be as far off as some of the media’s talking heads tell us they are.

Having said that, the obstacles are very much still there. Making the playoffs in the AFC, where either the Steelers or Ravens are expected to land one wild-card spot, and in the AFC East no less, where the Patriots may be the best team in football again and the Jets project to land the conference’s second wild-card opening, will be no easy task.

I’m not saying it’s likely. I’m just saying it’s possible.

So what needs to happen for the Dolphins to bridge the gap from mediocre to the playoffs? Well, the short and easy answer is put more points on the board via Chad Henne finally getting his head on straight. Obviously, that is indeed the case. But the longer and more difficult answer is a little more complicated.

Today, I want to focus on the improvements that can be made on the defensive side of the ball before we venture on over to Brian Daboll’s offense tomorrow. This formula is devised with the thinking that the Dolphins will continue to stop the run and the pass well, if not improve in doing so.

INTERCEPTIONS

The Dolphins were sixth in total defense in 2010, but they weren’t as close to elite status as that ranking indicates. Great defenses in this league force takeaways. The Dolphins rarely did so in 2010, finishing 28th in interceptions and 24th in fumble recoveries.

But I want to focus on interceptions because that will be more in their control and they squandered several easy opportunities to pick off passes a year ago.

The five teams that led the league in interceptions last season, all made the playoffs. The Patriots led the league with 25 picks and the Steelers and Bears rounded off the top five with 21 apiece. The Dolphins only managed 11, probably dropping just as many.

Two players in particular that need to step their game up are Sean Smith and Chris Clemons. Sean is emerging as one of the top cover corners in football, but if he wants to be Pro Bowl caliber and help the Dolphins’ defense take the next step he’ll need to capitalize on the golden opportunities that hit him square in the hands.

Chris Clemons also had his share of drops, and assuming he starts over Reshad Jones, who he’s still battling for the job, the Dolphins would benefit if he becomes more of a ball hawk in centerfield.

Magic number: 20 interceptions

SACKS

The Dolphins put up 39 sacks a year ago, a respectable total that was good enough for 10th in the league. But Cameron Wake could sure use a little help getting after quarterbacks this season.

Wake established himself as one of the league’s premier pass rushers with 14 sacks, but another Dolphin failed to emerge as much of a threat. Mike Nolan’s exotic blitz packages can manufacture pressure, but the Dolphins will be counting on the strong side, opposite Wake, to pick up some of the slack this year.

They’re hoping Koa Misi, who was second on the team with 4.5 sacks in 2010, takes some strides in his second season. They also brought back Jason Taylor, who, even at 36-years old, is probably the Dolphins’ second best pass rusher at the moment.

JT will undoubtedly spell Misi on passing situations in the nickel package. Misi adding three sacks to his 2010 total and JT managing the 5.0 sacks he had last year with the Jets, would go a long way in helping this Dolphins’ defense take the next step.

Koa Misi’s magic number: 7.5 sacks

Jason Taylor’s magic number: 5.0 sacks 

POINTS

Ranking defenses by yards surrendered is an adequate way to decipher which units are the best in football, but points given up is probably a better gauge. While the Dolphins ranked in at sixth in total yards, they were only middle of the pack as far as points per game goes.

They were 14th in the league, as opposing teams averaged 20.8 points per game against Miami a year ago. Now, not all of that is the defense’s fault.

For example, the Patriots scored two touchdowns on special teams and returned a Chad Henne interception to the house on Monday Night Football last year. Can’t blame the defense for that.

But tightening up in the red zone by forcing more field goals is manageable. The top eight scoring defenses were all playoff teams last year. Shaving nearly three points off the average would likely qualify the Dolphins for top five status this season.

Magic number: 18.0 PPG 

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