Let’s be absolutely clear here – the NFL is a passing league. While the 2011 season might be an outlier, it is still significant. After only two seasons in NFL history with a 5,000 yard passer, spread more than 20 yards apart, the 2011 NFL season saw three 5,000 yard passers, and one quarterback who came close (Eli Manning was 63 yards away from 5,000). Here’s the deal, all of those players are still playing and there looks to be even more passing this year. Players Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub who are known for huge numbers are coming back from injury while guys like Philip Rivers look to bounce back from down years. So where does that leave the less sexy part of the game called ‘Defense’?
For the most part, there are two ways to stop passing attacks:
- Pass rush
- Pass defense
The Giants knew this and their monstrous D-Line coupled with good secondary play helped lead them to a title. The Bills understand this; their secondary is fairly well put together and their D-Line is now one of the best in the league on paper. While the Dolphins ranked number 6 in the NFL in scoring defense, improvements can be made, namely at the two starting cornerback spots. Both drafted in 2009, Vontae Davis and Sean Smith were supposed to develop into one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL. A pertinent example would be two years ago in Cincinnati when Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph were shutting down wide receivers. A more sentimental example would be the Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain tandem in years past for the Dolphins. With the D-Line potentially solid, focus shifts onto the somewhat disappointing play of Davis and Smith. While both are NFL cornerbacks and play as such, they need to step up and enter the elite category. So far, Vontae Davis is the perceived better of the two with good coverage skills, blitzing ability, and run support while Sean Smith is seen as a better cover corner but soft and with stone hands. If the Dolphins hope to compete with the rest of the NFL, they need to be able to slow down the high powered offenses sprouting up; especially considering one of those offenses is a division rival. With the former most senior member of the Dolphins secondary now a New York Jet, Smith and Davis must step up and take some pressure off of the younger guys like Carroll, Wilson, and Jones.
Davis is well known for great athleticism and strength packed into a small frame, but he must cut down on lapses in concentration and above all, stay healthy. With the Patriots now employing the services of Brandon Lloyd, Davis will presumably be covering him and will need to consistently play how he did when up against Randy Moss in his second season (in 2010, Moss caught 1 pass for 26 yards in two games against Miami primarily covered by Davis). Davis has been beat deep several times in his career and needs to play longer routes better. For Smith to step up, he needs to become much more aggressive, and work on his catching ability. Sean Smith is a very talented player. He has flashed brilliance many times in his career but has yet to do it consistently. While his size has something to do with what he can do, players such as Antonio Cromartie and Antoine Cason have had success with large frames. Smith often appears to be in great positions to make plays but either hesitates to make a tackle or play on the ball, or listlessly allows the ball to float into his hands before ultimately dropping it. In 2010, even though Smith only started 8 games, he led the league in dropped interceptions with 5 (via Football Outsiders). To me this seems to be a mental weakness which can be fixed. A dropped interception is still a pass you put yourself in position to catch.
In the NFL which is rapidly moving toward unheard of levels of passing, Smith and Davis must overcome these issues and become the defensive backs they were drafted to be. This is a big year for them as it will determine their future with the Miami Dolphins. Inexperience is no longer an excuse, and aside from Tyrone Culver, they are the most senior Dolphins who have a reasonable chance at extended minutes in the secondary. Smith has the biggest uncertainty surrounding his future considering this is the last year on his contract while Davis has one more after the 2012 season. In this NFL, the Miami Dolphins are betting a lot of their success on the play of two players who still need to elevate their games. Let’s hope this bet is the right one.