AC in the AM: How Run Defense Became A Strength

Posted Oct 12, 2017

The difference is in the numbers. And what a difference it is.

A year ago, the Dolphins were 30th in the league in rushing defense. They gave up just over 140 yards a game, just under five yards a carry. There were breakdowns everywhere. Missed tackles. Mental miscues. It was, far too often, a weekly struggle.

Flash forward now to the first four games of this season and a rushing defense that is ranked fourth in the league, giving up just over 75 yards a game and about three yards a carry. All of a sudden everything that went wrong last season is now going right. Missed tackles are now the exception. Mental mistakes are few in number. One strong performance is followed by another.

You can easily make the case that the rushing defense is now the strength of this team.

But I wasn’t convinced until last Sunday. Almost exactly a year ago to the day, the Tennessee Titans came to Hard Rock Stadium and ran for 235 yards in a 30-17 victory. Remember those Titans? They roughed up the Dolphins pretty good that day, kind of owned the line of scrimmage.

“We’ll see how much better we’ve gotten,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said prior to last Sunday’s rematch against the Titans.

We saw indeed. The Dolphins held the same Titans rushing attack to just 69 yards. That’s a 166-yard improvement in one season. I saw reasons to be encouraged over the first three games. But this performance was the capper. Remarkably, from one season to another, we have seen a complete reversal of form.

How have they done it? Five things quickly come to mind:

1. I’ll let Burke tell you the first one. “It’s been a point of emphasis from the top on down,” he said. That’s not just talk. The Dolphins went into this past offseason intent on correcting what might have been the greatest weakness on the team. They came up with a plan both through free agency and the draft. Burke also adjusted a few of the schemes and worked with the veteran defensive ends on better protecting the edge, a common breakdown among some of the lower-echelon rushing defenses. The result? “Cam Wake,” said Adam Gase, “may be playing the best run defense of his career.” And this is his ninth season.

2. Reshad Jones got healthy: Can it be as simple as that? You bet it can. Jones is one of the top tackling safeties in the league and a player who embraces creeping up toward the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Without him most of last season this rushing defense suffered. You just can’t replace what Jones brings. He is second on the team this season with 26 tackles and at least four or five of them have come behind the line of scrimmage. “He clearly makes a difference,” Burke said.

3. The trade for William Hayes: This was done with the rushing defense in mind and it’s already producing impressive results. Hayes is a solid all-around player, but he’s made it to his 10th season in the league largely because of his ability to stuff the run. He was exactly what the Dolphins needed and they wasted little time making it happen early in the offseason. The fact that Hayes only has seven tackles is misleading because his near textbook technique helps brings tackles to other players.

4. The signing of Lawrence Timmons: With a 10-year resume of success and with so much of that due to his ability to contain the run, the decision to sign Timmons made perfect sense and fit well into the offseason plan. Even though Timmons missed two games at the start of the season, he clearly made a difference against both the Saints and Titans. Just focus on Timmons some Sunday. Watch how he fights off blocks, how he plays with only one speed and how he always seems to be in the middle of the action. In many ways, he is the prototype of what you are looking for in a run-stuffing linebacker.

5. The drafting of Davon Godchaux: There was some good fortune involved in this one. Who knew that the rookie defensive tackle out of LSU would be this good this soon? A fifth-round draft choice? Starting by the second game? It’s not the way you normally see it. But Godchaux isn’t your normal player, especially against the run. Maybe it’s his instincts. Maybe it’s technique, so refined for a player so young. “Everything is important,” Godchaux said. “But stopping the run is so much more mental than anything else. You’ve got to really want it.” And it sure seems like he does.

It wasn’t as if the Dolphins didn’t have some quality run stoppers already on the roster. Linebacker Kiko Alonso, for instance, has been lights out this season and Ndamukong Suh has been his usual dominant self. They simply didn’t have enough of them. More help came early in the season with the signing of veteran linebacker Rey Maualuga and we’re just beginning to see the type of impact he can have.

No doubt that four games isn’t the largest of sample sizes and this rushing defense has some formidable challenges ahead, beginning with Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman on Sunday. Only when they do it over the course of an entire season will we know for sure.

But early signs are encouraging. The numbers, after all, tell you everything you need to know. .

The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by our columnists and bloggers represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.

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