The Dolphins defense was very good in 2010, but it has a chance to be great in 2011. While much of the attention this off-season has been on fixing the offense, deservedly so, let’s not overlook what strides Mike Nolan’s unit will be able to make this fall. Here are several reasons why the Dolphins defense, that ranked 6th in the NFL in total defense last season, could be even stronger in 2011.
• Year Two Under Mike Nolan: This cannot be overlooked. Last year everything was new with Coach Nolan. This year the players will know the scheme better, and quite possibly react faster in certain situations. Also, Nolan will know his talent better this season and be able to put the players in optimal situations from the opening game, already knowing the spots where certain players can excel. Also, with the whole starting unit returning intact from 2010, there will be no chemistry issues. These defenders can trust that their teammates will be in the right position to make plays. Trust goes a long way in the making of a successful defense.
• Age: This was a very young defense in 2010 with 10 of the 11 starters under 30 years of age. Look at the ages of the key contributors – Vontae Davis (22), Jared Odrick (23), Sean Smith (23), Koa Misi (24), Kendall Langford (25), Chris Clemons (25), Phillip Merling (26), Paul Soliai (27), Channing Crowder (27), Randy Starks (27), Cameron Wake (29), Karlos Dansby (29) and Yeremiah Bell (33). Out of those 13 defenders who figure to play a prominent role in 2011, 12 of the 13 are either in the early part of their career or in the “prime” their career. It’s reasonable to expect improved play from many of these players, including Wake, who is a young 29, due to some time out of the game. This list doesn’t even include some younger players that might see more action this year: Nolan Carroll, A.J. Edds, Reshad Jones and rookies Jimmy Wilson and Frank Kearse.
• The Return of Jared Odrick: The Dolphins 2010 first round pick, only played in one game in 2010 due to injury. Odrick adds depth and talent to a very deep defensive line that will also feature Randy Starks, Kendall Langford, Phillip Merling and Paul Soliai. Starks made the Pro Bowl in 2010, and many feel that Soliai deserved a spot in Hawaii as well. Langford has continued to improve and Merling figures to be fully healthy after missing most of the 2010 season with an Achilles’ injury. Having five quality players for three spots along the line will allow Nolan to be able to keep these guys fresh throughout games and provide insurance in case of an injury. This defensive line has the potential to be one of the best units in the entire league. In addition to Odrick’s retun, the team will also get A.J. Edds and Will Allen back from injury. Both figure to help in third-down pass coverage, with Allen having the ability to push Sean Smith for a starting corner position.
• Sean Smith Will Catch The Football: Smith was a receiver in high school and for some time in college. He made a spectacular one-handed interception in the 2009 preseason at New Orleans, but for whatever reason had a case of the “drops” in 2010. As Sam Madison says “catch the cheddar!” I believe all signs point to Smith being able to hang on to the football in 2011, displaying the hands that he’s had for his whole life up until last fall. If Smith had stone hands for his entire career, then it might be safe to assume this is a guy who just can’t catch. However, Smith had nine interceptions in 25 games at the University of Utah, so he definitely has the ability. It could just be a few of the drops last fall got into his head things snowballed, but with a long off-season I think these problems will be behind Smith this season. Jesse Agler, host of The Finsiders, is already on-record predicting a breakout season for Smith in 2011, and I don’t disagree. Opposing quarterbacks will stay away from Vontae Davis’ side of the field and give Smith opportunities to make plays on the ball, and I believe this year he’ll make many of those plays.
• Turnovers: The only disappointing number from the 2010 Dolphins defense was a lack of turnovers, as the team finished 29th in the NFL in creating turnovers. In addition to Sean Smith holding on to potential interceptions; the team as a whole must improve in creating these big plays defensively. Mike Nolan stressed for the team to be the aggressor on defense last year, but for whatever reason that didn’t translate into turnovers. The team was only able to come up with 19 in 16 games. Another factor is that the Dolphins defense was often put in tough situations in 2010 by a struggling offense. Very rare were there games where the Dolphins had a large lead and could sit on playing the pass (at Oakland might be the only one in 2010). So with improved play from the offense this year, the defense might have the luxury of playing with a lead more often than they did in 2010. Playing with a lead will allow the defense in some cases to load up against the pass and that could easily increase the number of interceptions and fumbles caused by quarterback sacks. Look for increasing the turnover total to be a point of emphasis from the coaches throughout training camp this year and that maybe the key for this unit to go from very good to great in 2011.
With all of the key parts of a young, tough Dolphins defense set to return in 2011, it’s hard to see this unit having a drop-off. Former Dolphins linebacker Derrick Rodgers steadfastly maintains that “Defense Wins Championships.” While that cliché may not have same truth that it had 20 years ago, keep in mind that even Aaron Rodgers and the mighty Packers offense needed their defense to bail them out in the NFC Championship game on a day when their offense could only score 14 points. So while the Dolphins continue to add pieces to improve the offense this off-season; don’t panic over the lack of additions to the defense. It’s a unit in very good shape heading into 2011.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog 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.