Miami Dolphins: Three Keys to Victory vs. New England Patriots

Miami Dolphins
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

The NFL season is finally here! Last night, we had a fantastic game as the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Bucs survived a scare against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas left several points on the table against Tom Brady, and that’s not a winning formula. Looking ahead to Sunday, what will the winning formula for the Miami Dolphins be when they take on the New England Patriots? Here are the three keys to victory!

Three Keys to a Miami Dolphins Victory

Make Mac Jones look like a rookie

During the lead-up to the NFL Draft, one of the biggest talking points was former Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. Just how high would the former Crimson Tide star be taken? Could he be the third quarterback off the board? Was he even worthy of a first-round pick? Opinions varied wildly on the young quarterback, but ultimately the only one that matters is Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick made Jones a first-round pick in April. Now he has made Jones the starter of the New England Patriots. Jones has some big shoes to fill, and he’s going to get a major test right out of the gates in the Miami Dolphins defense. Miami had one of the better defenses in the league last year, and they’ve arguably gotten better since then.

Head coach Brian Flores is undoubtedly excited about the idea of unleashing this defense on a rookie quarterback. The Dolphins have added pass-rushing prowess with first-round pick Jaelan Phillips. They also added a chess piece in the defensive backfield with safety Jevon Holland. Coupled with the further development of defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and one of the best corner duos in the league, it’s a recipe for disaster for a rookie quarterback.

Miami will need every bit of that if they’re going to walk away with a win and start their season 1-0. Flores is undoubtedly going to make life a nightmare for Jones, with multiple looks and disguises. Will Jones be able to diagnose what he’s seeing? Will Howard be able to force turnovers at the rate he did last season? New England should be in for a long day if Miami can create pressure up front and confuse Jones behind it.

Improved offensive line play

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Miami Dolphins have questions along the offensive line. It feels like a broken record to continue harping on the line, but the fact remains there are still significant questions. Watching the offensive line play in the pre-season did not assuage any fears Dolphins fans had about the performance of this line.

To make matters worse, the Dolphins come into the season opener with both injury and COVID issues along the line. Miami is going to be without starting left tackle Austin Jackson. One of his presumptive replacements — rookie Liam Eichenberg — has been dealing with a lingering “lower-body” issue. Fellow newcomer to the Dolphins, Greg Little, is also dealing with injury issues. It’s going to be a significant point of concern for Miami heading into Sunday’s game. The million-dollar question is going to be, “How well can the offensive line hold up?”

All through training camp, we’ve heard about all the progress that Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has made in his second season — and first full training camp. All of that progress won’t mean much if he can’t put it on display because of a porous offensive line in front of him.

Jesse Davis will likely be thrust into the starting lineup regardless of whether or not Eichenberg is fully healthy. Can his veteran leadership bring the offensive line together? Will they be able to protect Tagovailoa and open up holes for running backs, Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed? They’re going to have to if Miami has any hope of starting the season undefeated.

Tua needs to prove his progress

The biggest story line for the Miami Dolphins this off-season has been quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It has arguably been one of the biggest story lines in the entire league. There’s been talk ad nauseum about what the young quarterback needed to show in year two with the Dolphins.

Pundits and analysts alike have talked until they’re blue in the face about whether or not coach Flores actually believes in Tua. None of that to mention the persistent Deshaun Watson rumors.

All of that — well, maybe not *all* — gets put to rest on Sunday. We saw a bit of his progress in the pre-season, and it was enough to give fans hope that all the talk they’ve heard from camp wasn’t just that. But it’s a much different animal doing those things in the regular season.

If the Dolphins have any hope of walking away from the season opener with a victory, it’s all on Tagovailoa’s shoulders. He needs to show fans — and the Patriots — how much he’s actually progressed in the off-season. He’s finally had an entire off-season to work with the team. He’s been given weapons on the outside with Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller — who will miss this week’s game due to suspension. It’s time for Tagovailoa to make the leap and become a franchise quarterback.

Miami is going to need some explosive plays if they’re to beat the Patriots. Whether that comes from Waddle, tight end Mike Gesicki, or someone else, remains to be seen. But no matter who it comes from, it’s going to start with the arm of Tua. It’s ‘put up or shut up’ time. One way or another, there’s going to be a firestorm of talk after Sunday’s game. If Tua is on his game, and the defense is on theirs, it should be a Victory Monday for Dolphins fans.

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The Dolphins value run defenders, but does it lead to wins?

NFL teams still value run defense, and many continue to invest in interior defenders skilled at closing off running lanes. The battle between run blockers on the offensive line and run stoppers on defense defined the NFL for decades.

However, the league has changed into a pass first offense where scoring has become normal. The league that averaged 18.7 points per team game in 1993 morphed into one averaging 24.8 points per team game last season. Last season was an all time record.

Introduction

Teams believe stopping the run is important, or they wouldn’t spend premium picks to acquire players adept at that skill.

What I would like to know is if a good interior run defense contributes to winning football games Does a stout defensive line encourage teams to throw the ball more? Does it impact how many points a team scores?

ESPN analyst Brian Burke came out with a fantastic metric, the run stop win rate. It basically measures an opponent’s effective rushing ability. This usually decreases as a defense’s number of run stops wins on a play increases. It’s based on a defense’s performance. It takes into account the technique played and amount of rush snaps a lineman has faced.

Taking into account of the run stop win rate and the factors included into it the metric is actually called “run stop wins over expected” (RSWOE).

Use Code ATB

Metric by Team

TeamRun Stop Wins over Expected (RSWOE)
NYJ101.2
LAR46.7
LV38.1
KC37.6
MIA33.8
TB30.3
PHI26.2
TENN24.3
BUF23.0
WFT20.0
NE19.9
LAC18.4
BAL15.2
NYG10.6
CIN8.4
PITT8.2
NOLA7.0
GB4.8
DEN2.3
JAX0.7
ARI0.6
CHI0.0
SF-5.4
IND-5.8
CAR-8.9
SEA-9.2
DET-12.3
HOU-17.1
CLE-21.2
DAL-64.9
MINN-93.7
From: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Note: There is no pattern between RSWOE and other measures of defensive performance. No correlation exists either with defensive points allowed or team scoring margin.

Analysis

Being good at stopping the run does not appear to help defenses prevent opposing offenses from scoring, meanwhile being bad at stopping the run does not hurt either, except in critical situations.

Per PFF these were the best teams stopping the run:

Of the top 10 best run defenses, only five made it to the postseason, with the Saints and Rams making runs in the postseason.

Metric Correlation with Wins/Expected
Dropback %.25
EPA/play.08
1st down rush %.08
Points scored.06
Points Allowed.04
Point Margin.02
3rd down conv. %.01
Def. success rate-.17
Rush yards % of offense-.26
From: ESPN Stats & Information Group. Data Populated from 2017-2020

The strongest correlation tested suggests that the more dominant the interior run defense, the more an opponent will drop back to pass — and the less it will try to run.

Diving into the Deep end

In terms of the Dolphins, Miami has invested heavily into the interior defensive line. Brian Flores’ scheme dictates iDLs to eat up space, push into the backfield and apply pressure on the Quarterback— allowing Linebackers to clean up the play and gain box score statistics.

Three of Miami’s top five run defenders are iDLs. Davis, Sieler and Wilkins do not get the same praise as an Xavien Howard or Andrew van Ginkel, they help them get the praise.

Not to mention picking up Adam Butler and John Jenkins this free agency to create depth in the interior defensive line room. Nothing wrong with having fresh legs in crucial moments in-game.

Adam Butlers PFF grade may not be the best, but he has been decent as a rotational DT with the New England Patriots

John Jenkins has consistently performed well as a run defender, which helps the Dolphins depth chart and personnel rotations.

Conclusion

In short, if a defense has a great run defense, an offense will pass more. Today’s era of modern football means a team is efficient passing the ball compared to running it.

While the conclusion might not bode well for those teams who invest in run stuffers along the iDL, the data suggest that teams also need an effective against the pass.

Unless a defense is dominant against the pass and the run, it may make sense to have opposing offenses run the ball more and pass less.

Fortunately, the Dolphins have a top 5 passing defense returning from 2020 that consistently produced turnovers and shutdown aerial attacks, if the Dolphins can get better at stopping the run and continue being a top five passing defense they will be dangerous.

In a league that rewards teams that pass early, often, and successfully, daring an offense to pass can backfire.

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I’m so Pumped to see Raekwon Davis’s Year 2 Leap

Out of the player’s that I can’t wait to see dawn a Miami Dolphin’s jersey not just this coming year but four days from now when training camp starts, Raekwon Davis is right up there at the top of the list.

When Raekwon Davis was drafted in the 2nd round out of Alabama, there was a good amount of analysis that stated that Davis didn’t have a high motor and kind of left a few plays out there. Can’t speak to much for how much he hustled at Alabama, but in Miami, that guy went all out and it showed in his play.

Davis played in every game last year and became a starter rather quick starting 12 games.

Are these stats that fly off the page? No, but for a rookie 2nd rounder who was thought to be a bit raw, this is pretty damn good.

What did jump off the screen was noticing that in a defense that was God awful against the run Davis stood out as a guy that was a difference maker in clogging up the middle.

Davis is however more than a Vince Wilfork type of tackle/nose tackle not that there is anything wrong with being an awesome player as Wilfork. Davis is however a bit more athletic. Is going to be Warren Sapp? No, but he doesn’t have to be.

This video done by someone who very much enjoys breaking down film does an excellent job showing the skills that Davis possesses.

So much room for growth and it’s that growth that the Dolphin’s defense is going to need if they’re going to be able to balance out the takeaways that I expect them not to get like they did last year. Miami led the league in turnovers with 29. Almost no chance that number can be duplicated. That means everyone especially players with the talent of Davis are going to have step up their game and just play solid, grind it out defense.

Like I said earlier, the run defense was porous at best last year. That will undoubtedly have to change if the Dolphins are going to survive a dip in the amount of turnovers. Davis taking the talent leap from year one to year two is imperative. The year one to year two leap is nothing to take lightly. Before he was released by the Dolphins, Kyle Van Noy said one of the smartest things that anyone has ever said ever about rookie progression and actually having an offseason.

Just genius stuff by Van Noy. He’s the back to being the enemy again but he’s right. Actually having an offseason will only enhance a player such as Davis heading into year two. I for one can’t wait to see it. Enjoy your weekend.

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2021 DTs: Speed, Power and Depth

In the 2015 offseason, the Miami Dolphins signed Ndamukong Suh to a record breaking $114 million contract. It was an attempt to solve their issues on the interior defensive line. Unfortunately, it never going to be the answer. The approach taken by Chris Grier and Brian Flores in for digging for diamonds in the rough has proven to be much more sustainable and productive. The options at defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins in 2021 are plentiful and it is arguable that it is one of the strongest positions on the roster. A versatile group all with a mixture of speed, solid hands and power, allowing several players to either line up in the middle, or at defensive end in either defensive formation.

“Collectively, there’s a competitive group up front. I think a lot of that is matchup based and week to week. I think we have a lot of different guys that have a lot of different strengths.”

New defensive line coach Austin Clark speaking to the media.

Christian Wilkins

From the moment he was drafted in 2019, the iconic embrace with Commissioner Roger Goodell, it was clear to fans that the first pick in the Brian Flores era was a character and most importantly a culture setter in Miami.

Throughout his first two seasons with the Dolphins he has been a great leader on the team, and judging him primarily on that fact alone he is a home run of a pick. He describes himself as bringing a spark to camp when everybody is dead and tired, he is the one to get those guys going by making a play or bringing the energy. However, has he fulfilled the potential of the 13th overall pick?

In 2019, Wilkins ranked first among rookie defensive linemen with 56 tackles whilst ranking 5th in the league in tackles among all DTs. In 2020 PFF gave Wilkins a 73.9 run defense grade, ranking him 19th out of 111 defensive linemen with at least 300 snaps. However, where Wilkins does struggle is in the passing game. Despite last season having more interceptions than Jamal Adams, in his first two seasons he has only 7 QB hits, is yet to force a fumble and has failed to record a pass rush grade above 60.0, ranking 88th among 123 DTs. Whilst being on the interior he is susceptible to a lot of the dirty work inside, across 30 career games Wilkins has managed only 3.5 sacks, the same amount managed by Zach Sieler despite only starting 8 games in 2020.

“He’s matured, he’s matured on the field, he’s still a kid at heart. I think everyone sees that. He’s really good at reading backfield sets, he’s always at the next level of trying to learn what combos can I get at this front.”

Zach Sieler meeting with the media on May 26 at the start of voluntary OTAs when asked about Wilkins.

Wilkins can play inside at either defensive formation whether 3-4 or 4-3, but he also has the versatility and speed to be able to set the edge. Whilst his stats do not jump of the page, and whilst others may have had breakthrough seasons in 2020, that is not to label Wilkins as undeserving of the 13th overall pick. Wilkins plays with non-stop energy and enthusiasm playing with urgency on every down. There is no reason not to believe that Wilkins won’t make a further jump coming into his third year. His personality combined with his athleticism and versatility give him all the intangibles that he needs to compete in the NFL.

Raekwon Davis

When Raekwon Davis was drafted 56th overall in the 2020 NFL draft, there was a reason Brian Flores usually a man of little expression was gushing with a smile from ear to ear. Davis was PFF’s 3rd highest graded defensive rookie behind only to Julian Blackmon and Chase Young.

Davis was brilliant in the run game in the second half of the season, he is a mauler who will not be moved and helps fill the gaps. Davis scored a run defense grade of 66.8 and excelled at nose tackle with a 76.7 pass rushing grade. Between weeks 10-17 Davis ranked 17th in the NFL at DT. Regardless of who is the Dolphins starting center, it is likely that Davis will give them serious concerns throughout training camp.

Davis became the first Dolphins DL to be selected to the all rookie team since Kendall Langford in 2008. Also selected was Jason Taylor in 1997

“I think he did a good job of developing throughout the year in terms of his run defense and being able to win one on ones consistently and hold the point on doubles. I think the major focus for him is finishing plays. I think he specifically probably feels like he left some more out there. Just taking the next step like any other guy this year, taking the next step in his second year. I’m looking forward to him. Im really looking forward to everything that he brings to the table. I love him.”

DL coach Austin Clark full of praise of Davis heading into year 2.

Like Coach Clark stated the main focus for Davis this season will be finishing plays. There is no doubt Davis was disruptive in his rookie season but still only managed 40 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 QB hit. There were numerous instances in several games where Davis caused havoc getting into the backfield, most notably against the Jets where he narrowly missed out on the sacks, although did force Darnold into the arms of other Dolphins defenders.

Zach Sieler

Whilst it can be said that Christian Wilkins and Raekwon Davis’ stats do not jump off the page at you, the same cannot be said for everyone’s favorite now former RV living player. Sieler exploded in 2020 with a huge breakout season with 48 tackles, 11 QB hits, 11 TFL and 3.5 sacks. Even in 2019 although only starting one game he still managed 1 TFL and 2 QB hits.

Sieler recently signed a 2 year $7.63m contract extension with $3.8m guaranteed, securing his future as a Miami Dolphin until 2024. Yet another example of the Dolphins looking after their own, a hallmark of a good franchise; rewarding their players who produce week in week out, whilst also acting as an incentive to younger players or players lower down the depth chart to do likewise when they are called upon.

Sieler had an outstanding year in 2020, and is criminally underappreciated for his role in one of the leading defenses in the league. Whilst Xavien Howard, Jerome Baker and Emmanuel Ogbah all took the spotlight throughout the season and rightfully so, Sieler’s production was perhaps the most remarkable given where the position he had been the year prior. Now age 25 coming into his fourth season in the NFL, his emphasis has shifted to improving in the run game, his reactions in play action situations and early down snaps. With the versatility expected within Josh Boyer’s defense, different skill traits are inevitably required. Sieler says his focus in training is centered on both speed and explosion but also power against doubles on the interior.

Adam Butler

It has not taken long for Adam Butler to showcase his abilities and what he can do for this defense. All throughout minicamp Butler’s speed of the ball caused the O-line havoc with reports of would be sacks and QB hits. Butler’s explosiveness in his first step puts even more pressure on the interior of the line to be able to get set.

Having lost Davon Godchaux to New England in free agency, the addition of Adam Butler is the best addition that the Dolphins made in terms of value. Godchaux’s annual salary with the Patriots is $7.5m in comparison with Butler’s average salary of $3.75m. His fast and powerful hands, light feet and agility make him an ideal fit into Josh Boyer’s defense, that last season caused havoc throughout the NFL. When considering both production value and cost, it is clear that Miami came out ahead in the DT switcheroo in free agency.

Godchaux had more snaps despite being inactive since tearing his bicep in the Week 5 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

An even more impressive stat is that Butler has only missed one game in his first four seasons in the NFL. That game came last season where he was inactive with a slight shoulder injury. Despite only starting 4 games, Butler had 2 passes defended, 34 tackles, 4 sacks and 6 TFL. If Zach Sieler was the biggest surprise to Dolphins fans last season, this is a notice to the fanbase to not be surprised if Butler shines; he is a very important rotational piece within this defense, adding depth to an already stacked defensive tackle position.

John Jenkins

Excellent breakdown by Travis Wingfield on everything that John Jenkins did bring and hopefully will continue to bring to the Dolphins defense in 2021.

A strong veteran presence in an otherwise relatively young group, combine this with familiarity with the organisation, Jenkins is set to hit the ground running as a strong contributor to this defensive line. In his first stint with the team in 2019, Jenkins recorded 34 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL and 1 QB hit. As a traditional nose tackle he will likely be a solid backup to Raekwon Davis. Jenkins is one of three Dolphins players over the age of 30, none of which were on the team last season.

Benito Jones

Throughout the 2020 season Benito Jones was forever to and from the practice squad, never able to fully cement his place on the active roster consistently, only playing 48 snaps on defense resulting in only one tackle. It is likely at this time not knowing what strides he has made this offseason that the 2021 season will be much of the same.

Conclusion

In 2021 the cap hit for Wilkins, Sieler, Davis, Butler, Jenkins and Jones combined amounts to $12,819,169 which is 6.8% of the total cap. To put this number into perspective the Dolphins paid Ndamukong Suh $20,000,000 a year during the three years he was with the team. Now of course this will change into the future, Davis, Wilkins and Sieler will still all be playing on their rookie deals in 2021, whereas Suh had established himself as an elite player. Regardless of the fact, the job that Chris Grier and Brian Flores have done in assembling this group of DTs has to be applauded; young studs complemented by a veteran presence, all possessing speed, power and position versatility. The 2021 DTs are a very stacked group indeed and are by far the best value on the entire roster. Fins Up!

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The keys to Miami’s defensive success in 2021

The Dolphins bolstered a top 10 defense by most metrics in 2020 and will look to the 2021 season to continue improving into one of the leagues best.  The Dolphins had a series of major offseason changes to the pass rush in veteran Benardrick McKinney and rookie Jaelan Phillips, as well as creating a promising secondary loaded with depth. I see one key position group that will be key to the Miami Dolphins success in the upcoming season, and that’s the interior defensive line. 

The Dolphins run game ranked 16th in the league last season allowing an average of 116.4 rushing yards/game.  If Miami wants to move into elite defensive status, this is the biggest area in need of improvement.  Stopping the run begins with the big men up front.  This will all start with second year DT Raekwon Davis, and third year DT Christian Wilkins.

Raekwon Davis

Davis, a 2nd round pick out of Alabama, showed extreme promise during the 2020 season.  A monster human at 6’6” & 311 lbs., Davis can be a massive human plug in between gaps.  The Alabama product played in all 16 games last season and made 12 starts.  He posted a season stat line of 19 tackles, 21 assists, with 1 tackle for loss, earning him All-Rookie Honors from the Pro Football Writers Association (PFWA).  His 40 total tackles were also the most by a rookie interior defensive lineman in the NFL. 

Watch Raekwon Davis here at NT engage, stack, shed & crash into Joshua Kelly to make the tackle. With Godchaux out and Wilkins on the Covid list, there was a lot of pressure on him to step up. Absolute textbook moves from a raw rookie.

Originally tweeted by Simon Clancy (@SiClancy) on November 19, 2020.

Miami’s coaches are working to improve the nose tackle this season. Davis must use his power and explosiveness to create more separation at the jump.  With his athleticism and strength, Davis can move lineman and create alleys for linebackers to feast on.  I’m looking for Davis to continue to make strong tackles from the inside and start to bring down ball carriers before reaching the line.

Christian Wilkins

The 13th overall pick in the 2019 draft, Christian Wilkins is coming into his 3rd season looking to make another impressive leap.  In 2020, he posted a stat line of 28 tackles, 19 assists, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception.  The Clemson product can do it all, and his energy and charisma are a need for a young team lacking a clear leader. 

Despite his success to date, new Dolphins defensive line coach Austin Clark recently said, “I definitely think he can do a lot more.”  In order to become the leader Miami needs, Wilkins will need to step up and make more game changing plays.  In 30 career games, he has posted only 3.5 sacks.  Look for this number to improve, as well as more tackles for loss in the run game.

With names like Xavien Howard and Byron Jones in the backfield, Miami can make quarterbacks hold onto the ball while receivers attempt to get any separation. Both Davis and Wilkins can give the interior line a push on passing downs and open lanes for their talented linebackers. If they can accomplish this feat while plugging holes in the run game, Miami’s defense will look to become a top 5 unit in the NFL, if not the best.

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