For the next three weeks, the so-called “soft” part of the schedule, the Dolphins’ run defense will get perhaps its biggest back-to-back-to-back test of the year as they visit Detroit and Chicago, and host Cleveland.
The Lions, led by running back D’Andre Swift, who seems set to return from a shoulder injury this week, are seventh in the league in rushing (145.7 yards per game). The Bears are first (181 ypg) in rushing, and the Browns are fourth (163.6 ypg).
Fortunately for the Dolphins, their run defense is strong, ranked No. 8 in the league at 103.3 yards per game, though 21st in yards per attempt at 4.2.
And what you’re seeing now from the Dolphins’ run defense is the culmination of several years of improvement.
Coach Mike McDaniel revealed part of the not-so-secret formula for this year’s success.
“Collectively, it’s been our commitment to getting better, that there’s pride in that,” he said.
And although they lost safety Brandon Jones, the team leader in tackles (49) to a season-ending knee injury last week, the Dolphins expect their run defense to continue its promising ways.
One big key for Miami is what style, or how many styles it plays this week without Jones, who is usually the eighth man in the box for the eight-man fronts that are so common and so effective at stopping the run. He’s also their best at blitzes.
“When you have really good players that you lose, you don’t replace them by one player,” McDaniel said. “You utilize other players on your roster and then you cater your scheme to what they do well, so the whole point and everyone on the defense knows is that we have to step up for his lost production.
“But that’s not one person. That’s the collection of Miami Dolphins defenders. Different players, different skill sets and you’re trying to utilize those to the best of their ability to put them in position to succeed.”
Expect the Dolphins to utilize a combination of safeties Clayton Fejedelem, Eric Rowe, and possibly rookie Verone McKinley III, who would have to again be elevated from the practice squad, to pair with fellow safety Jevon Holland.
Detroit comes equipped with a skilled offensive line, led by center Frank Ragnow and Pro Bowl guard Jonah Jackson, who is lised as questionable with a neck injury. They do good work. Lions running backs are tied for third in the league at yards before contact per attempt (3.4 yards).
But the Dolphins’ run defense is on the rise.
Last year the Dolphins were tied for 13th with Buffalo in run defense at 109.8 yards per game. That total could have been a little better but Tennessee rushed for 198 yards late in the season. But it still represented improvement.
In 2020, the Dolphins were 16th in run defense at 116.4 ypg.
In 2019, the Dolphins were 27th in run defense at 135.4 ypg.
In 2018, the Dolphins were 31st in run defense at 145.3 ypg.
Whether it’s defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler setting the tone up front, outside linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel, Jaelan Phillips and Melvin Ingram setting the edge, or linebackers Elandon Roberts and Jerome Baker putting the clamps on a ball carrier, the Dolphins’ run defense has been steadily improving.
It takes its cue from the defense as a whole.
“We’ve got a standard here,” Van Ginkel said. “If we’re not shutting teams out or keeping teams out of the end zone, we’re not doing a good enough job. And we all hold each other accountable and take pride.”
Yeah, there have been some hiccups for the Dolphins’ run defense.
Baltimore rushed for 155 yards, led by quarterback Lamar Jackson’s 79-yard touchdown run. Buffalo, led by quarterback Josh Allen’s 47 yards and running back Zack Moss’ 46 yards, rushed for 115 yards. The New York Jets, led by now-injured running back Breece Hall’s 97 yards, rushed for 135 yards.
But for the most part, the Dolphins have been good in run defense, and that’ll be vitally important for the next three games.
“No matter what, it’s always you’ve got to stop the run,” Sieler said. “The big thing we say is, ‘You stop the run before you play the pass.’ That’s something we preach around here and always have.”