MIAMI GARDENS — I liked the Dolphins defense last season. I might love the Dolphins defense this season.
Granted, that’s a strong statement in June, a time when players haven’t even put on pads, and admittedly it’s possibly even an overreaction to optimistic comments from players and coaches.
But when you listen to what people are saying you start to think this Dolphins defense, under the direction of defensive coordinator/guru Vic Fangio, has the potential to do big things.
This defense isn’t as simple as playing lots of zone coverage and giving players freedom to roam around and make plays.
Listen to Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who played in a similar system with the Los Angeles Rams.
“This defense is very complex,” Ramsey said. “So y’all looking on the outside, y’all may think that it’s zone, but it’s not.
“It’s a very complex defense and it’s a lot less zone than you think, especially under coach Vic. It’s a lot less zone which is great, because you have guys that can play a lot of man, but you also have guys that can play the zone schemes and stuff like that.”
Make no mistake, this defense has a long way to go from last season.
This defense ranked 15th in the league last year at 337.8 yards per game allowed.
It allowed 23.5 points per game, 24th in the league, and 30.5 ppg on the road.
This is a defense that hasn’t had a player with double-digit sacks in five years, since Cam Wake had 10.5 in 2017.
It needs help.
Fangio seems as though he can offer that help.
We go back to Ramsey for his thoughts.
“This is the best defense I’ve played in,” Ramsey said. “Like I said, I have played in it for the past three years, so I’m excited for that.
“But Vic is kind of like, one of the guys who innovated it, innovated the defense, so it’s exciting to have him as the coach and see how he views it, see how he calls things, and see what he leans towards as far as his schemes and coverages and stuff like that.”
This defense also allows multi-skilled players to show off those skills.
“When you have a guy or a few guys who are able to be versatile and play multiple positions – corner, safety, nickel, whatever the case may be – play different techniques, be able to play different schemes and coverages and all that, it’s a plus for the defense,” he said. “So not only myself, but there’s a handful of guys who can do that on this defense. That’s a big positive.”
Linebacker Jerome Baker agreed with Ramsey, and cited the intelligence required for the Fangio defense.
“You’ve got to be a smart player to play in this defense, but once you get it down and once you have an idea what you’re doing it’s so fun to play in,” Baker said. “The different things you do, the different things he asks of guys, it’s definitely going to be fun so I’m excited.”
Edge rusher Jaelan Phillips is also excited for the defense, and what it does for the pass rush.
“It just allows us to have a little bit of time,” Phillips said. “Just being able to marry the coverage with the pass rush, I think that is going to be ideal for not only me, but everybody on the D-line.”
And there’s this from Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard regarding the defense.
“It’s something different,” he said. “I feel like I ran a little bit of it in 2018. It’s a little bit more eyes on the quarterback, it isn’t just man 24/8. It gives us a little time on the outside to get a little rest and stuff like that.”
Coach Mike McDaniel likes what he’s seen from his edge rushers.
“I have seen significant gains and improvements on our edge play that I’m fired up about,” he said.
If Fangio’s defense allows edge rushers such as Phillips and Bradley Chubb to be more effective, and allows cornerbacks such as Ramsey and Howard to do their thing, it’s taking its first steps toward success.
The edge rushers and cornerbacks are the most important players in today’s NFL defense, and if they have the freedom to make plays, and actually make those plays, everybody eats.
Of course, at this point, all of this remains pie-in-the-sky football theory.
After all, in June, just about every defense is going to be successful, just about every defense fits its talent a bit better than the previous season, and just about everybody is optimistic.
Put me in that category.
I don’t know which side of the ball will be the Dolphins’ best in 2023.
But I know I’m more excited to see the Dolphins defense this season than the offense.