Even with the Miami Dolphins’ offense playing lights out on Sunday against the LA Chargers, the game ultimately came down to a timely stop by the defense. It was a fitting end to the defense’s sloppy performance during most of the game. The LA Chargers offense ran up and down on the Dolphins, totaling 234 yards and three touchdowns from the ground. Some high-powered offenses in the AFC stand in the way of Miami’s Super Bowl dreams.
But as seen on Sunday, this team will only go as far as the defense takes. Have you ever heard the term “Defense wins championships?” In the biggest games, it’s usually the best offenses going head-to-head. It comes down to the defense that can either get more stops or who can get the first stop. With this defense’s first year under Vic Fangio, it may take some time to gel and see who fits within his scheme. Once Fangio has “his” defense, this defense can potentially be Top-10 the league. If that can be accomplished paired with the Dolphin’s lightning-quick offense, Miami could be punching their way into a Super Bowl and, at worst, an AFC Championship. I believe a couple of things need to happen on this defense before that happens.
- The defense needs to buy into Vic Fangio’s philosophy
This first point is simple: the defense needs to completely buy into Fangio’s philosophy to the point it becomes muscle memory. We should look at this defense and not just see players running a “Fangio defense.” It needs to personify what a Fangio defense looks like. Of course, that may cause for personnel changes if some players and their strengths just don’t fit the defense or don’t add any value. But time will tell. We could see some players get benched or even dealt throughout the season. As I said in my last article, the current players on the defense should be treated as an audition. Some would say that’s what Training Camp is for, but certain things can only be seen during the regular season when it matters. We’ve seen what Mike McDaniel’s offense looks like when players have bought into the system. Certain players just didn’t fit the scheme, and changes were made during last season and this past off-season. Fangio will need that same opportunity for this defense to succeed. For time’s sake, let’s hope this defense finds all the right pieces before this season ends.
- We need someone to step up at Linebacker
I am aware that my judgments are a bit premature and are solely based on what I observed during the first game. But the lack of production from the Inside Linebackers on Sunday was dismal at best in a defense that relies heavily on great Inside Linebacker play. I saw zero impact plays from the Inside Linebacker core. I observed a lack of energy from Jerome Baker during the game, and David Long Jr. didn’t see the field much and only had one solo tackle. Andrew Van Ginkel is the only Inside Linebacker who was noticeable, but his performance was average even then. We could see Miami try a player out in the starting lineup like 2nd-year player Channing Tindall, who had a solid preseason, or one of these Linebackers could be gone by the trade deadline. But the defense won’t survive with below-average Inside Linebacker play.
Stats aren’t important; the amount of tackles doesn’t always tell the story, especially if a tackle is made 10 yards down the field. Linebackers don’t get credit for just being in the right place; they need to be in the right place and impact the play before it happens. With a strong Defensive Line and a solid defensive backfield, the Linebackers could hold this defense back from having a complete defense and cracking the Top-10 in rankings.
With my other observations, I realized some could be repaired with patience. What do I mean by that? We have a couple of players who I believe could impact this defense who are currently out with injuries. The first obvious name is Jalen Ramsey and the second? Elijah Campbell. Yes, I said Elijah Campbell. The verdict is still out on whether Xavien Howard can return to form, but with three pivotal penalty flags called on him Sunday, we’re not off to a good start, in my opinion. But I’m willing to give the Pro Bowler the benefit of the doubt. This defensive backfield is solid with Xavien Howard, Eli Apple, and Kader Kohou. But in this passing league, sometimes solid isn’t good enough. Adding Jalen Ramsey back to this backfield makes it elite, no question about it, and puts us in a good position to have a top-rated defense.
Additionally, I saw a few players get snaps at the Free Safety position: Justin Bethel, Brandon Jones, and Deshon Elliot, who received the most. Justin Bethel made an impact play with a blitz sack on Justin Herbert to end the game alongside Jaelen Phillips, and it was a quiet day for Brandon Jones, who only saw nine snaps. Of course, Brandon Jones, returning from an ACL injury, is being brought back slowly.
Deshon Elliot had a solid game with 13 tackles, though I sometimes saw him struggle in coverage. Elliot is more of an in-the-box safety, and I believe that puts a limit on Jevon Hollands’ versatility. Fangio would want a definitive answer at the Free Safety position to complement Jevon Holland. The answer? Elijah Campbell. I never paid attention to Elijah Campbell before this off-season, but he had a strong Training Camp and seemed to be pulling away for the starting FS spot before his knee injury. I got to watch the film on Elijah Campbell, and he’s a strong, physical safety who’s good in coverage with his background as a corner. He plays fast and instinctively, and the skills that make him a great special teams ace will also make him the perfect complement to Holland. There’s no clear timetable for Campbell’s return from his knee injury, but we’re told that he avoided injuring his ACL, which is good news. The Dolphins also didn’t put him on IR, which is a glimmer of hope that Campbell could return to the lineup sooner or later. With Elijah Campbell and Jalen Ramsey added to the lineup, this defense surely gets an upgrade and has more pieces to become elite.