Miami is playing its best football on the defensive side as it gets deeper into the season, and it's a byproduct of experience the unit is gaining under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, while getting star cornerback Jalen Ramsey into the lineup.
MIAMI GARDENS — Miami Dolphins safety Jevon Holland made a fair point about how teams incorporating new defenses aren’t given the same leeway as new offenses.
The Dolphins have made a complete 180-degree in defensive scheme, going from previous defensive coordinator Josh Boyer to Vic Fangio, but there was an expectation that the benefits would show immediately.
“This is our first year in the defense as a collective,” Holland said Monday. “A lot of the time, when the offense is new, people give them time to adjust and expect defenses in new processes to just get it right away.”
Miami didn’t get it right away under Fangio. The defense struggled in a 36-34 win in the opener at the Los Angeles Chargers and a 48-20 loss Oct. 1 at the Buffalo Bills.
But they sure seem to be figuring it out now. As the offense has tailed off slightly in the middle of the season, the defense has become a consistent force, most recently exhibited by how it anchored the Dolphins’ 20-13 home win against the Las Vegas Raiders.
After intercepting Raiders backup quarterback Aidan O’Connell twice, they now get Jets third-stringer Tim Boyle on a short week as the Dolphins play in the league’s first Black Friday game at MetLife Stadium. Quarterback Zach Wilson, already in for the injured Aaron Rodgers, was benched in New York’s loss Sunday to the Bills and Monday replaced as the team’s starter.
On paper, it’s another opportunity for the Dolphins defense to dominate in a stretch where the unit doesn’t face another top quarterback until Dec. 24 against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys.
Miami’s defense, ranking mostly toward the bottom of the league in several defensive categories early in the season, is now the No. 12 total defense, No. 14 pass defense and No. 10 run defense.
“You’ve got to have live bullets,” Holland continued. “You’ve got to be in the defense for quite a long time — not necessarily a long time, but you have to see it in live speed against actual opponents. It takes time for people to adjust to things. I just think that’s kind of where we are now. Things are filling out.”
The defensive depth chart is also filling out with key players finally healthy. Namely, Jalen Ramsey.
With Ramsey playing his first three games in a Dolphins uniform, he already has three interceptions, including two remarkably difficult ones Sunday against the Raiders, one which sealed the victory. He has forced the three turnovers while opposing quarterbacks have rarely gone his way in those three games against Las Vegas, Kansas City and New England.
“I’m really hoping they throw at him, honestly,” coach Mike McDaniel said after Sunday’s win.
Ramsey’s back and playing opposite Xavien Howard, who missed Ramsey’s debut, for two games now. Jaelan Phillips has his back and oblique injuries behind him to rush the passer opposite Bradley Chubb. David Long Jr. has been solid at inside linebacker, and the defensive tackle combination of Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler has been phenomenal, rarely coming off the field at a position where most defenses rotate players.
It has all allowed the Miami defense to carry the team at times when the offense sputters.
“At times they’re going to have our back, at times we’ve got to have their back,” Ramsey said postgame Sunday. “It’s just a complete team. We do have to play a little bit better complementary football at times, and we’ll continue striving to do that and be that team that we feel like we can be.”
As the Dolphins won’t face any truly strong offenses for the next — seeing the Jets twice, the Commanders and the Titans after just defeating the Raiders — their defense can go into the final three-game stretch as one of the league’s elites if the unit stays healthy.
“If you are not really striving to be the best, then you’re kind of just out there for no reason,” Holland said. “Obviously, the goal is to be the best and, with our execution and how we’re playing, we’re continuing to try and build on each performance week in and week out, and hopefully we put together a complete game in the near future. That’s our goal is to play a complete game of football.”