• What went wrong in 2022? The Dolphins' secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Starting cornerback Byron Jones was unable to practice or play the whole season while recovering from offseason Achilles surgery. Safety Brandon Jones (seven games) and cornerback Nik Needham (six) also missed most of the season.
• The Jalen Ramsey effect: Ramsey, widely regarded as one of the very best cornerbacks in football, immediately changes the perception of a defense that ranked 31st in coverage grade last season.
• Depth in the unit: The Miami Dolphins have all the pieces to field one of the NFL's best defenses in 2023. With Jalen Ramsey anchoring the secondary and Vic Fangio leading the charge, the Dolphins are poised to make a big jump in defensive production.
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
The Miami Dolphins have spent the last few years building up a roster that is now good enough to compete for a Super Bowl despite playing in arguably the toughest division in the NFL. But while most of the national attention is focused on the offense — particularly Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Tua Tagovailoa — the defense’s elite potential has flown under the radar.
The organization has struck gold more often than not with recent draft picks like Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland. It has also flipped other picks for immediately impactful players, most notably Jalen Ramsey and Bradley Chubb.
The Dolphins are on the shortlist for the most talented defensive units in the NFL. When you consider this and the addition of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, one of the best and most respected coordinators in the league, there is a lot to be excited about in Miami this season.
What went wrong in 2022?
The Dolphins’ secondary was decimated by injuries last season. Starting cornerback Byron Jones was unable to practice or play the whole season while recovering from offseason Achilles surgery. Safety Brandon Jones (seven games) and cornerback Nik Needham (six) also missed most of the season.
Star cornerback Xavien Howard appeared in 16 games but wasn’t his usual self, as he also battled lingering injuries throughout the season. And it is fair to assume he would have rested more had the secondary not been so short-handed.
Despite all the injuries, the Dolphins still deployed a defensive scheme that leaned heavily on man coverage and blitzed at one of the highest rates in the league, something former defensive coordinator Josh Boyer caught a lot of criticism for.
The Dolphins played man coverage 40.4% of the time in 2022, the second-highest rate in the NFL. They blitzed on 42.5% of pass plays, the league's fifth-highest rate.
It’s worth noting that Miami utilized slot-cornerback blitzes only 4.8% of the time, the lowest percentage among all 32 teams. So while Miami did blitz at a high rate, there was little disguise or variety with those looks, which made game planning much easier for opposing offenses.
The most effective way to mask injuries in the secondary is to play more zone and be more conservative overall. Miami took the opposite approach, and it burned the team time and time again.
What will be different in 2023?
Schematically, the Dolphins’ defense will look significantly different in 2023, as Vic Fangio’s defenses have typically relied more on zone coverage as opposed to the man-to-man principles Miami has utilized in recent years.
This is the type of defense that takes a “bend but don’t break” approach. The Dolphins won’t blitz as frequently as they did during Boyer’s tenure. Instead, they will play more two-high defense to prevent big plays down the field, which essentially dares teams to run the ball.
This type of defense relies on pressure from the front four, which shouldn’t be a problem for the Dolphins, given their personnel.