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The Miami Dolphins' winning streak is a mirage, but don't count them out just yet

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) attempts a pass against the New York Jets during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins cannot stop winning.

After being left for dead by the Buffalo Bills back in Week 8, the Dolphins have reeled off six straight wins to get back to 7-7 and now sit on the precipice of the NFL playoffs.

It will still take some magic to get in, as two of the three current wild-card holders have the tiebreaker against Miami — the Bills swept them this season, and the Dolphins lost to Indianapolis Colts in Week 4. Still, we can’t pretend that a six-game winning streak means nothing. And while much ink has been spilled about the play of the offense and the play of quarterback Tua Tagavailoa, in particular it’s actually been the defense that has kept the Dolphins from drowning.

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The Defense Rises

Since that 26-11 defeat against the Bills, the Miami defense ranks second in the expected points added (EPA) allowed per play, just behind divisional foe New England.

The -0.236 EPA allowed per play since the start of Week 9 represents a stark difference between the 0.054 EPA per play they allowed before. 

Dolphins Defense EPA/play EPA/play rank
Weeks 1-8 -0.236 2nd
Weeks 9-15 0.054 27th

While the offense moved modestly from 26th to 17th in the same metric, the defense has been elite for two months, and it’s the return to form in their common man-to-man defense that is giving defenses fits. 

The Dolphins ran the second-highest rate of Cover 1 in 2019 and the third-highest rate of Cover 1 in 2020. This season, they rank second. If you are going to play man coverage at such a dramatically high rate, you better be good at it. And the Dolphins have gotten better as the season has progressed. 

Before the winning streak, the Dolphins allowed a successful passing play 45.2% of the time with an EPA per play of 0.129 in man coverage. Now, amid the winning streak, those numbers are down to a minuscule 25.4% and -0.650.

It's just incredible. 

They’ve been great, whether they blitz and play man or sit back with an extra “hole” defender and rush four. Generally, this team only rushes four with man behind it, but with the blitz-happy Ravens game as part of this data set, we see they have rushed five-plus defenders on 62% of their man-coverage reps during the win streak. 

So, it’s settled. The Dolphins are good because the defense is playing at an elite level. They are real, and everyone should be excited about their future, even if it might be too late to get into the playoffs. 

The Defense Rises?

But that’s not really the whole story.

Man-to-man coverage is nice, but it can greatly exacerbate personnel advantages, which is where the schedule comes in. The six-game win streak has come against such luminous offenses as the New York Jets twice, the Houston Texans, the New York Giants and the Carolina Panthers. The Ravens are in there, too, which was a good win even if the Baltimore offense is sputtering right now. 

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