DAVIE, Fla. – The Miami Dolphins know they won’t keep winning if their tacklers keep whiffing.
Missed tackles by Miami have resulted in mediocre defense against the run, which was expected to be the team’s strength this season. Instead the Dolphins are giving up rushing yardage at a disturbing rate, which makes their 3-0 record even more surprising.
“We have to tackle better,” Coach Joe Philbin said. “We are not going to invent a whole lot of new defenses. We’ve just got to execute our techniques and fundamentals better, and our No. 1 fundamental that we work on every single day is tackling. We’ve got to do it better.”
Wrapping up will be especially important when the Dolphins play high-powered New Orleans on Monday night.
The Saints claim they haven’t noticed the Dolphins being poor tacklers.
“Hopefully they are and it works out to my advantage,” said Pierre Thomas, a hard-churning runner who can be tough to bring down. “I kind of do have that unique talent of breaking tackles, and I’m going to use that to the best of my ability.”
In defense of Miami’s defense, it has been depleted by injuries, with four starters missing most or all of last week’s win over Atlanta.
The status of two-time Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, tackle Paul Soliai and cornerback Dimitri Patterson for the Saints game is uncertain.
Reserves played well enough to limit the Falcons to three points over the final 27 minutes in a come-from-behind 27-23 victory. The Dolphins have allowed only one touchdown in the second half this year.
“We’ve risen to the occasion to make plays when we’ve needed to,” linebacker Phillip Wheeler said. “That’s what we’ve done best. When we need a stop, we get it.”
The defense ranks among the league leaders in the red zone, on third down and in interceptions. Miami made late stands to preserve leads against both the Falcons and Colts.
“In the past we gave up a play to lose at the end of the game,” tackle Randy Starks said. “Two weeks in a row we haven’t done that.”
Despite a succession of late lapses, defense has been the Dolphins’ strength in recent seasons, and that was expected to be the case again this year. Newcomers Wheeler, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes have made Miami faster and more athletic, and takeaways are up.
“They’re playing very good,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “They’re big. They’re physical. They run well at the linebacker position and in the back end. It’s a really, really talented group.”
But the Dolphins rank in the lower half of the league in both rushing defense and pass defense. And now they must deal with Thomas, Drew Brees, Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and perhaps Mark Ingram, who has been nursing a toe injury.
“We want to be one of the most feared defenses in the league, and we know you can’t just say that,” Ellerbe said. “You’ve got to go out and prove it, and you’ve got to get after people.”
You also have to wrap people up and get them to the ground, and that’s where the Dolphins have been lax. The past two weeks they’ve allowed 133 and 146 yards on the ground against the Colts and Falcons, who have modest reputations running the ball.
Like those teams, the Saints prefer to throw it. But that could change against a team allowing 4.72 yards per rush, which ranks 27th in the NFL.
“I am concerned about the tackling more than the number on a piece of paper,” Philbin said.
“We have to do a better job at tackling, especially this week. There is no doubt about it that those guys — Thomas, Ingram, Sproles, all those guys — are excellent backs, and we have to do a good job tackling them.”
Wheeler nodded in agreement.
“We should be a good run defense,” he said, “and we will be.”