Last year’s Miami Dolphins didn’t just have the worst scoring defense in the NFL, they had one of the worst scoring defenses of the past 20 seasons. So it’s no wonder that until cornerback Xavien Howard snagged the Dolphins’ third interception of Patrick Mahomes on Sunday — and the attention of the football-watching world in the process — many football-watchers had no idea how good this year’s Dolphins’ defense has been.
So far this year, Miami has allowed 12.0 fewer points per game and 35 fewer yards per game than in 2019, and its turnover margin has flipped from minus-10 to plus-10. In fact, the Dolphins defense has been stingier on points allowed this year than every other team but the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve also allowed the lowest third-down conversion rate and generated the sixth-highest pass pressure rate, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, and they sit tied with the Steelers for most takeaways.
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It’s a remarkable turnaround. In fact, no team in any of the previous 10 seasons gave up more points than the Dolphins did, and no bottom-ranked scoring defense ranked as highly in the following year as the Dolphins do now or improved nearly as much as the Dolphins are on pace to do:
Bad defenses don’t usually improve this much
The worst NFL defenses per season since 2010, plus their points allowed per game the following year and the difference year over year
|Year||Worst Scoring Defense||Points/g||Rank||points/g||diff/g|
|2016||San Francisco 49ers||30.00||25||23.94||-6.06|
|2015||New Orleans Saints||29.75||31||28.38||-1.38|
|2011||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||30.88||23||24.63||-6.25|
Some of this improvement has to be credited to new defensive coordinator Josh Boyer. In 2019 he left his long-held post as a secondary coach in New England to become the Dolphins’ defensive passing-game coordinator, under first-time defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. But after just one season, Graham left Miami for the New York Giants — and Boyer became an NFL coordinator for the first time.
One of the key changes Boyer made was blitzing more aggressively. Miami ranked 11th in blitz rate under Graham in 2019, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, sending five or more pass rushers 31.6 percent of the time. But under Boyer, the Dolphins have sent extra pressure on 40.1 percent of dropbacks, the third most behind the Steelers (again) and the Baltimore Ravens.
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Of course, just sending more blitzers doesn’t make a defense good. The New York Jets rank fourth in blitz rate at 39.8 percent, but they’re second-worst in scoring defense. Those overaggressive tendencies got Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams fired midseason.
What’s different in Miami? They have the players (even if you’ve never heard of them) to make aggressive blitzing work.
But remarkably, their personnel hasn’t changed that much. Among their rookie defenders, second-round tackle Raekwon Davis is the only one to have logged more than 40 percent of the available reps. Free-agent signings like edge defenders Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah have borne fruit; Pro Football Focus has graded all three in the top 40 percent of their position this year. But none of those players has been transformational, either.
Even the biggest-money signing, cornerback Byron Jones, had made the Pro Bowl only once in five seasons before joining Miami — and after missing two games with a groin injury, nabbing only one interception so far and grading out as the NFL’s 59th-best corner, he’s not making the Pro Bowl this year either.
But Howard probably will.
Howard was leading all cornerbacks in Pro Bowl fan voting as of Dec. 10, and he leads the league in interceptions with nine. That interception of Mahomes extended his streak of games with at least one interception to five — according to Pro-Football-Focus, it’s one of just 27 streaks at least that long since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Should Howard pick off at least one pass in each of his next two games, he’ll set the modern-era pick-streak record.
But he’s not just jumping routes and snagging picks, and he’s not just getting thrown at because he’s inconsistent in coverage. Quarterbacks throwing Howard’s way have an NFL passer rating of just 51.4, third-lowest among qualifying cornerbacks,1 and he’s PFF’s best-graded cornerback.
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So where was Howard last year? Injured. He suffered an October knee injury that held him out until a late-season surgery, limiting him to just five starts in 2019 after a 2018 season in which he made the Pro Bowl and led the league in interceptions. This year, he not only picked up where he left off, he’s gotten better.
It’s this exceptional secondary play (including safety Bobby McCain, currently PFF’s seventh-best at the position) that allows Boyer to send pressure from everywhere and get away with it. The result is a no-name defense much like the exalted 1972 unit that backstopped the Dolphins’ famous undefeated season.
Of course, the 2020 Dolphins are 8-5, not undefeated. They couldn’t quite manage to beat the Chiefs on Sunday, even with the three picks. FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings give the Dolphins just a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs at all.
But if they can get past the 6-7 New England Patriots and 7-6 Las Vegas Raiders over the next two weeks, the Dolphins have better-than-even odds to make the postseason. And after that, if they can beat AFC East rival Buffalo Bills in Week 17, they’ll clinch a playoff berth at 11-5, no matter what else happens.
Maybe the Dolphins won’t crack a crowded AFC playoff race. Maybe most of this no-name defense will continue to toil in obscurity. But Howard’s healthy return and leap in development has catalyzed the biggest defensive improvement in recent NFL history. He should be a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year awards — and if the Dolphins do end up making a deep playoff run, he may even be in the running for MVP.
FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings
How each team ranks through Week 14 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions
|Chance To …|
|Rk||Team||Starting QB||QB Rk*||Elo Rating||Proj. Wins||Make Playoffs||Win Div.||Win SB|
Looking ahead: In terms of playoff odds, the most important game of the week sees the Bears travel to Minnesota to face the Vikings. (Both teams are currently around 20 percent to make it, and the winner will leap closer to 50 percent.) But both of those teams are also 6-7, making it a matchup of mediocrity that is difficult to endorse. So let’s be honest: The real game everyone has circled on the Week 15 calendar is Chiefs at Saints, a battle of Nos. 1 and 3 in the Elo rankings above. It’s still unclear whether New Orleans QB Drew Brees will make his long-awaited return from the rib and lung injuries he suffered in Week 10, or if Taysom Hill will start for the fifth straight week. The difference is not merely academic: Our model thinks the Saints’ win probability would rise by 24 percentage points (!) if Brees started instead of Hill. But coming off a surprise loss to the Eagles, New Orleans is in for a battle either way against Patrick Mahomes and a K.C. passing offense that ranks first in schedule-adjusted expected points added per game this season. Hill is averaging 52.3 rushing yards per game in his four most recent starts, and the Saints’ run game could make life difficult for the Chiefs’ weak rushing defense (No. 31 in EPA). But our model thinks the Chiefs are favorites, with a 60 percent chance to win on the road. Elo’s spread: Kansas City -2½
Neil Paine contributed research.
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