The Weakest Link: Analyzing the Performance of Miami’s Secondary Through Two Weeks
Based on their play last season and the relatively few adjustments made to the position group, the secondary figured to be one of the biggest weak points in Miami for 2016. Thus far, they have done nothing to disprove our assumptions. The defensive line was supposed to be Vance Joseph’s saving grace, providing enough pressure to hide the deficiencies of the defensive backfield. However, the linemen haven’t been consistently disruptive after a blazing start in the game against Seattle, which has left each member of the defensive backfield vulnerable to be picked apart. Let’s take a look at the prominent members of Miami’s secondary and analyze their outlook for the rest of 2016.
Is this really the man that the Dolphins pegged as their number one corner? It’s almost an unfathomable idea looking back at the decision now. Admittedly, it seemed more than plausible at the time. Maxwell was a standout player in Seattle, albeit in limited time, but was plagued by a terribly crafted defensive game plan in Philadelphia. Joseph, the former defensive backs coach, was supposed to be the person to halt Maxwell’s downward spiral, with the help of a zone coverage scheme better suited for his abilities. Yet at this point it seems that the talent surrounding him as a Seahawk indescribably impacted his performance.
Joseph has always been a proponent of off-man coverage, but the amount of space Maxwell is giving wide receivers to operate it is ridiculous. After getting beat over the top consistently as an Eagle, Maxwell now understandably looks to keep the play in front of him. However, Maxwell just doesn’t seem to have the football IQ to quickly diagnose routes as they develop. He remains a step behind nearly every receiver he covers.
Evidently, his underwhelming instincts hurt him in zone coverage as well. Against the Seahawks, Maxwell gave up a backbreaking 11-yard reception to Jimmy Graham on the eventual game-winning, touchdown drive:
As we saw this weekend, Maxwell has had his fair share of tackling issues as well.
The “Maxwell in Miami” experiment is not going well to say the least, and I don’t expect them to get much better.
Arguably the only bright spot of McCain’s performance against New England was his forced fumble in the second quarter:
Yet the only reason he had the opportunity to make that play is because he was beaten badly by Danny Amendola. That has been a theme for Miami’s nickel corner through the first two weeks. Unlike Maxwell, McCain has been one of the few corners on Miami to play up on the receiver. Unfortunately, he has also lost consistently in this scheme. That much has been obvious since McCain’s highly publicized failure against Doug Baldwin.
It is rather difficult to get beaten so badly on the goal line, but McCain managed to do it. He often seems like he is in good position, only to be thrown off balance by a double move or fall victim to his inability to diagnose plays. We saw as much against the Patriots.
The young cornerback has had issues with discipline, both in coverage and after the play, getting called for an unsportsmanlike conduct against Julian Edelman on Sunday. This position group can’t afford to give free yards after the play; they already do enough of that in coverage.
The cornerback position is arguably the hardest to succeed in as a rookie but, with the lack of talent Miami has in their secondary, Howard has been forced into action. The former Baylor standout has had an uneven start to his career. He hasn’t been beaten nearly as often as Maxwell and McCain, but he has still understandably made a few boneheaded mistakes. Playing in press coverage, Howard was called for an illegal use of the hands penalty as he attempted to jam Chris Hogan.
At this point, Howard seems overwhelmed by the physicality and athleticism of the NFL. At the end of the first play given in Maxwell’s section, Hogan trucks Howard on his way out of bounds. With that being said, Howard is no slouch himself, standing at 6’0” and 201 pounds. He is perfectly capable of playing physical defense both in coverage and in against the run (he totaled 11 tackles in Week 1).
Howard hasn’t tallied a pass defended yet, but he also has generally avoided allowing big plays. Howard has talent, and his outlook this season and beyond is more promising than any other cornerback on this roster.
Reshad Jones/Isa Abdul-Quddus:
Unsurprisingly, Jones has been the best player in Miami’s secondary through two weeks. The Pro Bowler has more tackles than anyone else in the secondary and is given an enormous amount of responsibility in this defense. He acts as a linebacker/safety hybrid; playing in the box as a force against the run in addition to his traditional duties in pass coverage. He continuously acts as a reliable last line of defense for Miami, and often imposes his will on opposing running backs. Take this next play for example, as he limits the damage on a lateral to D.J. Foster:
Even considering his presence against the run game, Jones remains Miami’s most consistent option in coverage. He is a playmaker and displays impeccable timing on his pass breakups.
While Jones will continue to be one of Miami’s most valuable players, Isa Abdul-Quddus has largely been worth the investment that the Dolphins made this offseason. He hasn’t been perfect, but he has allowed more versatility in Miami’s use of Jones, he is a physical presence and he notched an interception in his Dolphins’ debut.
Abdul-Quddus needs to make sure that his aggressiveness doesn’t come back to bite him, as he was called for a late hit on Edelman. Despite their solid play, the safeties still failed to prevent Garoppolo from carving up the defense: both were late in their pursuit of Amendola on his first touchdown. Although this is more on the linebackers for allowing him to get behind their zones, Gase and Joseph still rely on their two safeties to make these types of would-be touchdown saving plays.
In Week 3, Miami will face off against the Cleveland Browns, who will be relying on third-string rookie quarterback Cody Kessler after injuries to Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown. This is by far their easiest assignment of the season. Corey Coleman is their best receiver with Josh Gordon suspended, and he is undoubtedly a high upside player. Yet Joseph was brought aboard to limit these types of players.
The defensive backfield has underwhelmed, to say the least, but has a prime opportunity to force a couple of turnovers and gain some momentum heading into a matchup against A.J. Green and the Bengals. Maxwell and McCain have no choice but to improve upon their weak performances thus far. Additionally, Howard will look to continue his progress, and the secondary as a whole will have to play with more poise than they have through two weeks of the 2016 season if the defense wants to be successful.