The Miami Dolphins have been regarded as a throwback bunch in recent years due to their ability to bludgeon opponents behind an old-school offense that is reminiscent of their glory days of the 1970s.
Given the outstanding success that the offense has enjoyed under the back-to-the-future format, it is not surprising that Mike Nolan is quietly putting together a defense that is poised to evoke memories of the "No Name Defense" of that era.
While placing such lofty expectations on a unit that finished ranked 22nd a season ago would appear to be outlandish, the fact that the defensive architect just orchestrated a similar transformation in Denver suggests that such a turnaround is a realistic possibility in Miami.
Nolan, who enters his 12th season as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, transformed a Broncos' defense that ranked 29th overall in 2008 into a unit that finished seventh and amassed 30 takeaways (up from only 15 in 2008) last season.
With the Dolphins ranking in the bottom third of the league in each of those respective categories, the installation of Nolan's aggressive scheme is bound to produce better results in Miami.
In taking over the Dolphins defense, Nolan is set to replace the read-and-react system of his predecessor (Paul Pasqualoni) with an attack-style system that features a myriad of pressures from multiple fronts. The premise of his scheme is to dictate the tempo to the offense rather serve as a counterpuncher.
Nolan achieves this by routinely calling blitzes in favorable down-and-distance situations to force quarterbacks to settle for the "hot" receiver (the offense will often assign a receiver to break off his route if he anticipates a blitz from a linebacker or defensive back on the second level). The defense rallies to the receiver before he is able to pick up the yardage for the first down.
Additionally, the heavy use of the blitz alters the way that offenses attack down the field, and makes it easier for the defense to eventually condense the field. While there are some risks involved with relentlessly coming after the offense, the negative plays (sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers) that could result from the aggressive ploy are rewarding benefits that frequently result in wins.
In looking at the personnel available to Nolan, the Dolphins have the potential to win big behind their unheralded defense.
The team has a pair of young cornerbacks in Sean Smith and Vontae Davis who are as talented as any combination in the league, and their ability to lock up their assigned receivers without help from the safety is essential for the system to work.
Smith, who logged 16 starts as a rookie last season, gives Nolan a tall, rangy corner with the ability to snuff receivers out at the line. His exceptional arm length and fluid movement skills allow him to match up with the big and athletic receivers that are currently dominating the game. Although Smith needs to play with more toughness and aggression on the edge, his physical tools give him a chance to develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber player in time.
Davis, who earned a starting spot midway through his rookie season, is a gritty, physical corner with outstanding ball skills and awareness. He's a bit of a gambler, but his penchant for playmaking (four interceptions in 2009) makes him a potential difference maker in Nolan's aggressive scheme.
Although the performance of the team's young corners will play a significant role in the success of the Dolphins' defense, the ability to generate consistent pressure off the edge is ultimately a bigger factor in the unit's success in 2010.
The loss of Joey Porter and Jason Taylor leaves the Dolphins without an established pass rusher, which will require Nolan to creatively find ways to get pressure on the quarterback.
As the coordinator for the Broncos a season ago, he utilized several "smoke-and-mirrors" tactics to repeatedly free Elvis Dumervil off the edge. The fifth-year pro took advantage of the favorable matchups created by the scheme to lead the league with 17 sacks last season. That represented a 12-sack jump from his 2008 total, and shows the potential that an edge player can make in the scheme.
In Miami, Cameron Wake could be the player that takes the quantum leap for the team this season.
Wake, who won the CFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2007 and 2008 after amassing 39 sacks over two seasons in the CFL, flashed disruptive potential as a situational pass rusher in the team's sub-package. He had 5.5 sacks last season for the Dolphins, and his relentless motor makes him a troublesome defender to handle off the edge.
While Wake will be counted on to be the team's top disruptive force, the Dolphins have a host of defenders capable of wreaking havoc in Nolan's scheme.
Starks, who moves over to nose tackle after posting seven sacks as a defensive end last year, gives Nolan a big, athletic defender over the center. With the use of stunts and movement along the line, Starks will command a double team at the point of attack or spend the majority of the game in the opponent's backfield.
In Dansby, Nolan gets an instinctive interior defender with a penchant for making plays all over the field. The seventh-year pro has tallied more than 100 tackles the last two seasons. More importantly, he has amassed 25.5 sacks and 19 takeaways in his career. Given his penchant for playmaking, Dansby is the linchpin to Nolan's game plan.
Another key element to the Dolphins' defensive plans will be versatility of Bell. The seventh-year pro is a "do-it-all" playmaker with disruptive skills as a box area defender. Bell punishes ball carriers when aligned near the line of scrimmage, and his underrated rush skills make him a viable threat as an edge rusher. In addition, he shows solid range and awareness as a pass defender. Bell picked off three passes a season ago, and his ability to seamlessly float from the box to the middle of the field will give Nolan the flexibility to vary his coverage to create confusion in the mind of quarterback. With uncertainty sure to lead to mistakes from the pocket, Bell's role as a hybrid defender could result in more turnovers.
The Dolphins have embraced the old school philosophy of their glorious past to build a team that is on the verge of reaching the ranks of the elite.
With Nolan intent on building a defense that stays on the attack, the Dolphins have assembled a defense capable of wearing the moniker of their legendary predecessors.