Dolphins' refurbished defense on display in opener

DAVIE, Fla. -- The man who knows the Miami Dolphins' defense best says he's unsure what he'll see in the season opener.

Under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Dolphins will unveil a revamped lineup and more aggressive scheme Sunday at Buffalo. Miami might have new starters at nine positions, with end Kendall Langford and strong safety Yeremiah Bell the only certain holdovers from last year.

All the changes have Nolan wondering how good his unit will be.

"I really don't know," he said Thursday. "The important thing is that wherever we start, we keep getting better. That's what good defenses do."

Miami's defense regressed last year, which prompted the shakeup. The Dolphins gave up 349 yards per game, their worst average since 1989, and collapsed in the final three games.

Defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni was replaced by Nolan, who has been a coordinator for five other NFL teams, including Denver last year. The Dolphins parted with thirty-somethings Joey Porter, Jason Taylor and Jason Ferguson, and devoted seven of the team's eight draft choices to defense, including top picks Jared Odrick and Koa Misi.

Randy Starks moved from end to nose tackle, and Ikaika Alama-Francis moved from end to linebacker. Beyond the personnel changes, veteran linebacker Channing Crowder has been sidelined since Aug. 17 because of a groin injury and might miss the opener.

Odrick will start at end, Misi will see significant action at outside linebacker, and three other starters -- linebacker Cameron Wake, cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Chris Clemons -- are second-year pros. Nolan acknowledges his young players face a learning curve.

"You're not going to give them the experience until they have it," Nolan said. "They're going to make mistakes. All of them make mistakes. That's the game."

Change is not as dramatic on the offensive side, on which there are three newcomers: Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and guards Richie Incognito and John Jerry.

That's enough new faces to leave offensive coordinator Dan Henning uncertain about how quickly his unit will mesh.

"Concerned? Confident? I'm both of those things," Henning said. "I like our people. There's a new mixture. We've changed offensive linemen, we've changed receivers. The concern is we don't have the same synergy. You hope you have it, but you don't know.

"If we get in a rhythm and it's what I think it can be, we're in pretty good shape. If we don't get in a rhythm, then that's where I get concerned."

This will be the 31st NFL season for Henning, a former head coach for Atlanta and San Diego. He has been with the Dolphins since 2008, the first year of the Bill Parcells regime.

Nolan was San Francisco's head coach in 2005-08, and his father, Dick, spent 11 years as an NFL head coach.

"I'm fortunate that both my coordinators have been head coaches in this league," coach Tony Sparano said. "It's good for me to be able to bounce things off them."

Sparano's staff has decided turnover differential will be the biggest key to beating Buffalo, and the Dolphins are looking for improvement in that area from the defense. Their 21 takeaways last year tied for fifth-fewest in the league.

Nolan has tweaked the 3-4 defense Miami played last year, introducing more blitzing and allowing players more freedom. One goal with the changes is to force more mistakes by opposing offenses.

Nolan kept the scheme mostly under wraps through four exhibition games, and he said his players are still getting comfortable with it.

"It's an ongoing process," he said. "It's always that way when you're starting out: They have to learn the language. You practice scheme all week; it's about plays all week. And it's about players when the game comes around.

"It really comes down to the players. That's what you get excited about. Good players will overcome bad situations sometimes and make you look like you're doing a pretty good job of calling a game."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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