What determines who the best defense in the NFL is annually?
Is it points allowed?
That’s the easy answer, and the Dolphins lead the league with 18.4 points allowed per game, and have been one of the top-five performers in that category since October.
But where do yards per game (358.1) allowed enter in the equation since the Dolphins rank 18th and a team like the Los Angeles Rams rank first with 286.1 yards allowed per game.
How about turnovers created, or the opposing quarterback’s passer rating? Miami leads the league with 26 takeaways, and opposing quarterbacks have a cumulative 83.9 passer rating, which ranks the Dolphins third this season.
“Wins,” defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said when asked how people should stack up the league’s best defensive units in 2020. “As far as the stats and all that stuff, those things are great. They’re nice. But at the end of the day, our sole focus is on the Raiders and winning.”
There is no definitive bar when it comes to crowning the NFL’s stingiest defense each season.
But no matter how you stack it up — no matter what computation or formula we use — the Miami Dolphins defense can’t be excluded from the conversation this year.
And what makes what we’ve seen from the Dolphins (9-5) every week even more special is that this season Brian Flores and his coaches have transformed the NFL’s worst defense in 2019 to one of the league’s stingiest units heading into Saturday’s night game against the Las Vegas Raiders (7-7).
Miami’s bend-but-don’t-break defense, which tightens on third downs (league-leading 32.5 conversion rate) has kept this team in every game this season, and ranks right up there with some of the best defenses in franchise history.
The 2020 squad is rivaling what the Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas teams did in their heyday in the 1990 1/4 u2032s, and what the Killer B’s of the early 80 1/4 u2032s achieved.
They don’t have to take a back seat to any of those units statistically.
It’s clear the foundation has been laid for continued success if Miami can continue to produce turnovers at the team’s present rate.
“We wanted to add the right people — guys who are tough and smart and competitive, love to play, team-first — so I think with every addition, we have that in mind,” Flores said. “We’re just looking for the right people.”
Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah have the versatility to play as a 4-3 or a 4-3 defensive end, and their presence on the front line helps Miami’s defensive front stay fluid, which is critical in this hybrid 3-4 scheme.
Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, two of the three linebackers added via free agency, are familiar with Miami’s defense from their time playing in it in New England for the defense Flores called plays for for two seasons. That pair of captains helped this unit speed up their understanding of Flores’ scheme.
Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe, two converted cornerbacks, settled into their roles as safeties in their second season at a new position. McCain serves as the quarterback of the secondary, making all the necessary assignment calls and checks, and Rowe has blossomed into a tight end coverage specialist.
A year removed from reconstructive knee surgery, Xavien Howard has put up one of the better defensive performances in franchise history. He’s created 10 turnovers (nine interceptions and one fumble), and is viewed by Vegas oddsmakers as one of the top-three candidates for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“All the guys want to get recognized that are performing well on defense,” Howard said this week after learning he was Miami’s only Pro Bowl selection of 2020. “I feel like if we take care of what’s in front of us right now — with that being said, we’ve got to take care of what’s in front of us right now. We can’t focus on the individual goals right now.”
The addition of cornerback Byron Jones has helped everyone because Miami’s coverage on passing plays is tight, leading to more pressure, which produces more sacks, and teams are forced into throwing in Howard’s direction because he’s usually on an island with the opposition’s best receiver.
Nik Needham has blossomed into one of the NFL’s upper-echelon nickel cornerbacks. Raekwon Davis is slowly, but steadily becoming a force at nose tackle. And Andrew Van Ginkel has been a reliable contributor on the edge of Miami’s defensive line.
What makes the Dolphins defense work is that everyone has an assigned role, which changes from game to game, depending on the matchup.
And most importantly, all of the players minimize their egos for the good of the team, and that is what makes the game plan work.
“We have a lot of guys that are being selfless, doing their jobs and taking on blocks upfront, or whether it’s the back end or the linebackers,” McCain said. “Regardless of what your role is, everybody is just doing what they’re supposed to do and having fun doing it.”