With the 2023 NFL season fast approaching, the South Florida Sun Sentinel takes a look at 10 storylines to watch for in a 10-part series ahead of the Miami Dolphins’ first day of training camp, which is set for Wednesday.
If you build a pass rush … the sacks will come?
Effective pressure on opposing NFL quarterbacks may best be summed up with a reference to classic baseball film “Field of Dreams.”
The Dolphins’ dreams of Super Bowl contention in 2023 could be aided immensely if they apply that pressure consistently from a pass rush that should have the names on the roster to get it done.
Led by outside linebackers Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb, a boost in the sack department could be precisely what can put the Dolphins over the top if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa also fulfills what’s required of him on a team that seems stacked at various positions.
Phillips and Chubb were two of the top 10 in pass-rush win rate in the 2022 regular season, according to ESPN Analytics. Phillips was tied for fourth with Cincinnati’s Trey Hendrickson at 24 percent, and Chubb was tied for sixth with Buffalo’s Von Miller. Only Dallas’ Micah Parsons, Philadelphia’s Haason Reddick and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett were better across the league.
In 2022, that effectiveness against opposing pass blockers did not translate into lots of sacks. Phillips’ seven sacks, which actually led Miami, were one fewer than his rookie-year total in 2021. Chubb only had 2 1/2 sacks in eight regular-season games with the Dolphins after registering 5 1/2 in the first half of last year with the Denver Broncos before the trade that landed him in Miami.
Phillips is a rising star as an edge defender heading into his third NFL season out of the University of Miami and Chubb already has two Pro Bowls to his credit in five years — one as a replacement in last season’s exhibition for his split season between Denver and Miami.
In 2023, the two will have a full season playing together. Getting the best out of the two of them should provide an increase from the 40 sacks the Dolphins recorded as a team in 2022, which was tied for 14th in the league. That while their pressure percentage of 21.7 percent ranked 17, according to Pro Football Reference, and Miami blitzed at the NFL’s third-highest rate (33.3 percent).
The 2022 Dolphins, with Josh Boyer at defensive coordinator, had to blitz at one of the league’s highest clips just to produce average pressure and sacks.
The shift from Boyer to new veteran, coveted defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should involve a change in philosophy to dictate the terms of when the Dolphins bring extra pass rushers and not do it so often out of necessity.
Phillips and Chubb should be part of more standard four-man pass rushes. And with more defenders in coverage, they could have more time to get to the quarterback before the ball is out.
The Dolphins made the marquee offseason addition of star cornerback Jalen Ramsey to bring a boon to the pass coverage. Miami struggled with injuries across the secondary in 2022, which also made it more difficult to marry the coverage and the pass rush.
Also injured for much of the year, but not himself when healthy, was defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. He led the Dolphins with nine sacks apiece in 2020 and 2021 but had just one last year. If he can somewhat return to form in Fangio’s defense, that could create a huge difference.
Miami no longer has veteran edge rusher Melvin Ingram, who remains unsigned leading up to training camp. His six sacks in 2022 are gone, but in comes Malik Reed, who had success in Denver under Fangio, and Andrew Van Ginkel returns after courting other teams in free agency.
Inside linebacker Jerome Baker can be effective on the blitz, as can newcomer David Long Jr., but the two can expect to be in coverage more often. The same goes for strong safety Brandon Jones, who was often in on safety blitzes under Boyer but will have to make a shift in how he plays his position.
The Dolphins could also benefit from getting contributions in the pass rush from interior defensive linemen in Christian Wilkins, Zach Sieler and Raekwon Davis — all who are pivotal to the Dolphins’ run defense that, in turn, enhances their ability to rush the passer and bring the blitz as wanted.