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Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: Miami's huge interior linemen the secret to stingy defense

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The NFL has become such an edge game -- one of big passing numbers and sack artists getting all the attention -- that we sometimes don't give the guys inside on defense the attention they deserve.

Anybody who follows the Miami Dolphins, or studies their tapes, knows that the key to the Miami Dolphins success on defense isn't the great pass rusher (Cameron Wake) or the good cover corner (Sean Smith), but the two inside tackles, 600-plus pounds of brute force.

Their names are Paul Soliai and Randy Starks.

Without them, it's hard to imagine the Dolphins being 4-3 and one of the surprise teams of 2012.

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Miami's defensive numbers aren't great. They are 22nd in total defense and 27th in passing defense. So how come they are fifth in points allowed?

It's because Starks and Soliai help choke off the other team's run, which puts them in passing situations on third down. You know who leads the NFL in third-down defense? Yes, the Miami Dolphins.

In studying Dolphins' tapes, it's easy to see why Miami is so good at stopping the run. Soliai is a power player who has to be doubled a lot and usually can handle it. Starks is a strong player as well, but he also has good quickness inside.

Those two help free up linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett to get to the football. It also helps to make Wake that much more effective because he can pin his ears back on third-and-long.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who came over after being the secondary coach of the Bengals, does some nice things to help keep offenses off-balance. I will show some of those here in a bit.

It all starts with the two big guys. It's nice to have Smith playing at a high level and to see the development of young safety Rashad Jones in the secondary. But it sure is nice to be able to play in the back end when you know a team has to throw. The Jets had 18 first-half rushing yards as Miami jumped to a 20-0 lead last week.

Here's a first-down play from last week's victory over the Jets that highlights Starks.

It is a run to Shonn Greene. Starks (yellow circle) is matched in man-to-man blocking with left guard Matt Slauson. Starks abuse him. You can see by the three pictures sequenced below that Starks attacks Slauson, sheds him and is quick enough to make the tackle on Greene. That's impressive.

  
 

  
 

  
 

Here are a couple of shots that show Coyle's creativity.

  
 

  
 

  
 

On a third-down play, the Dolphins line up with six defensive players in the box. They are in dime coverage, so two linebackers are in the box with six defensive backs. The defensive back in the blue circle is corner Jimmy Wilson, lined up in what looks to be man coverage. But at the snap, you can see the wrinkles.

The end-zone angle shows Dansby and Wake both drop out, while Burnett and Wilson blitz. You can't see Wilson in the second frame, but in the third you see him coming off the edge to dump Mark Sanchez, who didn't have a receiver open.

Blitz 1-2-3

The Dolphins play the Colts this week in what is a big game. The Colts are 19th in yards rushing per attempt. That could be a problem against this front. If it is, that could put a lot on Andrew Luck's plate, which would play into what the Dolphins or any other team want, which is third-and-long. Miami is the best in the NFL on third down, which is saying something considering all the good defenses in the league.

Film study

1. Another defensive tackle that is playing exceptional football is Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears. This former college running back has emerged as one of the better inside players in the league this season. He abused the Panthers last week. It started on the game's first play. The Panthers doubled Melton with left guard Amini Silatolu and left tackle Jordan Gross. But Melton was able to beat the double and dump Jonathan Stewart for a 2-yard loss. It's a play you don't expect to see from a defensive tackle that is getting doubled. The idea is to occupy those blockers and allow the linebackers to make the play. Linebacker Lance Briggs was credited with the tackle on the stat sheet, but make no mistake about it, Melton made the tackle after splitting that double. He made several more plays like that the rest of the afternoon. He also had a half sack that forced a Cam Newton fumble when he whipped Silatolu with a swim move and then used his speed to get to Newton. The kid is impressive.

  
 

  
 

  
 

2. Cowboys fans have to be sick about the way they lost to the Giants at home last week. They had their chances, but made a ton of mistakes. I still think a big part of the problem was the calling of three consecutive passes after they had a second-and-1 at the Giants' 19 late in the game. Cowboys fans will be even sicker when they see the screen shot from the third-and-1 pass that Tony Romo tried to hit for a score to Kevin Ogletree. Why? Miles Austin was wide open in the middle. Romo made a decision to go to Olgetree without any consideration for any other receiver in the route. If he looked to the middle, he could have hit Austin with a quick throw -- and he had an easy throwing lane to see him. Austin would have had a first down and a lot more. But Romo made the pre-snap decision to take the shot. Bad move. In fairness to Romo, Ogletree should have caught the pass for a go-ahead score. Romo was credited with four picks, but the first one he threw was on receiver Dez Bryant. He had to get across the face of safety Steve Brown, but kind of rounded off his route, which led to the pick. It wasn't a good day for the Cowboys all the way around.

Here's a look at the questionable third-down play.

Here's a look at the first play in a three-picture sequence. You can see Romo threw to Ogletree in the blue circle. The yellow circle highlights Austin, who beat Jayron Hosley inside. It should have been an easy pitch-and-catch to keep the drive alive.

  
 

3. When the Titans played the Colts without left tackle Michael Roos, I thought there was a chance that Dwight Freeney could have a field day rushing the passer. For much of the game, he was matched against Mike Otto, who was making his first NFL start. But when the game was over, Otto got the better of Freeney, who didn't get a sack and had little pressure. Freeney tried his speed outside, tried spinning inside and also used his power moves as well, but Otto held up nicely. He did have help a few times, including once when Freeney beat him with a quick spin move inside only to be met by guard Steve Hutchinson. But for a first start, Otto did a nice job.

4. While watching Otto, I kept noticing Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman. He seemed to be making a lot of tackles, and the more I watched the more I liked. The kid has taken a strange path to get to the league, but he belongs. Believe me, he belongs. He is fast, active, instinctive and he will hit you. Freeman went to Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, signed as a free agent with the Titans in 2008, was cut and spent three seasons in Canada before signing on with the Colts last January. When Pat Angerer went down early this season, Freeman took over. Angerer, the Colts leading tackler last season, is back. But Freeman is still the starter -- and he should be. One of my favorite plays from the Titans game was when he came from across the field to tackle Chris Johnson clear on the other side of the field for a short gain. Freeman was lined up over the outside shoulder of the left guard about four yards off the ball. At the snap, which was a delayed run to Johnson, he stepped up to fill that hole. When Johnson bounced to his right, Freeman did the same to his left. He moved down the line. The first thing he did was to make sure Johnson didn't cut back off the right guard. Then as Johnson bounced more outside, Freeman continued down the line. When Johnson tried to cut back inside, Freeman was there to drop him. It was an impressive play for any linebacker, let alone a 26-year-old rookie who has taken a long path to become an NFL starter. Angerer is back playing now, but he is taking snaps from Kavell Conner. Freeman got dinged late against the Titans, and missed time in the fourth quarter. When he was gone, the Titans moved the ball better on the ground. This is another gem for GM Ryan Grigson.

5. Sometimes you look at stats and see the sack numbers and automatically assume the offensive line was whipped. That was exactly what I thought when I saw the Bears gave up six sacks of Jay Cutler last week to the Panthers. But the reality is that it was a combination of things that led to the sacks, which it usually is in most cases. Here's a breakdown of the six sacks.

 On the game's first play, Greg Hardy overpowered tight end Brody Eldridge to easily dump Cutler.

 On the second sack, another by Hardy, Cutler held the ball. That allowed Hardy to eventually beat left tackle J'Marcus Webb. Put that on Cutler.

 The third sack came on a screen pass that was well covered. Cutler should have thrown the ball into the ground, but he double-clutched it and as he did Johnson hit him to force a fumble that Carolina recovered. On that play, right tackle Gabe Carimi did the right thing and cut Johnson, but Johnson was able to get back up and get the sack because Cutler held it.

 On the fourth sack, the Bears had nobody open down the field, and Frank Alexander beat Webb, which forced Cutler up into the pocket, where he was sacked by defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

 The fifth sack came at the end of the half when Hardy beat guard Chilo Rachal inside to easily dump Cutler, who had no chance.

 The next play brought the sixth sack and another lost fumble. Johnson whipped Carimi and knocked the ball free from Cutler as he went past. The Panthers recovered.

So there were a variety of reasons for the sacks. Some were the receivers not winning. Others were Cutler holding the ball. And some were the fault of the offensive line. But it wasn't just the guys up front.

7. What's wrong with the San Diego passing game? That's the question I tried to answer when I watched their game against the Browns. But I came away with this: Browns corner Joe Haden is damn good. He gave up a 14-yard completion to Malcolm Floyd, but it was only after he slipped down. After that, the Chargers got nothing on him. He is also a willing tackler in the run game. He helped drop a reverse for a 6-yard loss in the third quarter by beating a block and holding contain. The Chargers completed just four passes to an outside receiver, all caught by Floyd. Robert Meachem did drop a sure touchdown pass on a busted coverage, but it wasn't on Haden. Getting Haden back really improves the Browns defense. The kid is on his way to being a star.

8. With Charles Woodson out with a broken collarbone, the Packers are without their best safety. Or are they? Morgan Burnett played like the team's best safety last week against the Jaguars. He was all over the field. On the Jaguars' first possession, Burnett was lined up in zone coverage on the left side of the defense across from a bunch formation. At the snap, the Jaguars ran the inside receiver deep and the outside receiver deep. But they ran Cecil Shorts, lined up between them, into the right flat. That made for a tough play for Burnett, who steered through the traffic of the other receivers to get over and tackle Shorts for a 3-yard gain. Later, playing up near the line, he fought off a Greg Jones block to help drop Rashad Jennings for a 2-yard loss on a run to the left. Later, he was lined up on the end of the line and used his speed to come down it and stop Jalen Parmele for no gain. Burnett also blew up a screen pass with a sack of Blaine Gabbert. He did let Cecil Shorts get behind him for one long pass play, but the coverage was pretty solid. It was just a good throw and a good catch.

9. There was talk that Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon jogged some of his routes at the end of the Jaguars-Packers game. Coach Mike Mularkey denied it. But after looking at the tape, there was one important play where Blackmon did seem to jog his route. Trailing 21-15 with just under five minutes left in the game, the Jaguars had a first down at midfield. A pass play was called with Blackmon as the target. It had him run a post-corner from the inside slot on the right side. He ran inside, and then bent it outside. Corner Tramon Williams squatted in the short zone underneath. Blackmon needed to clear him and get more to the sideline, where the ball was thrown. But he appeared to slow down as he got behind Williams. That's jogging, folks. He was criticized for jogging the Jaguars' fourth-down play after that, and he didn't exactly explode off the line to run a crossing route -- really a rub route -- so it appeared that way. Even so, he got caught up in traffic and Gabbert should have thrown to tight end Marcedes Lewis, who was open because of Blackmon's rub, or pick. I think Blackmon's main problem is that he doesn't run sharp routes. He rounds too many of them off. Once he becomes a better route runner, his production will go up.

10. All last week we heard how Richard Sherman was going to shut down Calvin Johnson. He was Optimus Prime to his Megatron. Problem was, he didn't spend much time on him. Instead, Titus Young beat Sherman for a couple of catches, including the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard slant. Johnson's long catch, a 25-yarder, came when Brandon Browner was on him in man coverage. In fairness to Browner, teammate Leroy Hill kind of picked him off on the play. Sherman and Browner are both good cover players, but they had some trouble with the quick screens of the Lions. On one quick screen to Young, Johnson blocked Sherman out of the play, knocking his helmet off in the process. Johnson kicked the helmet away after the play. You could tell he didn’t take too kindly to Sherman's pregame talk and aggressive play.

11. There have been a lot of fingers pointed at Michael Vick for the failings of the Philadelphia Eagles. But what about the pass rush? The Eagles are 31st in the NFL in sacks per pass play. Their wide-9 scheme is designed to get after the passer. But it's not working. The ends, Jason Babin and Trent Cole, are not putting on the pressure like they did in 2011. They have a combined four sacks between them after combining to have 29 last season. They just aren't winning like they did last season.

Hot Tub

1. Cowboys TE Jason Witten: He had 18 catches and the Giants could not stop him. He almost willed his team to a victory.

2. Browns RB Trent Richardson: He ran with power and made people miss against the Chargers.

3. Dolphins G Richie Incognito: He mauled dudes against the Jets.

4. 49ers WR Michael Crabtree: He had two touchdown catches against the Cardinals and did a nice job after the catch.

5. Bears CB Tim Jennings: His pick-six against the Panthers was the big play in a comeback victory. He also had eight tackles and another interception on a diving play.

Cold Tub

1. Cardinals LT D'Anthony Batiste: He is really struggling and surprisingly he isn't getting better.

2. Rams CB Janoris Jenkins: He has talent, but he is too aggressive and doesn’t always play the ball like he should. Tom Brady got him last week.

3. Eagles CB Nnamdi Asomugha: This guy is a shell of his former self. What happened?

4. Jets QB Mark Sanchez: He doesn't have much help, but he wasn't very good against Miami.

5. Saints CB Patrick Robinson: I was wrong about him being a breakout player this year. The Broncos abused him last Sunday night.

Three and outs

Three moves that need to be made

1. The Rams need to start Daryl Richardson at running back. He is faster and more elusive than Steven Jackson.

2. The Cardinals should try rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley. What do they have to lose?

3. The Panthers and Redskins need to cut down on the read-option crap. Let their guys play quarterback.

Three reasons the Jets shouldn't bench Mark Sanchez and play Tim Tebow

1. Rex Ryan's job is on the line. Would you want Tebow controlling it?

2. Tebow can't read a defense.

3. Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can't put it back in. There would be no going back.

Three reasons the Jets should make the move to Tebow

1. The Tebow cult would buy tickets.

2. The novelty of playing a fullback at the quarterback position.

3. Rex Ryan's job is on the line. He has to do something.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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