It’s time to start getting to know the names of the players on the Miami Dolphins No-Name Defense. While we’re at it, let’s give them a cool (?) nickname — X-Force — in honor of cornerback Xavien Howard’s Defensive Player of the Year performance (and the old Marvel comic, of course).
Let’s learn a little more about the key members of a defense that leads the NFL with 28 takeaways and allows a league-low 18.4 points per game. Along the way, we may learn a thing or two about how head coach Brian Flores and general manager Chris Grier quietly cobbled together the NFL’s most opportunistic defense.
The stars of the Miami Dolphins defense
Xavien Howard, Cornerback
Xavien Howard is the closest thing the Dolphins defense has to a superstar. He was just named to his third Pro Bowl, leads the NFL with nine interceptions, and led the league in 2018 with seven interceptions.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Xavien Howard has allowed only 43.3% of passes to opposing receivers to be completed this year. Only Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander allows a lower completion rate (42.6%) among defenders who have been targeted for more than 25 passes. So there’s much more to Xavien Howard’s game than a high interception rate.
New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore won Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, breaking a 10-year drought for defensive backs. Xavien Howard has had a greater impact on more victories this year than Gilmore did last year. Let’s get him that award.
Emmanuel Ogbah, Edge Rusher
The Dolphins pulled Ogbah off the scrap heap in free agency. The 2016 second-round pick never panned out for the Cleveland Browns, who traded him to the Kansas City Chiefs after two seasons. Ogbah picked up a ring for the Chiefs last year but tore a pectoral muscle in Week 10 and missed the playoffs and Super Bowl. The Dolphins signed him to a modest two-year deal this offseason.
Ogbah leads the Dolphins defense with a career-high nine sacks and has forced three fumbles. Per Sports Info Solutions, Ogbah ranks 5th in the NFL with 54 pass pressures.
Flores clearly learned some of the secrets of reclaiming, developing, and effectively deploying other teams’ failed edge rushers from his old mentor Bill Belichick. In fact, here’s another example.
Shaq Lawson, Edge Rusher
Lawson never quite lived up to expectations after the Buffalo Bills made him the 19th overall pick out of Clemson in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bills declined his fifth-year rookie contract option after four good-not-great years. The Dolphins signed Lawson to a three-year, $30-million contract and set him loose to thrive on the right side of their defensive front.
Lawson has recorded just four sacks but ranks sixth in the NFL (just behind Ogbah) with 52 pressures and third in the league with 28 quarterback knockdowns. Lawson and Ogbah alone would combine to provide a healthy pass rush. Yet, X-Force is much deeper than just two reclamation-project pass rushers.
Andrew Van Ginkel, Edge Rusher
He looks a little like the roadie for a Christian metal band. His name sounds like a brand of overpriced bourbon. Van Ginkel might be X-Force’s least likely star. He’s a 2019 fifth-round pick whose college career wound from the University of South Dakota to JUCO to Wisconsin. There, he recorded 12 sacks and two interceptions in two seasons. Those numbers should have been a clue that Van Ginkel is one of those already around the ball.
Van Ginkel stunned the Los Angeles Rams with a 78-yard fumble recovery touchdown, forced a fumble at the Los Angeles Chargers’ goal line the following week, and now has three sacks and three forced fumbles through Week 15.
Van Ginkel is Exhibit A in the case against “tanking.” He performed well in late-season 2019 action for the Dolphins defense. Had they thrown in the towel, he may not have been properly evaluated, and he might also have picked up some bad habits instead of turning into the team’s most surprising playmaker.
Byron Jones, Cornerback
Flores tends to line up his cornerbacks by sides — Howard on the left, Jones on the right — instead of matching Howard up with the opponent’s #1 receivers. (There are situational exceptions when someone like Tyreek Hill enters the equation, but that’s Flores’ general defensive philosophy). That means opponents could move their receivers around to avoid Howard.
But Jones is a former Dallas Cowboys first-round pick, a 2018 Pro Bowler, and the Dolphins’ splashiest offseason acquisition, so opponents are forced to pick their poison.
Per Football Outsiders, the Dolphins rank sixth in the NFL at stopping passes to the left and sixth in the NFL at stopping passes to the right. In other words, sliding receivers around isn’t doing opponents much good, and despite just one interception, Jones is more than holding his own opposite Howard.
Bobby McCain, Safety
Speaking of Football Outsiders splits, the Dolphins defense ranks third in the NFL at stopping deep passes. Anyone who gets past Jones and Howard — or lines up in the slot to avoid both of them — must deal with McCain, a former fifth-round pick and a holdover from the Adam Gase era who has grown into his role as an old-fashioned deep safety.
McCain doesn’t show up on the stat sheet very much. However, neither does opponents’ top deep threats, and that’s the point.
The X-Patriots: Kyle Van Noy, Eric Rowe, and Elandon Roberts
What would a new superhero team be without a few former members of another, better-known superhero team? Flores and Grier imported this trio of ex-Patriots (expatriates?) over the last two seasons to provide veteran leadership and help install Flores’ system and culture.
Over-reliance on former Patriots is often a bad idea for a Belichick lieutenant (check out the Lions roster, for example). Yet, Flores has found useful supporting roles for this trio of familiar faces.
Van Noy has six sacks and leads the Dolphins defense with 10 tackles for a loss as an all-purpose linebacker. Rowe has thrived as a box safety and slot corner against tight ends and bigger receivers, similar duties to those he handled in New England. Roberts provides stability, versatility, and leadership at linebacker.
All three give Flores the flexibility to mix and match his blitzes and coverage schemes to keep opponents guessing.
Christian Wilkins, Defensive Tackle
Wilkins, the 13th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, doesn’t light up the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean his contributions go unnoticed.
“One thing is if you’ve ever been around Christian before, you know his energy level is contagious,” defensive line coach Marion Hobby told the team website. “His personality is contagious. He leads by example on the field. He’s an unselfish football player. He doesn’t mind doing the dirty work inside.”
Earlier in the season, ESPN Analytics ranked Wilkins seventh among NFL defensive tackles with a 41% run stop win rate. He’s creating opportunities for his teammates, just like an old-fashioned double-team munching interior lineman should.
Jerome Baker, Linebacker
Baker is the Dolphins’ defense signal-caller and Swiss army knife. He’s tied with Van Noy for second on the team with six sacks, but he’s more likely to drop into coverage than blitz, often drawing difficult assignments against pass-catching receivers.
“Jerome is a guy who can do a lot of different things,” Flores said last week (per the Dolphins website). “He’s very talented, athletic, he can run, tackles well … He’s one of the most versatile players we have. I would say probably a little bit unheralded in some regards.”
Baker, a Dolphins third-round pick in 2018, is another example of a player who benefitted from Flores’ decisions to both work with some holdovers from the past coaching regime and keep the team battling through a 2019 season that started out looking like a disaster in the making.
The Best of the Rest of Dolphins Defense X-Force
Nik Needham is a 2019 undrafted rookie who has developed into a capable slot cornerback. Rookie Raekwon Davis often lines up as a one-tech tackle and sometimes outshines Wilkins — the mammoth 6’7”, 310-pound Davis was constantly in the Patriots backfield in Week 16.
Zach Sieler, claimed last December off the waiver wire from the Baltimore Ravens, just earned a three-year contract extension as a wave defender on the defensive line. First-round cornerback Noah Igbinoghene took some serious rookie lumps early in the season, but he contributed to special teams and shown signs of progress when called upon on defense.
The Dolphins defense is a ragtag bunch of rookies, veterans, former top draft picks, and castoffs, and it doesn’t look like much on paper. But Flores has forged them into something special. And if that doesn’t sound like the origin story of a superhero team, then you don’t know your superhero teams.