Through two games of the 2021 NFL season, the Dolphins’ defense have shown flashes of being the unit it was last year. However, there’s admitted need for improvement, especially after allowing 35 points in the team’s Week 2 shutout loss to the Buffalo Bills.
For all the success the Bills’ offense has had against the Dolphins’ defense in recent matchups, it will be facing arguably a more prolific unit in the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, who enter Week 3 with a 2-0 record and one of the league’s top offenses.
Led by quarterback Derek Carr, who is atop the NFL with 817 passing yards, the Raiders rank seventh in points scored and first in total yards. In last season’s Week 16 thriller, a 26-25 Dolphins win, Carr threw for 336 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s done a great job of taking total control of that offense, putting them in good positions to have success,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. “He finds the matchups. He knows what defenses he’s looking at.”
Safety Brandon Jones noted the assortment of personnel groupings Las Vegas can use to make big plays.
“It comes from 11 [one running back, one tight end], 12 [one running back, two tight ends,], 13 [one running back, three tight ends], 21 [two running backs, one tight end], 20 [two running backs, zero tight ends] [personnel],” he said. “Everything in the book. They run a lot of empty. Obviously they like to spread the ball out and take shots, deep shots down the field. They have a lot of playmakers to be able to do that so they’re definitely going to keep us on our toes. It’s going to be a really good matchup, but yeah, they do a really good job of doing the good things.”
Of all the Raiders’ various skill position players, the focal point remains tight end Darren Waller. In the teams’ last meeting, he caught five passes for 112 yards. Through two games, he’s the NFL’s most-targeted pass-catcher with 26 targets.
“You really just can’t identify him as a certain position because he’s listed as a tight end,” Jones said, “but he has the ball skills and the route running of a receiver so I think a lot of teams get caught up in the matchup situations with do you put a corner on him, do you put a safety on him? How do you treat him as a player? He’s one of the best tight ends in the league in my opinion if you want to label him as a tight end, but he really does everything really well.”
The Dolphins added two first-half takeaways against the Bills to bring their total to four in the early season, keeping the pace of a unit that led the league with 29 takeaways in 2020. But issues with run defense have also carried over into the new season. The Dolphins have allowed 268 rushing yards, fifth most in the league. Those marks have been marred by long rushes allowed against Buffalo and the New England Patriots. Raekwon Davis, one of the defensive line’s top run-stuffers, will remain sidelined for at least two more games after being placed on injured reserve with a knee injury.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Dolphins blitzed Josh Allen on just 25 percent of his drop backs, a big change in philosophy for a defense that blitzed on 40.8 percent of opposing drop backs last season, the second-highest rate in the league.
If there’s any week for the Dolphins to get back to the ultra-aggressive tendencies that defined them in 2020, it could be against the Raiders. Las Vegas has faced multiple injuries along the offensive line in the nascent season, which includes starting guard Denzelle Good landing on injured reserve after Week 1 with an ACL injury. The availability of former Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito is also in question after missing practice Wednesday and Thursday with a calf injury.
“It’s still early in the year, and we’re better than what we showed Sunday,” Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker said. “We just turn the page and focus on the Raiders. That’s been our main focus. We’re not going to let it linger and let it affect us for the rest of the year. We’ve got a long year. We’ve got to turn the page and keep going.”