The Dolphins playoff hopes will mostly likely hinge on their defense making game-changing plays.
That is the reality of the 2014 season.
The new offense has showed promise. But it has five new offensive linemen, a new scheme, and it's missing arguably its best player, center Mike Pouncey (hip surgery), for the foreseeable future.
The offense will struggle early in the season and it might struggle all season.
Ideally, the Dolphins' defense saves the day with ball-hawking, turnover-producing, game-changing plays, the type that carry a team to the playoffs. That's the next level for this unit.
The Dolphins' defense, which allowed 20.9 points last season, eighth-best in the NFL, is trying to reach that level.
"The sky's the limit," said defensive end Olivier Vernon, who has followed last season's 11.5 sacks with a productive offseason.
"Whatever we put in, we could be just that. But the sky's the limit."
Last season the Dolphins produced 26 takeaways, which was tied for 14th in the NFL. The defense's 18 interceptions were tied for 10th.
But the defense's 12 forced fumbles were tied for 24th, and their six recovered fumbles were tied for 28th.
Those numbers need to improve for the defense to be regarded as a difference-making unit.
At times during Sunday's practice, the Dolphins' defense appeared to be game-changers.
There was defensive end Cam Wake blowing past rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James for a sack.
There was safety Jimmy Wilson blitzing from the slot for a sack.
There was defensive end Dion Jordan tipping a Ryan Tannehill pass at the line of scrimmage and then completing the interception in the backfield.
But there were also two occasions in which wide receiver Mike Wallace got behind the secondary on a deep route only to have backup quarterback Matt Moore miss with an overthrow.
And they got fooled by both Tannehill and Moore on the read option for big gains. As practice wore on the first-team offense eventually gashed the first-team defense for a couple of long runs.
Overall, it's been a fairly dominant offseason for the defense in OTAs (Organized Team Activities), mini-camp and training camp.
But it hasn't yet taken the step of being an offseason full of game-changing plays.
There have been glimpses in training camp practices.
Cornerback Jamar Taylor stripped the ball from wide receiver Rishard Matthews after a reception and linebacker Jason Trusnik recovered. A pass glanced off the hands of tight end Charles Clay and cornerback Brent Grimes was there for the interception.
The defensive line, which could rank among the NFL's best, has been especially active, whipping the disjointed offensive line.
Vernon has fared well against Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert. Wake has predictably beaten James, and on the inside the tackle trio of Randy Starks, Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick has been troublesome.
Starks thinks that's a sign of things to come on what might be the best unit on the team.
"I think we have a lot of talent this year," Starks said of the defense, which signed Mitchell to replace Paul Soliai, who went to Atlanta in free agency.
"Earl coming here gives us a little more athleticism on the inside. No [disrespect] to Paul, but Earl's more athletic. … Of all the years I've been here I think this is the strongest D-line we've had."
The Dolphins' linebackers are a question mark, especially when it comes to creating turnovers, and two starters in the secondary, free safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Cortland Finnegan, are looking to regain their disruptive form of years ago.
But if the Dolphins' defense can generate game-changing plays — interceptions, fumbles, strip-sacks — the first playoff berth since 2008 will be within reach.
"That's the key to the game is forcing turnovers," Grimes said. "Anytime you can get the ball, give your offense more opportunities to score, you look better and get wins."
Dolphins add lineman
The Dolphins signed offensive tackle Steven Baker to the 90-player training camp roster and waived rookie offensive lineman Michael Philipp.
Baker, who is 6-foot-8, 310-pound, played in 42 games at East Carolina, primarily serving as the school's right tackle.
He originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, and has spent portions of the past two seasons on the Cardinals and Giants practice squad.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun