Dolphins' linebackers showing promise

Don't tell Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler that his unit was largely to blame for the defense ranking 24th in the NFL against the run last season.

"The total defense did," Wheeler said. "It wasn't just us."

Whatever the case, coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle blamed the faulty run defense (124.9 yards per game) on poor tackling and poor technique. They never identified the linebackers as the source, but that's where the change was made.

It'll be tough to determine much about the Dolphins' linebackers until preseason games begin. But the move seemed to be working fairly well Sunday, the third practice of training camp and the first in full pads.

The Dolphins retained their trio of starting linebackers in their 4-3 scheme, switching Koa Misi (54 tackles) to middle linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe (101 tackles, two interceptions, two recovered fumbles) to weakside linebacker, and leaving Wheeler (team-best 118 tackles) on the strongside.

That leaves room for questions.

According to, Misi was the 14th-rated outside linebacker in a 4-3 scheme last season, and Wheeler was 35th. Ellerbe was 50th among inside linebackers.

The Dolphins don't need great things from their linebackers, just good things. After all, they play behind one of the best defensive lines in the AFC East. And their secondary, although it has questions, has a genuine shutdown cornerback in Pro Bowl selection Brent Grimes.

On Sunday, the linebackers appeared to be in the right spots against the run. Misi got caught up in traffic a couple of times but overall he seemed to flow comfortably toward ball carriers.

The linebackers also seemed a bit more athletic. Ellerbe made a nice play on the sideline to break up a pass intended for running back Daniel Thomas. A couple of tight ends got loose against Wheeler in pass coverage drills, but he did OK.

And even though the Dolphins were hitting but not tackling, the linebackers seemed to be playing a physical style and looking more comfortable.

Then Misi left the field during the second half of practice with an undisclosed injury. He was carrying his left shoe in his hand.

Although the ailment didn't seem serious, Misi, who missed time during minicamp, can't afford to miss repetitions. He's playing middle linebacker for the first time. Philbin didn't seem overly concerned.

"Everybody needs reps," he said. "I don't know if there's a guy on the team that's worked harder since April 21st has come around, in terms of learning things and studying the game and putting in extra time. So we'll see."

Although the Dolphins running backs gained most of their yards against the No. 2 defense Sunday, they did run past the linebackers a couple of times.

So there's a chance the hole in last season's leaky run defense still exists. Wheeler won't hear such talk.

"We look at those type of things and we say even if we would have been No. 3 stopping the run we still would have wanted to be No. 1," he said, "so anything but No. 1 is not good enough for us and we want to get better at it."

Both Wheeler and Ellerbe, who joined the Dolphins as free agents last season, said continuity, if nothing else, will make the linebackers better. They're playing as a trio for the second season. And Ellerbe said going back to his old position will help, too.

"I'm at weak, same thing I played at Baltimore," he said. "As long as I get to stay at one position, like I've been saying, and master that position and learn that position in this defense, I feel like I'll be good.

"Right now I feel like we're all doing good. We don't have too many mental errors and we're getting to the ball. Now we just have to get our hands on some balls."

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