DAVIE, Fla. -- If the Miami Dolphins miss the playoffs, they can point to run defense as one of the biggest reasons.
That was supposed to be Miami's strength this season. Instead, the Dolphins are 25th of 32 teams in stopping the run, and it's only getting worse. They gave up a season-high 203 rushing yards in Sunday's 19-0 loss at Buffalo.
Miami's defensive tackles are mostly doing their part. Pro Football Focus ranks Randy Starks as fourth of 67 tackles against the run. Paul Soliai is 12th and Jared Odrick 28th.
The problem could be the linebackers. In attempt to go younger and faster, the Dolphins in the off-season parted ways with veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and gave a combined $60.8 million ($27 million guaranteed) to Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
After 15 games, Ellerbe is ranked 54th out of 55 inside linebackers at stopping the run. Wheeler is 33rd of 34 outside linebackers (in a 4-3 scheme) against the run.
"I know we're definitely not where we want to be and we can be a whole lot better," Ellerbe said Tuesday of the overall run defense. "I don't feel like we're playing up to our capability or full potential."
Joe Rose, a former Dolphins tight end and current radio host on 560 WQAM, said he expected the unit to be better.
"Most people thought they'd have a top-five or just outside the top-five run defense," he said. "Late in games, not being able to get stops in the run game is the biggest concern. The whole game against Buffalo was real disappointing to me."
The only returning linebacker in the starting lineup, Koa Misi, has played well and is ranked eighth of 34 outside linebackers against the run.
While Ellerbe and Wheeler have struggled, Dansby, 32, and Burnett, 31, have excelled.
Dansby, now with Arizona and considered a Pro Bowl candidate, is 14th among inside linebackers at stopping the run and ranks fifth overall. Burnett, who plays for Oakland, is the No. 2 outside linebacker against the run.
"Dansby is Pro Bowl tearing it up," Rose said. "That obviously is always going to be brought up when you decide to give up on somebody and you go with somebody else -- no matter what their age is or no matter what they're making."
Coach Joe Philbin said Ellerbe and Wheeler have done some things well to stop the run.
"I think their play speed has been good," Philbin said. "I think they've done a good job attacking the line of scrimmage. I think overall their tackling has been good. ... We've got to continue to work on our run fits as a unit -- not necessarily just those two individuals."
After being bullied by a Buffalo rushing attack that ranks second in the NFL, the Dolphins now have to face the sixth-ranked running game of the New York Jets with a playoff berth on the line.
Wheeler's illegal-use-of-hands penalty late in the third quarter against the Bills prevented them from being forced to punt deep in their own territory. The Bills went on to milk the clock with a 19-play drive.
Wheeler said now is not the time to evaluate the run defense because the playoffs are still within reach.
"There are new pieces in the defense and it may require time to get used to it," he said. "It's just one of those things where we're not going to look at it now -- we've still got a game to play."
Wheeler said the unit has done well against the run in spurts. He cited the first meeting with Buffalo, when Miami yielded only 90 rushing yards.
On the season, Miami is giving up an average of 123 rushing yards per game. He said the team needs to be more physical and guard against mental errors.
Odrick said "there's a problem with the execution as a whole" but wouldn't be specific.
"I'm not throwing anyone under the bus," he said. "That's why we're here practicing on Christmas Eve -- we're preparing to stop the run.
"It's our job, it's what we get paid for and we've got to improve."
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