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Game Preview: Dolphins defense will dominate

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Think about the leagues best defenses and Miami would have to rank up there with Tampa Bay and Baltimore. When one examines the similarities between the three, it's not difficult to fire out why they are among the NFL's best.

First off, they all are predicated on speed in the front seven and a front four that generates pressure on the quarterbacks without constant blitzing, a tactic that allows defensive backs to stay home and defend the pass.

Secondly, they all are strong up the middle with tremendous play at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Those players allow them to defend the run with seven players and be more consistent in stopping opposing rushing attacks.

That brings us to the players who line up for Miami. With most of the frump seven relying on speed for effectiveness, the Dolphins turn to their tackles, Daryl Gardner and Tim Bowens, to provide the needed size and strength to shut down rushing attacks. Bowens returned to action last week after battling the knee injury and Gardner is playing as well as ever. Bowens' replacement during his injury, Jermaine Haley, filled in nicely through the team's impressive start that included wins over two 2000 division champions in the first two weeks - one at Tennessee and one at home against Oakland - before a blow out loss to the Rams last week. Haley provides nice depth.

While those tackles do a solid job of clogging up the middle, they all are capable of collapsing the pocket on passing downs, which allows edfe rushers Jason Taylor and Lorenzo Bromell the chance to get to the passer without having to worry about the quarterback stepping up successfully.

The biggest difference between the Dolphins team and last year's is the absence of AFC sack leader Trace Armstrong, who recorded 16.5 sacks in 2000 as a situational player. In the early going, his loss to Oakland via free agency didn't seem to affect the overall play if the defense as it was its dominant self, especially in the Miami heat where opposing teams go to wither. Last week's loss was the exception as St. Louis dominated Miami at the Trans World Dome.

Armstrong's departure may very well have coaxed Miami to draft another cornerback in the first round when conventional wisdom dictated the selection of an offensive player to a team that us defense heavy. Figuring on losing some of the pass rush that Armstrong provided, the Dolphins made sure they had ample coverage men after losing nickel back Terrance Shaw to the Patriots in free agency. So they selected Jamar Fletcher with their first pick and have chosen to blitz more without Armstrong. In fact, linebacker Derrick Rodgers has been used up and down to rush the passer similar to the way Taylor is used in passing situations and also the way the Patriots utilize Willie McGinest when he is healthy.

Miami used a third cornerback on 60 percent of the snaps last year and their need to blitz a little more this year - 23 times in the first two games - makes them somewhat more vulnerable in coverage, hence the need for another top corner.

Behind the line, speedy, tough, Zach Thomas is the defensive leader and is seemingly all over the field as an every-down linebacker. Thomas had 18 tackles two weeks ago and runs well enough to be effective in zone coverage and occasionally on tight end. Heading into last week's game in St. Louis, Thomas had 30 tackles and an interception for a touchdown. He is a difference maker inside and the Patriots will have to find a way to neutralize his speed. Blocking him is difficult with the big tackles occupying offensive lineman.

The secondary us a talented as any in the league with Fletcher joining veterans Sam Mdison and Patrick Surtain on the corners and Brock Marion and Brian Walker at safety.

This group plays almost exclusively cover two with the safeties helping the corners over the top. The corners, in turn, play aggressively at the line of scrimmage, knowing they have help if they are beaten off the line and also knowing the teams pass rush will generally pressure the quarterback. In the Week Two win over Oakland, Raiders wide receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice were held to only four receptions for 27 yards. Without having to commit ta safety to the running game, the Dolphins can get away with cover two defense throughout the game. The Patriots need to find a way to utilize the middle of the field - an unlikely scenario.

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