AFC East: Paul Pasqualoni

Sparano elaborates on ex-player assistants

March, 31, 2011
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Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano felt it was important to add former NFL players to his coaching staff.

I posted a story Wednesday that looked into the importance of assistants with playing experience. To follow up, I wanted to share Sparano's thoughts on his three new position instructors: assistant wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, tight ends coach Dan Campbell and pass-rush coach Bryan Cox.

[+] EnlargeBryan Cox
AP Photo/Beth A. KeiserBryan Cox played for the Dolphins, Jets, Bears, Saints and Patriots over a 12-year career.
Cox is the most familiar player to fans who follow the AFC East. He was a lightning-rod linebacker who played for the Dolphins, New York Jets and New England Patriots in a 12-year career. He recorded 51.5 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and a nice double-bird salute to Buffalo Bills fans.

Cox never played for Sparano, but former Dolphins vice president of football operations Bill Parcells -- the man who hired Sparano -- coached Cox for two seasons with the Jets. Cox's entire coaching career has been working as Eric Mangini's defensive line assistant for the Jets and Cleveland Browns.

"Since I came into the league with Bill Parcells, Bryan is a guy I've always talked to Bill about in different ways," Sparano said at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans last week. "Bryan's a unique guy. His passion for the game is tremendous, and that's something that really intrigues me. Putting him in the role I have him in now gives me great luxury."

Former Dolphins defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni often would pull pass-rushers out of defensive drills to work with them individually. But current coordinator Mike Nolan doesn't like to leave the group much for one-on-one work -- although outside linebacker Cameron Wake didn't appear to suffer from a lack of instruction last season.

Cox "gives me the ability to split the pass-rushers up and get them away from the inside drills and exclusively work on pass-rush with a guy that's going to be able to help them," Sparano said.

Sparano was a Dallas Cowboys tight ends coach when Campbell was there. Sparano promoted him from intern to tight ends coach, replacing George DeLeone.

Sparano said Campbell, a 10-year veteran with three clubs, is "a guy I think an awful lot of" and called him "one of the toughest players I ever coached" and "fundamentally really good."

Hilliard was a receivers coach for the UFL's Florida Tuskers the past two seasons. He played a dozen NFL seasons for the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He caught 546 passes and scored 35 touchdowns. He'll help first-time NFL position coach Steve Bush.

"Ike Hilliard comes highly recommended to me from a lot of people that I respect in this business, guys that he played for," Sparano said. "Steve Bush is very good from a mental standpoint, scheme, how he attacks people. But Ike Hilliard would be a guy from a fundamental standpoint that would help those guys, particularly with the man-to-man stuff and how he played the position.

"It's unique to have a guy that has played the inside position as well as Ike has played it in our league, to be able to bring some of those details to the table for a guy like [Davone] Bess or [Brian] Hartline or even Marlon Moore. These guys can learn a lot from him."

Chris Palmer a Dolphins name to consider

January, 11, 2011
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For the second straight season, the Miami Dolphins have a coordinator opening.

Last year, the Dolphins fired defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni and seemed to already have his replacement in mind, hiring Mike Nolan a week later.

The process might not be so snappy in finding somebody to take offensive coordinator Dan Henning's vacated post.

Miami probably has known for a long time Henning wouldn't be back, thereby compiling a list of possibilities head coach Tony Sparano can spring on.

One name that stands out because of all his links to Sparano is Chris Palmer, the former Cleveland Browns head coach and New York Giants quarterbacks coach.

There are several dots to connect:
  • Palmer was University of New Haven head coach with Sparano on staff as his offensive coordinator in 1986 and '87.
  • Palmer went to Boston University as head coach in 1988 and took Sparano with him.
  • Palmer was Cleveland's head coach when he gave Sparano his NFL break, hiring him as an offensive quality control assistant in 1999 and promoting him to offensive line coach in 2000.
  • Palmer was Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach when Sparano was assistant head coach, O-line assistant and run game coordinator under Bill Parcells.
  • Palmer is head coach and general manager for the UFL's Hartford Colonials. His assistant defensive line coach is Tony Sparano Jr.

I'm not saying Palmer is the frontrunner, but that's a lot of linkage to ignore.

Palmer was Giants quarterbacks coach when they knocked off the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Palmer retired after last season, but was lured back to be a head coach and general manager in the short-season UFL. He is said to be willing to come back to the NFL as a coordinator.

Eli Manning's passer rating improved every season under Palmer. Without him this season, Manning threw 31 touchdowns, but also 25 interceptions. Both were career-highs.

Mike Nolan makes sense for Denver job

December, 12, 2010
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Might the Miami Dolphins be looking for their third defensive coordinator in three seasons?

Something to keep an eye on is Mike Nolan's possible candidacy to be the next Denver Broncos head coach.

Nolan left the Broncos after last season because he didn't get along with head coach Josh McDaniels. Nolan looks even better these days -- and probably is even more admired by Broncos' upper management -- for parting with McDaniels, who committed a series of gaffes and got fired less than two years into the gig.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson sketched out a case for Nolan to return to Denver.

Broncos owner Pat Bowlen has valued the coaches who worked under Dan Reeves in Denver, which Nolan did as a linebackers coach. Denver's next two coaches after Reeves were Reeves coordinators Wade Phillips and Mike Shanahan. McDaniels was Denver's first head coach without ties to Reeves.

Williamson wrote:
While [Nolan] and Josh McDaniels parted ways after one season because they decided they couldn’t work well together, Nolan got along with other key factions of the team. Most importantly, the Broncos' defense was successful under Nolan. It has crashed badly ever since Nolan left to become Miami's defensive coordinator.

Nolan likely would command immediate respect in the Broncos' locker room because the players know him and played well under him. Nolan also has been a head coach, running the San Francisco 49ers for three years. He went 18-37 there, but head coaches often make a greater impact in their second chance.

The Dolphins' defense has performed well under Nolan -- although their 6-6 record doesn't reflect it. The Dolphins have a top-10 defense in many important categories: fourth in total defense, ninth in run defense, fifth in pass defense, ninth in sacks per pass play, fourth in first downs and 10th in third-down efficiency.

The Dolphins, who fired Paul Pasqualoni last year and hired Nolan, would have a tough time finding an adequate replacement.

Dolphins D unable to clamp tight ends

September, 30, 2010
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The Miami Dolphins have a problem defending tight ends.

They struggled throughout 2009 to contain them, and they're off to a rougher start this season.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Paul Spinelli The Dolphins face Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez on Monday night. He's averaging 70.3 receiving yards per game.
Tight ends accumulated a nice stat line against Miami last year: 68 receptions for 993 yards and four touchdowns.

Through three games, even with the Buffalo Bills not throwing a single pass to their tight ends on opening day, that position is on pace to catch 69 passes for 1,099 yards and 11 touchdowns against the Dolphins.

That's an All-Pro campaign.

"We've got to do a little bit better job," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said.

Next up are a pair of rookies who've already established themselves as dangerous targets.

The Dolphins will have difficult matchups Monday night with New England Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Each is capable to doing damage.

Hernandez is more of a pure receiver, averaging 70.3 receiving yards per game. That ranks him fourth among all tight ends behind only Jermichael Finley, Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller and ahead of Dallas Clark.

Gronkowksi is the bigger red-zone threat. He has a pair of touchdowns, tying him for third in the league. On the Patriots, he has one fewer touchdown than Randy Moss and Wes Welker.

"They've done a very good job," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "Both are very young in age. I think one of them is 20 (Hernandez) and one just turned 21 (Gronkowski). So for young players, it's pretty neat to find them playing such a great role on our offense.

"With each week, I think they are gaining a little more confidence in what they're doing through the experience that they're having, and we're relying on them every week to be playmakers for us."

The Patriots were one of the few teams who didn't get in on the tight end passing party last year.

As gaudy as the aforementioned 2009 tight end stats versus the Dolphins looked, the Patriots actually improved the averages. Benjamin Watson and Chris Baker combined for only five receptions and 55 yards in two games against Miami.

Tight ends tearing apart the Dolphins in the middle of the field -- think of Clark's seven-catch, 183-yard night -- were a major reason they made so many offseason defensive changes. The Dolphins fired coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. They released linebackers Akin Ayodele and Reggie Torbor and safety Gibril Wilson because they were responsible for so many big plays.

Keller exploited the Dolphins on Sunday night. He helped the Jets post a big road victory with six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. The Dolphins did shut him out after the intermission, but that wasn't soon enough.

Sparano knows he'll have problems again Monday night.

"It's difficult, no question about it," Sparano said of Hernandez and Gronkowski. "I think you can try a lot of ways, but with the Patriots you've got to kind of pick your poison a little bit. You can go out there and maybe try to double one of those guys, but then you could expose yourself with Randy or with Wes or with any of those people. You've got to be a little bit careful."

Mike Nolan here to rouse Dolphins defense

August, 5, 2010
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Mike Nolan Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Dolphins are excited about the aggressive defense Mike Nolan brought to Miami.
DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins were compelled to overhaul their defense.

They ranked 22nd in yards allowed last year. Only six teams, most of them scrubby, allowed more points or generated fewer turnovers. They gave up back-breakingly large chunks of real estate almost every week.

Their attitude in training camp, however, isn't about merely improving on defense. The Dolphins plan to be great.

New coordinator Mike Nolan is the primary reason.

"He's going to put a top-five defense on the field," said Dolphins defensive end Marques Douglas. "If we don't do that, we're not living up to our potential. Coaches don't play on Sunday, but the scheme is tried and true. If we're not top three at the end of the year, it's on us."

Much of the offseason attention in South Florida -- before LeBron James came along -- was on new receiver Brandon Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

But the Dolphins' greatest pickup could turn out to be Nolan, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach with an impeccable defensive résumé. He's entering his 13th season as a coordinator, coming to Miami to reinvigorate a unit that receded under Paul Pasqualoni.

"It's not a stagnant defense," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said of the change. "Last year, some of the games you knew what we were going to do. I would know what the coach was going to call before he calls it.

"Mike Nolan has so many different calls and blitzes and ways to attack. He mixes it up. Corners get a chance to blitz. Safeties get a chance to blitz. Defensive tackles and ends are covering people. It's fun to learn and fun to be in because you're always doing something new and not just banging your head against a wall."

Nolan's 3-4 defense is built on all-inclusive aggression. He'll blitz his players from anywhere. He orders them to fly to the football, create turnovers and have an offensive attitude. But he also encourages them to shake off calls and make suggestions.

While defense has some inherent reactionary elements, Nolan is more interested in dictating terms.

"We'll establish the foundation and the core of what we do, but what the players do with things will be important," Nolan said in a rare interview at Dolphins training camp. "One thing about our system is everybody gets turns.

"If they're good and playing fast, you're going to enjoy it. When you're good at something, you're having fun."

(Read full post)

Karlos Dansby making strong impression

August, 1, 2010
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Without so much as a single Pro Bowl appearance -- not even in last season's diluted exhibition -- the Miami Dolphins made Karlos Dansby the highest-paid inside linebacker in NFL history in March, when they signed the Arizona Cardinals free agent.

Dansby
Dansby
He has been showing his worth so far.

Dolphins coach Tony Sparano was asked Sunday who has popped out in the early days of training camp.

Sparano had one name in mind.

"I've been really impressed with what's happened with Dansby," Sparano said. "The combination of him and Channing [Crowder] right now, when you're watching them communicate and you're watching them go through what they're going through in the huddle together, has been really impressive to me."

The Dolphins identified inside linebacker as a major weakness for them at the end of the season. They released starter Akin Ayodele and top reserve Reggie Torbor. They fired defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.

And they threw a pile of money at Dansby, the best inside linebacker in this year's free-agent class despite a lack of individual honors. His contract is for five years and $43 million.

Dansby's instincts have struck Sparano most of all.

"When Karlos sees it, he pulls the trigger right away," Sparano said. "And some people, they don't do that. They see it, and they don't quite pull the trigger, and now there's a missed tackle or it's an almost. ... With him, he sees it pretty fast and gets there in a hurry.

"I think it's rare when you find some of those kinds of players that have that ability."

Miami's ballhawks on hunt for loose balls

June, 11, 2010
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DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins' defense isn't fooling around.

While it might look like they're clowning in team workouts, they most certainly aren't.

[+] EnlargeVontae Davis
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMICornerback Vontae Davis' pick-six from 2009 is the type of aggressive play Mike Nolan is trying to cultivate.
There's a reason Dolphins defenders are pouncing on incomplete downfield passes like fumbles. They're scooping up the dead balls and dashing the other direction, looking to lateral on their way toward the opposite end zone.

"It started out a little bit frustrating because an incomplete pass, you figure the play's dead," Dolphins receiver Greg Camarillo said with a laugh. "Here these guys are, taking off with the ball, and we have to go chase them down."

New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has instituted the "every ball is in play" philosophy to instill a more aggressive mentality. Nolan's approach follows the principle that dictates you practice how you want to play.

"We're so used to going and getting that ball when it's on the ground," said Pro Bowl safety Yeremiah Bell, "I wouldn't be surprised if we're in a game on Sunday, the pass is incomplete and somebody's picking it up.

"That's how hungry we are for the football. We're in that mindset."

The approach seemed to work for Nolan last year, his lone season running the Denver Broncos' defense. The Broncos were tied for fifth with 13 fumble recoveries and tied for 13th in interceptions with 17.

The year before Nolan arrived, the Broncos ranked 26th in fumble recoveries with seven and second-to-last in interceptions with six.

In two years under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, the Dolphins were decent in 2008, then slipped seriously.

They had six fumble recoveries last year, one more than the dead-last Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins tied for 16th in interceptions with 15.

"It's ballhawking," Bell said. "We just have the attitude of attacking. We're not going to let the offense dictate to us. We're going to dictate some things to those guys. We're going to make them change, according to what we do.

"We just want to be offensive in our approach. When that ball's on the ground or in the air, we want it."

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan instituted a similarly aggressive approach in training camp last year, instructing his defenders on the proper way to lateral on an interception or fumble return.

"When it works, it's great," Ryan explained of his laterals last summer. "When it doesn't work you kind of look like a fool because you're giving the ball back. We don't want to be reckless with it, but we do want to be aggressive."

That risky approach was something former Jets coach Eric Mangini never would have stood for. Ryan said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome wasn't a fan of that aggressive mindset when Ryan replaced Nolan as defensive coordinator there.

Dolphins coach Tony Sparano admitted it took him a while to get used to jumping on incomplete passes in practices.

"You play some of these defenses in this league that are really good and you make a mistake," Sparano said, "and the next thing you know they're turning it over into points against you. Our defense is starting to develop that mentality."

Mike Nolan could be Miami's best pickup

May, 26, 2010
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The collection of distinguished players the New York Jets assembled over the offseason is tough to match.

But you want to compare just the top two players any club acquired, then the Miami Dolphins would be in the discussion with receiver Brandon Marshall and inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

And if you want to consider newcomers not in uniform, then it would be difficult to find teams that had better offseasons than the Dolphins.

The reason for that is defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

Miami Herald reporter Barry Jackson talked with players and analysts about what Nolan will mean for Miami.

"Nolan does more things than [previous defensive coordinator] Paul Pasqualoni,'' said defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday, who played under Pasqualoni in 2008 and under Nolan with the Denver Broncos last year. "Coach P wasn't as experienced a coordinator.

"Nolan blitzes more than Pasqualoni and he'll attack people as long as you don't give up the big play. The Dolphins' success will depend on the secondary holding up one-on-one. Nolan is really good, a guy you want to play for.''

What could flip Taylor's Jets hate to love?

April, 7, 2010
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Throughout his career with the Miami Dolphins, star pass-rusher Jason Taylor didn't conceal his contempt for the New York Jets.

In a collection of comments posted earlier, Taylor calls Jets fans "ignorant," their stadium a "hellhole" and their famous "J-E-T-S! Jets! Jets! Jets!" chant "dumb-ass."

"Some Jets fans take the 'c-l' out of class," is another Taylor quote.

[+] EnlargeJason Taylor
Doug Murray/Icon SMIJason Taylor would be a nice fit as a pass-rush specialist in the Jets' 3-4 schemes.
So what could possibly change Taylor's mind enough to swallow those words and sign a contract with the Jets?

He's not desperate. It's early April. The Dolphins reportedly have talked to him about re-signing. The Jets are bound by the "final eight" plan and can't throw fistfuls of money at him.

But there are reasons Taylor could be swayed, and much of it has to do with the dynamic culture the Jets have fostered.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan: Not even Dolphins inside linebacker Channing Crowder could remain upset with Ryan.

They publicly feuded last summer, but Crowder developed a genuine respect for Ryan as a defensive master and fun-loving dude.

"It's hard for me to say this, but I'm honest. I like Rex now," Crowder told me the week before the Super Bowl. "He's a funny guy. He first became a head coach, [their feud] was one of the first things that happened. I was like 'Who's this guy?' That's when everything kind of manifested.

"Now that I see what kind of guy he is, he seems like a funny guy, a funny coach. I'm starting to lean towards ol' Rex. I might give him a hug when I see him."

Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery made a similar point with me last week while talking about Ryan's role in making the Jets a team opposing fans love to hate. Cotchery noted players around the league are envious of the atmosphere Ryan has cultivated.

"A lot of players don't experience that fun," Cotchery said. "There are some people on the other sidelines who are jealous."

A new stadium and headquarters: The Jets' training facility isn't two years old yet, and they're moving into a dazzling new Meadowlands stadium this year. Those who have toured the $1.6 billion structure have been amazed.

"I was blown away," Ryan said of his first tour. "The stadium is massive. It's just a great place to watch a game, and I can't wait to play a game in that stadium with our fans rocking. If our fans come out the way they did for the last Cincinnati game and the first New England game, whoo, are we going to be tough to beat."

The Jets' defense is in much better shape: The Jets boasted the NFL's top-rated total defense, scoring defense and passing defense in 2009. Their defense was the backbone of a team that reached the AFC Championship Game, and there's no reason to think it won't be great again this year.

Taylor would be a great fit as a pass-rush specialist in Ryan's aggressive 3-4 schemes.

"That would be an excellent acquisition," Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson wrote to me in an e-mail. "My worry is that Taylor would wear down, but they have enough bodies at the position to keep him fresh. Plus, he would have to be a good influence on Vernon Gholston -- you would think, at least.

"Taylor isn't as explosive as he once was, for sure. But he does understand how to set up blockers and is a pretty cerebral player overall. He keeps containment well, feels blocking schemes and can be pretty stout versus the run.

"He would make an excellent defense even better."

The Dolphins' defense, meanwhile, ranked 22nd last year and is in a state of flux. It could turn out to be formidable under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and with prize free-agent Karlos Dansby, but the unit has been overhauled. Gone are defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, outside linebackers coach Jim Reid and inside linebackers coach George Edwards.

Also gone from the front seven are outside linebacker Joey Porter, a captain, and inside linebacker Akin Ayodele. Another defensive captain, nose tackle Jason Ferguson, will be suspended the first eight games of the season.

It's the Big Apple: Taylor doesn't plan to retire into anonymity when his playing days are over. The reason he accepted an invitation to compete on "Dancing With the Stars" in 2008 was to help lay a foundation for a career in the entertainment industry.

The Jets recently were selected to be the featured club for this year's edition of "Hard Knocks" on HBO. Taylor, with his striking looks and on-field résumé, would be one of the leading characters.

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Summarizing the Dolphins' tackling woes

March, 11, 2010
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In pouring over ProFootballFocus.com researcher Sam Monson's data on missed tackles, what stood out most of all was the abysmal season the Miami Dolphins had in that area.

We knew the Dolphins had trouble tackling, but to see where their players ranked was disconcerting.

They were near the bottom at cornerback and inside linebacker and had an erratic safety.

Tackle data is subjective. The NFL declines to acknowledge tackles as an official stat. The league does list unofficial numbers on NFL.com, but teams generally keep track of their own when coaches break down game film. Team figures are what I quote when writing a story.

It should be pointed out that tallying missed tackles is even more subjective, but when criteria is applied uniformly, then I believe there is value in seeing how players compare.

The Dolphins were atrocious, and the misses certainly contributed to the Dolphins' decision to fire defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. Inside linebackers coach George Edwards (now Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator) and outside linebackers coach Jim Reid (now University of Virginia's defensive coordinator) also left.

Here are Miami's lowlights from Monson's spreadsheet on a stat called "tackle inefficiency rating," which factors solo tackles and missed tackles:

  • Inside linebackers Channing Crowder and the recently released Akin Ayodele ranked 114th and 106th, respectively, in TIR among 117 graded linebackers (inside and outside).
  • Rookies Sean Smith and Vontae Davis ranked 82nd and 54th, respectively, in TIR among 88 graded cornerbacks.
  • Free safety Gibril Wilson, cut the same day as Ayodele, had a mediocre TIR. But Wilson missed seven tackles through the first six games. His miscues were glaring in Miami's 2-4 start.
Dolphins coach Tony Sparano sounded exasperated after a particularly poor tackling performance in a critical loss to the Houston Texans in Week 16.

"What I'm surprised of -- and this is my fault; this is what I'm disappointed in me for -- is that I take great pride in the fact that we work our team hard enough, and that our team gets better as the season goes on," Sparano said. "We didn't get better in that phase. We didn't get better fundamentally. We didn't tackle well enough."

Dansby couldn't refuse Parcells, Nolan

March, 6, 2010
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Edgar Thompson of the Palm Beach Post and Jeff Darlington from the Miami Herald managed to get Karlos Dansby on the phone while the brand-spanking-new Miami Dolphins linebacker took a break from house hunting in South Florida.

Dansby should be able to buy a pretty house in that soft market. He made $17 million guaranteed over the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. The Dolphins made him the NFL's highest-paid inside linebacker Friday with a five-year deal worth $43 million and $22 million in guarantees.

Dansby said he made the Dolphins his only free-agent visit because he wanted to play for Bill Parcells.

The money probably didn't hurt.

"I could be a part of something special," Dansby told Thompson. "How can you pass on being great?"

Dansby also expressed excitement about playing for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. I wonder if the Dolphins' would have been able to deliver a sales pitch with the same zing if Paul Pasqualoni were still the coordinator.

"Mike Nolan has been around. Why not go and play for somebody like that?" Dansby said. "How can I pass on the opportunity to learn something and get better as a player and a person?"

Dansby told Darlington he will play inside with Channing Crowder, a player some have wondered about. Crowder was uninspiring last year and seemed to side with outside linebacker Joey Porter in a public feud with the team that forced Porter's ouster.

"I'm looking forward to playing with [Crowder]," Dansby told Darlington. "And we've got a lot of young outside guys with a lot of talent. I'm looking forward to playing with those young guys. They'll keep me motivated!''

Dansby comes in with a huge contract and, by extension, Parcells' blessing as the defensive centerpiece. But Dansby indicated nothing else is owed to him in Miami.

"It's a challenge," Dansby told Thompson. "But it's going to have to be something that's earned. You can't come in and say you're a captain. You can't come in and say I'm their leader.

"You have to earn those guys' respect. I’m up for that challenge."

Fins drop Porter, Ayodele, Wilson

March, 5, 2010
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If you weren't convinced the Miami Dolphins were going to overhaul their defense before, then you should realize it now.

The Dolphins fired their defensive coordinator in January and released three starters on Friday: outside linebacker Joey Porter, inside linebacker Akin Ayodele and safety Gibril Wilson. All three started at least 14 games last year, but they won't play for new coordinator Mike Nolan.

Porter's discharge was expected. The Dolphins dumped Porter three weeks ago, but the NFL reversed the move because the Dolphins would have been in violation of the salary cap. The salary cap disappeared on Friday because of the peculiar rules related to the league entering the final year of its collective bargaining agreement.

Wilson and Ayodele ranked second and third on the team in tackles, but as former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper told me recently, they repeatedly gave up big plays because of breakdowns at inside linebacker and safety.

"Forced fumbles, interceptions, fumble recoveries, they just don’t give you any productivity," Bokamper said, "and they got exposed from a coverage standpoint, whether it was a running back out of the backfield or a tight end running down the middle of the field. The blame has to be shared between the linebackers and the safeties."

The Dolphins also could lose free-agent outside linebacker Jason Taylor, a starter for 12 games last year. They reportedly aren't interested in re-signing free-agent nickel back Nate Jones, who started five games.

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 3, 2010
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» NFC Schemes/Themes: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Schemes and themes.

Buffalo Bills: As if the Bills didn't have enough holes to fill, they've chosen to overhaul their defense. New coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator George Edwards are converting a Tampa 2 defense into a 3-4. They're missing the keystone of that scheme, a blocker-absorbing nose tackle. Logic would suggest the Bills draft either a nose tackle or an offensive tackle with the ninth overall pick, but they had the need for a left tackle last year and selected pass-rusher Aaron Maybin with the 11th pick. The 3-4 switch is good news for Maybin because he was invisible as a rookie and projects better as an outside linebacker. Still, the Bills will need to infuse that position with more talent in this transformation.

Miami Dolphins: Because quarterbacks coach David Lee and offensive coordinator Dan Henning were the Wildcat innovators, many look at their draft needs through that prism. They didn't disappoint the prognosticators last year when they reached to draft scat quarterback Pat White in the second round for the purposes of using him in their direct-snap offense. I'd be surprised if the Dolphins drafted for Wildcat purposes again this year. White's selection was a disappointment. He was no threat as a passer, and the coaches couldn't figure out a way to use him. Another theme to watch is how the Dolphins draft linebackers. They didn't like the way their linebackers performed under defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni, inside linebackers coach Edwards (now with the Bills) and outside linebackers coach Jim Reid. All three coaches are gone.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have incredible flexibility entering the draft with four selections among the top 53 slots. They can go any direction they choose, but will Bill Belichick keep his picks or barter them? The Patriots have tweaks to make all over the place, particularly on defense. Fortunately for the organization, Belichick has a much better success rate when it comes to identifying defensive players early. Some of the Patriots biggest draft mistakes on Belichick's watch have been on offense. They found a keeper with left guard Logan Mankins, but didn't connect on such prospects as tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson and receivers Chad Jackson and Bethel Johnson. Running back Laurence Maroney has been a contentious pick, too.

New York Jets: General manager Mike Tannenbaum said at the NFL scouting combine Friday the organization isn't placing any extra importance on collecting draft picks, but the Jets need to sow young talent onto their roster. Over the past three years, the Jets have traded away most of their draft picks to move up in the order and select players such as cornerback Darrelle Revis, linebacker David Harris, quarterback Mark Sanchez and running back Shonn Greene -- all successes to date. But their ranks have been thinned with only three draft picks last year and 13 since 2007. The Jets have used undrafted free agents and castoffs from other teams to fill out their roster, a philosophy that's difficult to maintain for the long haul. The Jets also are affected by the "final eight" plan that prevents them from signing unrestricted free agents until they lose one. A plump draft class would do the Jets wonders.

Rex Ryan monitoring Bills' 3-4 switch

February, 28, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is keeping an eye on the Buffalo Bills' defensive makeover.

The Bills are converting from a 4-3 defense under new head coach Chan Gailey and coordinator George Edwards. That will turn the AFC East into a unanimous 3-4 division.

The Bills ran a Tampa 2 defense under former head coach Dick Jauron and his interim replacement, Perry Fewell.

Ryan, considered one of the finest 3-4 masterminds, noted the transformation can be smooth.

"I guess that depends on 'Are you changing coverages or is it just the front you are changing?'" Ryan said Saturday at the NFL scouting combine in Lucas Oil Stadium. "There are several different versions of a 3-4. But it depends on your style.

"If the coverages are staying the same, it probably is not as big of a change as what you might think."

The problem for Buffalo, however, is that they're missing the centerpiece of a 3-4 defense: a monstrous nose tackle to stuff the run.

"That might be one of the toughest parts of a 3-4," Ryan said.

Ryan went on to explain why.

(Football jargon alert! "Two-gap responsibility" means a defensive lineman is responsible for either opening beside the offensive lineman in front of him. "A-gap" means the area on either side of the center, a location where defensive linemen frequently will get double-teamed by a center and a guard.)

"If you are playing a standard 3-4 defense, then you got a two-gap responsibility, which means you got to be able to play the front-side A-gap and the backside A-gap at the same time," Ryan said.

"You generally need a dominant individual there. And that is what you have like a Kris Jenkins. A Ted Washington many years ago in Buffalo was one of the best two-gappers I have ever seen.

"A guy has to be active, got to be able to stay on his feet, his technique on releasing off of blocks has got to be outstanding. If not, you are really going to struggle at that spot."

The Jets are the only AFC East team that didn't make a change at defensive coordinator.

The Miami Dolphins fired Paul Pasqualoni and snatched Mike Nolan away from the Denver Broncos. Although the New England Patriots' defense belongs to head coach Bill Belichick, coordinator Dean Pees stepped down in January.

Nolan was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator when Ryan was their defensive line coach. When Nolan left to become head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, Ryan was appointed defensive coordinator.

Ryan, never afraid to throw out a challenge, was deferential when asked about facing Nolan twice a year.

"He's outstanding," Ryan said. "He's one of the top coordinators in the league. I learned a ton working under Mike for several years. He's one of my favorite guys. That was a great hire.

"He's always had a well-coached team that really gets after it. I'm sure that's the way it'll be. It's going to be tough."

Fins safety Bell eager to work for Nolan

January, 27, 2010
1/27/10
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Miami Dolphins strong safety Yeremiah Bell isn't simply basking in his Pro Bowl experience. He's already scouting for 2010.


AP Photo/Jeffrey M. BoanDolphins safety Yeremiah Bell is hoping to pad his sack stats under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Bell spent part of Wednesday's practice talking with Denver Broncos safety Brian Dawkins about new Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, who coached the Broncos in 2009.

Bell liked what he heard.

"I sat with Brian and, being that me and him play the same position, he told me that I'd be very happy with Coach Nolan," Bell said. "He's a guy that wants to get it done, a guy who's very fiery, a great overall football coach.

"Brian said that, playing strong safety, Coach Nolan will do some things I would like and I should have fun next year."

Bell is an aggressive player, and Nolan's defenses are about attacking.

Nolan made an impact in his lone season with the Broncos. Before he arrived, they were 26th in the league with 26 sacks. Their sack total grew to 39 this season, ranking 10th.

Bell has 7.5 career sacks, the franchise record for defensive back. He's already pumped at the idea of padding that total.

"Oh, I'd love to do that," Bell said. "If there's anything I like doing, it's blitzing.

"Brian was telling me if he has a guy that he thinks is a playmaker, then he'll put him in certain situations. I'm excited to see where it goes."

As energized as he sounded about Nolan's arrival, Bell wasn't pleased to learn the Dolphins fired defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni.

The Dolphins ranked 25th in scoring defense, 22nd in total defense and 24th in pass defense. Bell attributed their ineffectiveness to poor play and circumstances -- not coaching.

"We had a bad year overall," Bell said. "We were too inconsistent. You don't want to put that blame on Paul Pasqualoni. One thing about us is we have a very young team. This year, we had veteran guys get hurt. That set us back more than anything.

"We gave up too many big plays just by things we did. It wasn't scheme. It was us not playing the right technique or blowing an assignment. If we could've kept those plays to a minimum, our record would've probably turned out much better than it did."

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