Miami Night Football #MNF

For the second straight season, these two teams will square off in front of a national television audience on Monday Night Football, and Miami’s defense is the one unit that gave New England the most trouble last October. All but one starter from that defense returns, with the knowledge that in spite of the final score (a 41-14 loss) they frustrated Patriots quarterback and league MVP Tom Brady.

“I think playing against that defense last year that first game in Miami was as tough a game offensively as we had all year,” said Brady, who was sacked three times that night and went just 19-of-24 for 153 yards and one touchdown. “They’re an attacking style of defense. I think they have a bunch of different schemes, I think their coach (defensive coordinator Mike Nolan) really tries to utilize each of those guys to what they do best.”

In fact, Brady and his teammates were staring at a 7-6 deficit after one half of football and ended up being outgained by the Dolphins, 400-265 in total yards. All three players who sacked Brady – outside linebackers Cameron Wake and Koa Misi and defensive end Kendall Langford – will be lining up against him again tonight.

Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, one of four team captains, has a new partner next to him in Kevin Burnett. Last year in San Diego with the Chargers, he racked up six sacks for the NFL’s top-ranked defense and Dansby believes his addition can help push Miami’s defense closer to the top of the league rankings.

“I’ve got some talented guys around me and this might be the most talented defense I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “We’ve got Pro Bowl potential at every position and that’s rare. You don’t get too many opportunities to play on teams like that and once you do you’ve got to take full advantage of it. We’re pushing each other right now and that’s a real good thing.”

Nolan is in his second season as the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator and after seeing his unit finish 2010 ranked No. 6 overall he is eager to see how much better it can be. As Dansby explained, now that most of the guys under Nolan understand the basics of his system they can do a little more freelancing and mix things up.

Since Burnett played in a 3-4 in Dallas and San Diego it didn’t take him long to grasp Nolan’s playbook. Second-year defensive end Jared Odrick, who missed all but one quarter of one game last season with injuries, learned enough in the classroom to feel comfortable, so Nolan feels comfortable dipping deeper into his toolbox.

“I think experience in any unit is important so I’d like to think that our group plays better together than last season,” Nolan said. “As seasons change and you go to the next you’d just like to see the guys become more of a cohesive unit, even though we didn’t have an offseason.”

One familiar face on that side of the ball, at least to Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, is veteran outside linebacker Jason Taylor. He leads the NFL in sacks among active players with 132.5 and 10.5 of them had Brady on the other end, the most of any quarterback he’s faced.

Taylor, 37, is in his 15th season and is no longer a starter but will be used more on situational passing downs. He has kept himself in excellent shape and still has enough of a burst left to get around the edge and pressure the quarterback, so Brady is aware of what he will be facing overall in Miami’s pass rush.

“You really have to stay alert as everybody can pressure the quarterback. It’s really an explosive defense,” Brady said. “That line, Cameron Wake and Jason Taylor, he’s been a dominant player since the day he came into the league. So like I said with that athletic group of linebackers, they can really run. They really make a lot of plays on the ball. I know personally from throwing the ball up for Vontae Davis and Sean Smith that they’re going to come down with the ball if you make bad throws, so we have to be careful around them. It’s a tough challenge.”

Of course Nolan, Head Coach Tony Sparano and the entire defense knows that if there is one quarterback out there that welcomes this type of challenge it’s Brady. All he did last season in leading New England to a 14-2 record was throw for 3,900 yards, 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

Brady is at his most dangerous when he gets into a rhythm, like he did in the season finale against the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium in January. He completed 10-of-16 passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and had a 145.6 passer rating in a little more than one half of work, so making him uncomfortable is the key.

“It’s pretty difficult because of the guys in front of him. They do a really good job of protecting him,” Sparano said. “He does enough things in how he gets the ball out fast. They’re open in formation meaning they’ll be in empty but he gets the ball and gets it out so fast. He’s got a quick release and their whole thing is built on rhythm and timing and him getting it out fast, so those guys up front don’t have to hold up very long at times. That part of it is what’s rough. You got to get him to hold the football long enough to make him feel uncomfortable.”

Langford, nose tackle Paul Soliai and Pro Bowl defensive end Randy Starks are the ones entrusted with creating that initial pressure on the pocket. A strong push by those three, and a rotation of Odrick, Tony McDaniel and Phillip Merling, allows Wake, Misi and Taylor to get free around the edge and Dansby, Burnett and the occasional blitzing defensive back to disrupt the quarterback’s timing. That’s the aspect of Nolan’s approach that Burnett respects most.

“The thing I love about Mike Nolan is that he is going to let you make plays on your time, on your watch however you want to do it,” Burnett said. “I’m excited about that. He’s allowing us to go out there and play our game and make plays when we’re ready to.”

For Odrick, he’s real excited to show what he can do again after being forced to sit out virtually all of last season. He has spent extra time in practice working with Taylor and pass rushing coach Bryan Cox on his pass rushing moves.

Rushing the passer is something Wake has excelled it. His 14 sacks in 2010 were the third most in the NFL and earned him a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, so he expects more attention to come his way this season beginning tonight.

“There’s only really one way to do it. You put a guy between you and the ball and my job is to destroy that block and get to the ball,” Wake said. “If they send a second or third guy you approach it like it’s just another guy and it’s all second nature. I’ve got to do whatever I have to do to get to the ball.”

The earlier Wake and his teammates can get to Brady the better it will bode for Miami.

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