Philip Wheeler gets first start for Dolphins

AP Sports WriterSeptember 7, 2013 

DAVIE, Fla. -- Even before they've played a game together, the two new linebackers for the Miami Dolphins have formed a strong bond, overcoming differences in their backgrounds that could cause a rift.

Dannell Ellerbe attended Georgia, while Philip Wheeler went to Georgia Tech.

"He knows they never beat us, so we're all right," Ellerbe said.

"As long as he knows I'm smarter than him because I went to Georgia Tech, there's no problem," Wheeler said.

The Dolphins want their new tandem to do more than coexist. The ability of Wheeler and Ellerbe to disrupt plays with their blitzing skills is expected to result in more takeaways for a defense that found them tough to come by last year.

Miami signed the two free agents to five-year deals in March and parted with Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, the team's top two tacklers in 2012. Ellerbe received a $34.75 million contract, and Wheeler signed for $26 million.

That made them cheaper than Dansby and Burnett. They're also younger and faster.

"The thought was that we needed to get faster and more explosive and more physical at the point of attack," general manager Jeff Ireland said. "They're two guys that get their hands on a lot of balls, they play on all three downs, they're physical and they can run. It just made good sense to us."

The Dolphins will find out whether the change is an upgrade beginning Sunday, when they open the season at Cleveland.

Defense has been Miami's strength the past three years, but the unit slipped to 21st in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012, and the Dolphins tied for fourth-worst in takeaways with six fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions. Dansby and Burnett had none.

Ellerbe and Wheeler don't possess dazzling takeaways statistics, either. But the Dolphins believe the duo, along with Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake and top draft pick Dion Jordan, can be deployed in various pass-rushing combinations to force more mistakes by the offense.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle described Wheeler and Ellerbe as "difference-makers."

"We'll determine if we were right in terms of making the switch here as we go down the road," Coyle said. "Certainly what we've seen in practice are two guys who are very explosive, play physical and play a very aggressive style of game. They're very good blitzers, and we felt going into the offseason we had to improve in that area -- to get our linebackers more productive in the blitzes."

Wheeler and Ellerbe were inseparable for much of training camp, often walking on and off the field together and standing side by side when on the sideline.

"We are both learning, so we're going to need each other to get through this thing," Ellerbe said.

"I feel we're going to be a good tandem," Wheeler said.

"We know each other pretty well now. We're good friends, and we're going to have fun. He's fast, physical and smart. We play similar. We have the same mentality. I think we'll do well together."

Ellerbe is a fifth-year pro with only 14 career starts, but he earned rave reviews filling in for an injured Ray Lewis in 2012 and helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl. He had expected to remain with the Ravens, but they were unable to match the Dolphins' contract offer because of salary cap constraints.

Wheeler spent his first four NFL seasons with the Colts and played last season for the Raiders, where he had career highs of 109 tackles and three sacks. That makes Miami his third team in three years.

"It doesn't feel weird. It's kind of fun," he said. "I got to see three places, from the East Coast to the West Coast. I look at it as a positive.

"Now I'm on the East Coast and it feels good here. I love it. I'm not looking to go anywhere else anytime soon."

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