Dolphins’ defense still runs the team, remains its best path to the playoffs – The Denver Post


After the Dolphins’ season-opening victory over New England, coach Mike McDaniel declared the team belongs to the defense.

The Dolphins’ 16-10 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday showed nothing has changed, six games later.

The defense, and the secondary, in particular, is the strength of the team, the reason the Dolphins are 4-3, and in the thick of the AFC playoff race.

The offense?

They’ve done a great job of selling season tickets and creating hype. Among quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, left tackle Terron Armstead, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, McDaniel and the rest of the crew, hey, nice job of getting publicity.

But this offense doesn’t produce enough touchdowns, and it doesn’t win games. Not yet, anyway.

The offense is more creative than ever. But it’s 21 points per game average is reminiscent of the Joe Philbin era, the 2012-14 seasons when the Dolphins averaged 18, 19.8 and 24.3 points per game, respectively.

In other words, at this point, if the Dolphins get to the playoffs, it’ll be because of the defense.

And the next few games set up especially well for the Dolphins defense to continue its team-carrying ways.

The Dolphins’ next four opponents are Detroit (1-5), Chicago (2-4), Cleveland (2-5) and Houston (1-4-1). None has a quarterback or offense that prompts fear, even though Detroit is ninth in scoring (24.3 points per game) and Cleveland is 10th (24.0 ppg).

Consider how the Dolphins’ injury-riddled defense, led by defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and the talent-rich secondary, clamped down on the Steelers.

Pittsburgh’s seven second-half possessions resulted in five punts and two interceptions.

You saw the defense, which lost safety Brandon Jones to a knee injury in the third quarter, lead against the Steelers, with interceptions by cornerback Justin Bethel, safety Jevon Holland and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, the last two coming in the game’s final three minutes and icing the victory that snapped a three-game losing streak.

“At first I didn’t think I caught it because the referee right there said it was out,” Igbinoghene said of his game-clinching play with 18 seconds left. “I saw the review, and I saw everybody get excited and I got excited as well. I got this interception, and it’s my first one. It’s a blessing.”

You also saw the defense lead with safety Clayton Fejedelem crashing through to make a crucial stop on a third-and-1 run by Steelers running back Najee Harris early in the fourth quarter.

“It was just a good defensive call,” Fejedelem said. “Edge pressure, third-and-1, I was able to come off the edge and time it up. Najee Harris is a great back, so to be able to get him on the ground, get out of there, it’s just capitalizing on those opportunities.”

And you saw the defense lead with guys such as safeties Verone McKinley and Eric Rowe and defensive lineman Ben Stille making contributions. McKinley and Stille, a pair of undrafted rookies, made their NFL debuts.

“You’re ready,” McKinley said of the mindset of a Dolphins reserve defensive player.

“When they say it’s time to go, you strap it up and say, ‘Let’s ride.’ ”

And then there were guys such as linebacker Jaelan Phillips (1.5 sacks) and Andrew Van Ginkel, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles apiece.

Holland talked about the defense’s ability to make “splash plays,” which are turnovers and big stops.

“I know as a defense all of our defensive players can make that ‘splash play’ no matter who you are,” he said. “And I think that happens in our preparation. And when our preparation meets opportunity, splash plays happen. And you see that today with Noah, with Justin Bethel, with [Phillips], with [Van Ginkel]. Guys are flying around.”

Understand something: Bethel, Fejedelem, Igbinoghene, McKinley and Stille aren’t starters, or even in the regular defensive rotation. They’re simply guys who follow the Dolphins’ defensive trend of making plays.

You know the guys who were missing from the secondary: cornerbacks Byron Jones (Achilles), Nik Needham (Achilles), Kader Kohou (oblique) and Keion Crossen (knee). And then they lost Brandon Jones during the game.

Yet, the defense, led by the secondary, still led the way to victory.

No, the defense can’t do it alone.

The offense must find its way eventually.

For that to happen, Hill, the obvious choice for team MVP and NFL’s leading receiver with 773 yards, must continue to ball. The same goes for Tagovailoa, Armstead and Waddle.

And the offense as a whole must be much better.

In the meantime, they can rely on the game-changing, game-winning qualities of the defense.

Because at the moment, it’s the best hope the Dolphins have for making the playoffs.



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