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The Miami Dolphins defense looks like it’s back. A historic run could hinge on it

·4 min read

The Dolphins’ win over the Carolina Panthers was the complementary performance that had eluded the team all season and brought them closer to the AFC playoff picture.

The offense has improved with the return of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa over the course of the four-game winning streak but the road to a historic run that sees the Dolphins rise from a 1-7 start to a playoff appearance — no team in NFL history has ever done so — may still hinge on the play of its defense.

After struggling in the first half of the season, the Dolphins defense during the winning streak has allowed an average of 287 yards, 16.3 points per game, and has forced an average of 2.5 turnovers. Projected over the course of an entire season, all those numbers would rank top-two in the NFL.

“I think it’s everybody buying in and setting that high standard, and everybody coming in and buying in and doing their job to the best of their ability,” linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel said of the defense’s turnaround. “Trusting that the guy behind you and the guy beside you that they are going to do their job.”

The past two seasons have shown that the Dolphins’ success is often closely tied to that of the defense. This season, the Dolphins are 5-0 when allowing 17 points or fewer this season and 0-7 when allowing more. Dating to last season, the team is 12-0 when allowing 17 points or fewer and 3-13 when the opposing team scores more than 17. In last Sunday’s 33-10 win over the Panthers, the defense forced three turnovers and limited Carolina’s offense to under 200 yards.

As the team tried to weather the storm of seven consecutive losses, defensive players frequently spoke about getting back to what they do best. The Week 8 game against the Buffalo Bills, albeit a loss, inspired some hope that the defense was getting back to its old ways. The defense held quarterback Josh Allen and the Bills offense to a season-low 122 total yards in the first half and cornerback Xavien Howard said after the game that he felt the first half marked a return to the team’s blitz-happy and man coverage-heavy tendencies that allowed them to lead the league in takeaways last season.

Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, asked earlier in the season about the defense’s shift to more zone coverage and less blitzing, defended the change by saying every season is different and that his unit needed to adjust as other teams found ways to counter what they did in 2020. But as the trajectory of the entire season changed, a return to familiar ways has come with it. According to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins defense is blitzing on 46.2 percent of passing plays during the winning streak.

The defense’s resurgence hasn’t come without a few new wrinkles, though. The unit’s standout performance against quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens included a unique game plan, blitzing young safeties Jevon Holland Brandon Jones at a rate unseen in recent memory. Jerome Baker, normally a fixture at inside linebacker, has spent more time lining up on the edge, where the team has made use of his speed and athleticism.

“I think it gives us versatility,” coach Brian Flores said. “His versatility gives us flexibility to move him around so we talk about that every week. [We want] the best spot to play really every player but specifically with Jerome.”

While it may be unreasonable to expect the Dolphins defense to maintain the standard of the last month, many of the quarterbacks that await the unit over the final five games of the season won’t evoke fear of a major drop-off, starting with Sunday’s game against the New York Giants.

Mike Glennon will start for the injured Daniel Jones and after the Dolphins’ bye week, they will face New York Jets rookie Zach Wilson, who has struggled recently, and then either the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill or Trevor Siemian on “Monday Night Football.” The final two games of the season against the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots, when the Dolphins could conceivably be 8-7, may ultimately be their toughest quarterback matchups, with former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie Mac Jones, respectively.

However, Flores’ “one day at a time” mantra rings even louder for a team with very little margin of error.

“They’re really talented. They got a lot of great skill guys,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said of the Giants. “They got a good, strong, tough O-line. We’re definitely going to have to be prepared and have a great week of practice. I feel like we’re going in the right direction with that today but just a lot of work to do. We can’t take these guys lightly. We can’t focus on anything else but the task at hand because they’re a really good team and they got a lot of weapons. They’ve competed with some really good teams so we’re going to have to play our best game this season this week.”

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