At the start of the season, the Miami Dolphins had several questions on defense. Per Armando Salguero’s blog post and column in July, the cornerbacks for the Dolphins were told to stick with receivers or better yet…”just hold on.”
In addition, the comeback trail for Cam Wake was muddied somewhat in weeks 1-4 as he was used only on passing downs and played a limited number of snaps like a pitcher held to a pitch count in baseball coming back from elbow surgery.
Likewise the recent additions in a stunner of a trade of draft picks with the Philadelphia Eagles for two outcasts: one often injured linebacker in Kiko Alonso and yet another an overpaid cornerback in Byron Maxwell didn’t seem to fit nor understand what it meant to help this defense.
Alonso’s debut versus the New York Giants demonstrated a lack of understanding Vance Joseph’s complicated scheme and featured several missed tackles.
Maxwell’s truer colors showed during the Dolphins first game of the season in Seattle, where he was more hands on (not in a good way) and shied away from tackling. Some critics vocally wondered if he should have been cut weeks earlier. Maxwell was benched for the week 4 contest in favor of inexperienced Tony Lippett.
However, a funny thing happened to the Dolphins with the Dolphins struggling on defense, the offense complemented the struggles and began turning the ball over via fumbles and Ryan Tannehill interceptions.
The season went down the tubes or at least appeared to.
That’s when the going got tough and the Dolphins started to believe. The Dolphins started to trust their training, trust their coaches, and most of all trust each other.
At 1-4, the Dolphins hit bottom and found their way to the top, all because of Jay Ajayi who had been benched during week one and was left home in Florida. It’s no accident, but Jay Ajayi has rushed for 847 yards and 7 touchdowns behind a mainly healthy bunch of hogs in the offensive line. Lamar Miller who?
The Dolphins featured new comer Andre Branch to fill in for Mario Williams who has done a splendid job collecting 4.5 sacks and 31 tackles.
Then defensive Jordan Phillips joined in on the fun who was really boom or bust with Ndamukong Suh playing his position, became a fixture stopping the run and then showing his athleticism after intercepting the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick and hurdling a defender on the run back.
What’s more, before the season Tony Lippett was barely on the 53 and he made strides to pick off two Phillip Rivers passes in the fourth quarter of the Dolphins’ first road win. When Xavien Howard went down with a knee issue, the Dolphin’s prized second round pick; Lippett was there to get the all important game reps. His first interception came after his teammate Jakeem Grant dropped a punt inside the 5 yard line and the Dolphins were up 21-17. A big play at the time because it put the Dolphins in a better field position and created a chance for the offense. Never mind that Lippett was a converted cornerback from being a darned good receiver as he earned accolades as a Big Ten Receiver of the year at Michigan State. Brent Grimes who???
None, however is bigger than the Alonso & Maxwell trade to move back in the draft. The two will be inextricably linked as the difference, at least defensively this season.
Alonso, last week as a linebacker had his best game as a Dolphin with an interception (2nd this season) and a fumble recovery to go along with 9 tackles.
What has made Alonso so good is his ability to attack and move to the point of contact. In coaching speak, he flies around the ball. Alonso in addition to his handiwork, has been in the film room and taken on the role of a vocal leader. He’s made the difference for this season. Never mind that Reshad Jones has been out since the Bills game week 6, as I believe that Alonso has filled that vocal void. Not to mention, Alonso has 90 tackles, and leads the team.
Returning to Maxwell, he’s now started to lock down on receivers and has shown his ability to make big plays when the Dolphins need a play to be made. In San Diego, he read Rivers and almost got a pick 6 after attacking the ball and set up better field possession. Just last week, Maxwell dared the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick to throw his way and knocked the ball away from the sleek Torrey Smith setting up one final play with two seconds remaining.
In all, this Dolphins team has persevered despite losses at key positions.
Right now, the Dolphins a team that on one wants to face, and that Next Man Up mentality is keeping them going strong.