As they showed Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, the Miami Dolphins have the makings of a very good defense.
They’re hoping it didn’t slip away, too.
For three and a half quarters, all was falling into place for the Miami defense, the way it was supposed to last year before it did nothing but disappoint. New defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s four-man pass rush was bullying a battered Seattle offensive line, knocking Russell Wilson around and creating both a fumble and an interception. Mario Williams looked like Mario Williams the 4-3 defensive end again, and Cameron Wake was a limited but explosive version of the one reliable bet in Miami for so many years. The castaways they picked up in the offseason from Philadelphia, Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell, looked like bargain buys. The idea that Joseph could have a version of his old Cincinnati defense felt real.
Then Williams suffered a concussion. Second-year defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, in the heat of a breakout game, left with an ankle injury. The pass rush quieted down. The holes in the secondary started to shine, and a hobbled Wilson found them for a 75-yard touchdown drive in a 12-10 win.
And so now, the Dolphins are playing with the fire that is fleeting potential: Did they find the formula to win on Sunday against the Seahawks, or did they lose it?
With a healthy defensive line, it’s easy to see how the Dolphins could start to play like Joseph’s Bengals, who finished last year 10th in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Ndamukong Suh, who consistently drew double teams and stuffed inside runs, could be his Geno Atkins. Williams, who overpowered on the edges and chased Wilson all around the field, could be his Carlos Dunlap. Reshad Jones, who was equally effective on run blitzes and with plays on the ball, could be his Reggie Nelson. At least in theory, Joseph has the tools to marry the pass rush to the coverage the same way he did on his way up through the ranks as the Bengals defensive backs coach.
What he doesn’t have after just one draft is depth and a whole unit of quality starters, and it could be what holds everything back. If injuries to Earl Mitchell or Phillips turn into something much bigger, Suh could start to see the double teams and plays run away from him that minimized his impact last year, when Miami finished 25th in defensive DVOA. With Wake playing on limited snaps at 34 and coming off an Achilles tear, if Williams is held out for any length of time, the Dolphins could lack the pass rush to prevent their cornerbacks from getting picked apart.
It was only Week 1. The Seahawks were without first-round guard Germain Ifedi and were only slowly bringing running back Thomas Rawls and tight end Jimmy Graham along from injuries. The offensive line they rolled out looks like one of the worst in the league, and it played perfectly into the Dolphins’ hands.
But that’s the way Joseph wants to build a defense in Miami. He has said he wants it to be in the mold of Seattle’s. The Seahawks have posted four straight top-five finishes in yards allowed despite being one of the lesser disguised and confusing defenses out there. They simply line up and consume weaknesses with their strengths; they unleash their stars to wreak havoc on the opposing offense.
Joseph seems to be off to a nice start with assets most first-time coordinators don’t have. Suh, Wake and Williams create a defensive line with five combined First-Team All-Pro appearances. Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus make up perhaps the most underrated safety duo in the league. Maxwell and Alonso, acquired in an offseason trade with the Eagles, could fill the holes Miami used to have in the middle of the field if Joseph is able to limit them to only using their strengths the way he did for most of Sunday. It’s what teams with stars are able to do.
It came together Sunday, only to fall apart for one final 14-play, 75-yard game-winning drive. One game showcased the extreme possibilities of the Miami Dolphins, and they don’t just rest with Adam Gase, Ryan Tannehill and the much-discussed offense. They’re in Joseph’s hands, too.