Tough Mudders The Dolphins got down and dirty, and beat the Steelers with the kind of defensive playmakers Jimmy Johnson always seems to unearth

September 27, 1998

The p.r. man issues the warning in the corridor on the way to
Jimmy Johnson's office: The interview with the Miami Dolphins
coach will be a brief one. It is 9:15 on Saturday morning, and
Johnson, the p.r. man explains, is not yet fully awake.

Turns out it's easy to get Johnson all wide-eyed and full of
life. Just ask him how he has built another speedy, marauding,
youthful defense from scratch, as he did when he was coach of
the Dallas Cowboys at the start of this decade.

He pops out of his chair and walks to a framed list hanging on
his office wall: 5 MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTERISTICS FOR DRAFT
CHOICES. The list was compiled by Johnson's staff, and of the
five entries--intelligence, work hard, playmaker, gym rat,
character--he seems to put the most emphasis on the middle one.
What Johnson wants to know, first and foremost, about every
potential draftee or free agent is, Does the guy make big plays?

When that question was asked about Louisville cornerback Sam
Madison before the 1997 draft, for example, the answer was yes.
Madison had set the school record for career interceptions, with
16, and the Dolphins selected him in the second round. On Sunday
at Pro Player Stadium there was Madison, tormenting Kordell
Stewart, twice intercepting the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback
in Miami's rain-soaked 21-0 rout of the defending AFC Central
champs.

The Dolphins and the Steelers entered the game with two wins
apiece over teams that aren't playoff caliber and viewed
Sunday's matchup as a reality check. The game was enlightening:
We learned that Miami's defense, which has given up a total of
22 points to its first three opponents, is the real thing, and
that Pittsburgh's offense is in real trouble. The Steelers' 14
possessions resulted in 10 punts, three interceptions and a
blocked field goal. In his worst outing as a pro, Stewart
completed 11 of 35 passes for 82 yards and had three
interceptions. When he wasn't throwing the ball too high or too
low or into double coverage, his wideouts were dropping it. On
fourth-and-22 in the third quarter, Stewart lined up in shotgun
formation and pooch-punted to the Dolphins' two-yard line. It
was his best play of the day.

"Their defense really showed me something today," said Pittsburgh
running back Jerome Bettis, whom the Dolphins held to 48 yards on
13 carries. "I mean those guys are quick. But that's a Jimmy
Johnson defense for you."

Yes, while his successor in Dallas is out of football and his
proteges are floundering in Washington and Chicago, Johnson is
getting it done in Miami, where he has not only assembled a
terrific young defense but has also taught an old dog a few new
tricks. Five days after his 37th birthday, Dolphins quarterback
Dan Marino handed off 37 times and threw 22 passes against the
Steelers, completing 14 for 113 yards and one touchdown (no
interceptions). While less dramatic than the aerial onslaughts
that Marino executed during his first 15 seasons in Miami, the
current Dolphins scheme has fewer moving parts and less room for
error. Karim Abdul-Jabbar rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown
on 33 carries; his first-quarter fumble was only the second
Miami turnover this season.

These days the fireworks begin when the Dolphins defense takes
the field, as the Buffalo Bills' Rob Johnson can attest. Johnson,
one of the NFL's most mobile quarterbacks, was sacked eight times
in Miami's 13-7 win on Sept. 13. With Madison and fellow corner
Terrell Buckley in man-to-man coverage, and human credenzas Tim
Bowens and Daryl Gardener occluding the rushing lanes up the
middle, the rest of the defense swarms to the ball. The tsunami
of big plays that rolled over the Bills conjured memories of--dare
we say it?--Johnson's great Dallas defenses. Although he was
sacked just once on Sunday, Stewart was pressured and clobbered
numerous times.

Nailing Stewart for the sack was 6'6", 265-pound rookie
defensive end Lorenzo Bromell. Remember that name. In a
preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he astounded his
coaches and teammates by bull rushing 340-pound guard Frank
Middleton into the lap of Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer. Against
the Bills in his first regular-season game, Bromell had two
sacks. With Pittsburgh facing third-and-17 midway through the
fourth quarter, Bromell bowled over left tackle Will Wolford and
pressured Stewart into rushing a throw that slipped out of his
hand and traveled all of five feet.

Three sacks in two games isn't bad for a guy who spent two years
at Georgia Military College before transferring to Clemson.
Bromell started for the Tigers his senior year but was not
invited to the NFL scouting combine last February. Johnson,
acting on a tip from Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie
Herring, an old friend who had been on his staff at Oklahoma
State, selected Bromell in the fourth round after moving up 10
spots in a draft day trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.

If the Dolphins have a better pass rusher than Bromell, it is
260-pound Jason Taylor, a '97 third-round draft pick out of Akron
whom Johnson believes may be the quickest defensive end in the
league. That was Taylor terminating the Steelers' first
possession by running Stewart down from behind four yards short
of a first down; Taylor knocking left guard Alan Faneca on his
duff in the second quarter; and Taylor batting down a Stewart
pass later in the second period. "Jason has a kind of Charles
Haley body," Johnson says. Haley, of course, earned five Super
Bowl rings, the last three while playing for Johnson and the
Cowboys.

While on the subject of his old team last Saturday, Johnson
reminded his visitor of some of the obscure college players he
unearthed while in Dallas. Take Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon
Lett, who was an unknown out of Emporia (Kans.) State. Johnson
liked Lett's combination of size and quickness and made him a
seventh-round pick in '91. "Anytime a guy has some height and can
run, he's got my attention," says Johnson. "That's what I want."

Johnson's hair may be rigid, but the thinking that goes on
beneath it is not. He has long spurned the NFL adage about
drafting the best player available. "We identify individuals who
fit into our system," Johnson says. By sticking to that
strategy, "we avoid wasting a pick on someone we're not that
excited about. Plus, a lot of times we can trade down, get an
extra pick and still get someone we want." In three drafts with
Miami he has parlayed 25 draft choices into 36 selections. It is
with the relish of a skilled garage sale scavenger that he makes
this observation: "There's some real quality in the middle
rounds."

In the bargain bin that was the fifth round of the '96 draft,
Johnson took truncated Texas Tech linebacker Zach Thomas.
Overlooking Thomas's lack of height--he goes 5'11", 235
pounds--Johnson focused instead on his nose for the ball. All
Thomas did in his first two seasons as a pro was make 329
tackles. He was all over the field again on Sunday, making eight
tackles, forcing Stewart into an intentional grounding and
stepping in front of wideout Courtney Hawkins for a
third-quarter interception that he returned 17 yards for Miami's
final touchdown. To celebrate, Thomas fired the ball into the
aqua wall behind the end zone. "I didn't want to get fined, so I
didn't throw it in the stands," he said. "And I didn't want to
do a dance, because I have no rhythm."

For Stewart, whom Thomas spent the afternoon bedeviling,
September has been an arrhythmic month. In three games he has
completed 42 of 92 passes for 392 yards and two touchdowns, and
he has thrown six interceptions. After Sunday's game his
quarterback rating had dropped to a league-low 38.0.

What's wrong? What isn't?

While new offensive coordinator Ray Sherman did not replace the
system used by his predecessor, Cowboys coach Chan Gailey, he has
modified it. Sherman has Stewart throwing shorter passes and
running the ball less frequently than in '97, his first season as
a full-time starter. Last year Stewart averaged 12.8 yards per
completion, and he was the club's second-leading rusher, with 476
yards and 11 touchdowns on 88 carries. This season his average
per completion has dropped to 9.3 yards, and he has run for 42
yards and one score on 11 carries. Stewart's gifts are his
dazzling quickness and cannon arm, so Sherman's strategy would
seem to be counterproductive. Coach Bill Cowher's postgame vow to
"take a hard look at everything--everything" suggests that Sherman
may get a little more input than usual this week from the boss.

Nevertheless, after Sunday's loss there was neither
finger-pointing nor despair in the losers' dressing room. The
beaten visitors touched on several basic themes: Hey, we're 2-1.
We've gotten off to slow starts before. We'll bounce back. "No
panic," said Wolford. "Just disappointment."

And a bit of sheepishness. In the course of a routine bull rush
during the fourth quarter, Taylor slid his right hand up to
Wolford's face mask. When Taylor took his time removing his hand,
Wolford delivered a crisp uppercut to his jaw. The punch dropped
Taylor and betrayed the depth of Wolford's frustration. Not only
did Wolford get away with it, but Taylor was also flagged on the
play for illegal use of hands. Afterward, a grinning Wolford
claimed to be unable to recall the incident.

Taylor had played a strong game, and over in the Dolphins'
locker room the mention of Wolford's cheap shot riled Taylor.
"That's not part of the game," he said. A moment later Taylor
flashed the smile of a man who had lost the round but won the
fight.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Bogged down Pittsburgh's Fred McAfee couldn't slip away from Miami's Jerry Wilson (center) and Kenny Mixon. [Fred McAfee, Jerry Wilson, and Kenny Mixon lying on muddy football field]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Oops! Stewart (opposite) never got a grip on the offense, and Thomas (54) made him pay with an interception return for a touchdown. [Football slipping out of Kordell Stewart's hand while making pass attempt] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above--Zach Thomas with football is pursued by defenders] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Dead end McAfee had nowhere to go after the Dolphins' Shane Burton and Brock Marion gave him the high-low treatment. [Fred McAfee being tackled by Shane Burton and Brock Marion]

It is with the relish of a skilled garage-sale scavenger that
Johnson says, "There's some real quality in the middle rounds."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)