As Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson left the field at Pro
Player Stadium on Sunday, his body language said plenty about how
dominant the Miami Dolphins' defense has become. His aching right
elbow was bandaged, his eyes stared straight ahead with a
defeated glaze, and he plugged along at a deliberate pace,
looking like a man who had been sacked five times. In the
Dolphins' locker room, defensive end Jason Taylor shook his head
as he thought about what Johnson had been through. "Rob's a tough
guy," he said. "I even hurt myself sometimes when we hit him
hard. I know he had to be hurting out there, but then it's always
good to see a quarterback bleed."
The pain Johnson suffered was only a sample of the damage Miami,
which beat the Bills 22-13, has inflicted on the rest of the AFC
East. The Dolphins, whom most observers expected to finish around
.500, are 5-1 and boast the stingiest defense in the league (8.5
points per game). The three touchdowns they've allowed are the
fewest in the first six games of a season since the Atlanta
Falcons gave up the same number in 1977. "We're real tough in the
red zone, and that's what I like most about this defense," says
middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "Last year we would get rattled at
times in the red zone. Now, even if the other guys get the ball
on the one-yard line, we know there's a good chance they're not
getting into the end zone."
It would be easy to say that Miami, which started last season 7-1
and then dropped six of its last eight games, is teasing its fans
again. But even with an offense that has six new starters and
remains inconsistent, the Dolphins manhandled the Bills in a
manner suggesting that this is a team built to last. By limiting
Buffalo to 39 yards, Miami mustered a 13-3 halftime advantage--but
its biggest defensive plays were yet to come.
With the Bills pinned at their one-yard line early in the third
quarter, Dolphins defensive tackle Jermaine Haley crashed
through and dumped running back Jonathon Linton in the end zone
for a safety. Then early in the fourth quarter Buffalo had a
first-and-goal at the Miami five and couldn't get the ball
across the goal line; after three incomplete Johnson passes, the
Bills settled for Steve Christie's 23-yard field goal. Finally,
after Buffalo had pulled to 15-13 on fullback Sammy Morris's
three-yard touchdown run, Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain
stripped Morris of a pass reception, and fellow corner Sam
Madison picked the ball out of midair and returned it 20 yards
for the game-clinching touchdown with 4:45 left.
Miami finished with six sacks, three forced fumbles and an
interception. Johnson, who scrambled for a team-high 44 yards,
was hit so hard on one third-quarter play that on the next down
he couldn't handle the shotgun snap. Explaining later that he had
been "seeing colors," Johnson let the snap sail through his hands
but had enough presence of mind to recover the ball 10 yards
behind the line of scrimmage. Late in the game he experienced
such pain after being hit on his right elbow that Doug Flutie was
summoned to mop up.
The Dolphins ended the 1999 regular season ranked fifth in the
NFL in defense, but they got a wake-up call in the AFC divisional
playoffs when the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated them 62-7. Miami
players admit that they got sloppy, losing their technique and
forgetting fundamentals as the season wore on, so this year
they're staying focused in those areas.
Equally important to the Dolphins' success has been the influence
of their new coaching staff. When Dave Wannstedt replaced his
good friend Jimmy Johnson as Miami coach last Jan. 16, he gave
the defensive coordinator's job to Jim Bates, who had spent the
previous four seasons as a Dallas Cowboys assistant. The Dolphins
implemented the same aggressive scheme that Wannstedt had
designed as the defensive coordinator under Johnson at the
University of Miami in the late 1980s and with the Cowboys in the
early '90s. Wannstedt wanted a coordinator who understood the
scheme well enough to make subtle adjustments.
Enter Bates, who altered some of the defensive fronts to give the
Dolphins more opportunities to pressure the quarterback and who
changed the way they play the pass. Miami spends about 60% of the
game in man coverage, as opposed to 80% last season and has cut
back on its zone blitzing. As a result, the Dolphins have given
up fewer big plays. "My philosophy is just to play sound
football," Bates says. "I don't rely on gimmicks. You can steal a
game with gimmicks, but you also might get into trouble if you do
a lot of exotic things. We want to play within our schemes and
make people beat us at what we do best."
"The scary thing is they're so effective even though they're not
very complicated," says quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose New
England Patriots collected only 210 yards in a 10-3 loss to the
Dolphins on Sept. 24. "If anything, they've gotten simpler this
year. When they line up, you know what they're going to do, and
they do it to you anyway."
Bates has also injected new life into the rigors of weekly game
preparation. While an assistant at Texas Tech from 1978 through
'83, he once donned a helmet in practice and took on a fullback
in an attempt to ratchet up the intensity during a hitting drill.
Though he got knocked silly, such hands-on exuberance remains a
hallmark of his coaching. When a defender makes an outstanding
play in practice, Bates often will sprint across the field to
deliver a high five. "One thing that hasn't changed about
football is that players can tell when a guy is sincere and
dedicated to making them better," Wannstedt says. "The guys on
defense can see that Jim is serious about making them better."
As important as Bates has been to the Dolphins' defensive
success, he does have talented players to work with. Jimmy
Johnson never found a running back to fit his offensive
philosophy, but his eye for identifying defensive playmakers
provided Miami with a solid foundation. "The Dolphins have the
right combination of players," says Seattle Seahawks coach Mike
Holmgren, whose team lost 23-0 to Miami in the season opener.
"They have two corners [Madison and Surtain] who can play a lot
of man-for-man press coverage, which frees up the other nine
guys to play their defense. They've got two big honkers inside
[300-pound tackles Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener, who will be
out recuperating from back surgery for at least another two
weeks], two very athletic ends [Taylor and Kenny Mixon] and a
middle linebacker [Thomas] who's really special."
Three of Miami's best players--Madison, Taylor and 35-year-old
defensive end Trace Armstrong--had big games against Buffalo. As
part of the Dolphins' eight-man rotation along the line,
Armstrong is used primarily in passing situations and stays fresh
by appearing in roughly 15 plays a game. Against the Bills he had
3 1/2 sacks, giving him an NFL-high 10 for the season. Armstrong
has also been helped by the improved play of Taylor, who already
has five sacks, including one against Buffalo, after getting only
2 1/2 last year. By the end of the 1999 season Taylor was playing
at 240 pounds, almost 20 less than his listed playing weight.
This year Bates has kept the 6'6" Taylor away from the tight-end
side of formations so he can take better advantage of his speed
and avoid constant double teams.
Taylor spent the early part of his off-season contemplating his
drop in production. Then, while lifting weights with Thomas one
day last March, he had a revelation: "I realized that everything
I was doing revolved around me wanting to not fail. I was afraid
to succeed. I decided I was going to play to win."
Taylor, a third-round draft choice, and Madison, a second-round
selection, entered the NFL in 1997 and immediately became known
mostly for their trash-talking. Both have toned down their acts,
especially Madison, who intercepted 15 passes over the last two
years and in '99 started in the Pro Bowl, becoming the first
Miami corner to play in the game. He admits that he was "out of
control" as a rookie. Never was that more evident than when he
joked that he was going to stuff Flutie Flakes, the cereal that
Flutie promoted to raise money to battle autism, down Flutie's
Former Dolphin Terrell Buckley, who wasn't shy about running his
mouth in his younger days, helped Madison overcome his penchant
for yapping. Buckley, now with the Denver Broncos, reminded
Madison that his opponents had long memories and that the talking
would eventually make him a target around the league. Madison,
who has two interceptions this year, got the message. "I have
gotten over that," he says. "Besides, when you're talking that
much, it gets tiring. When we started playing a lot of man
coverage in 1998 and I was running with receivers up and down the
field, I didn't feel like talking when I got back to the huddle.
I've learned to let my play speak for itself."
Wannstedt is leery of having too much praise heaped on his
defensive unit, but his players are quick to point out his role
in the defense's success. While coaching Chicago, from 1993
through '98, Wannstedt earned a reputation as a micromanager who
made bad personnel decisions and wore down the Bears with
grueling practices. Now he delegates more and has an eye on how
hard he works his players.
"Dave has changed," says Armstrong, who played two seasons for
Wannstedt in Chicago. "We still work hard, but he's more in tune
with where the team is mentally and physically, and we don't work
just for the sake of working. You're seeing Dave coach the way he
wants to. When he was in Chicago, I think he was trying to coach
like Jimmy would have coached."
Though the Dolphins are talking less trash and keeping their egos
in check, don't assume they aren't enjoying themselves. Thomas
and Taylor were two of the last to leave the locker room on
Sunday, and as they greeted fans and relatives, Taylor stuck a
victory cigar in his mouth and smiled. He wasn't blowing smoke.
very complicated," says Bledsoe.
Wannstedt says of Bates.