Before there was a heroic touchdown catch, before there was a game-winning drive — before the fourth quarter even started — a Dolphins rookie changed the complexion of Sunday’s game against the Falcons with a special teams play that was entirely momentous — literally and figuratively.
With 1:58 left in the third quarter, the Dolphins punted and rookie safety Don Jones soared down the field, delivering a clean blow to Falcons returner Harry Douglas. The ball popped loose, and long snapper John Denney ended up with possession at the bottom of the pile. The Dolphins, who struggled to move the ball the entire third quarter, scored a touchdown three plays later to tie the score. Wide receiver Mike Wallace said the hit was the biggest play of the game.
Jones said he could feel the energy change on the sidelines.
“Most definitely — I think that gave us a lot more hope,” he said. “I think that got the offense rolling a little bit. Then after that we came out and finished the game well — finished the game like coach [Joe] Philbin has been talking about.”
The cliché reads that success comes when preparation meets opportunity, and the beauty of this play was its serendipity. So many things had to go exactly right — things that easily could have gone another way.
Jones said that Atlanta’s special teams’ blockers had done a good job against him early in the play, forcing him off his desired trajectory and slowing him down while he struggled almost the whole way down the field.
“Then I looked up and Douglas was coming right at me,” Jones said. “So I knew I just had to lower my shoulder to get a big hit for the team.”
Furthermore, the punt return almost never happened. Douglas had initially signaled to his blockers that he wasn’t going to return the punt, advising them to get away from the live ball. Douglas then changed his mind, picked up the ball and found himself off the ground in Jones’ arms.
“Actually, I didn’t see him wave it off, because I was fighting all the way down the field, just trying to get my defenders off me,” Jones said. “I finally got past them, looked and he was right where I was. I looked over and he was on my shoulder, so I decided to go on and dump him.”
Jones said he thinks Douglas saw him, but might have been surprised by how fast he was coming.
Without a recovery, however, the play would have been little more than a fun video clip. Jones didn’t initially realize that the ball was loose, so he stood up to celebrate. Denney, who was on the ground after a missed tackle, quickly realized the situation.
“Obviously [Douglas] is faster than I am — he’s quick enough — so I was just trying to clip his feet, sweep his ankles,” Denney said. “When I looked up to see if he had tripped up, the ball was on the ground.
“[Douglas] had a majority of the ball, I’d say, from the get-go. But I got my hands on it enough that I was able to pull it in.”
In addition to the game-swinging turnover, Sunday’s game was also memorable for Denney for breaking a record of a franchise favorite. After Denney snapped for a first-quarter punt, he officially passed Jason Taylor for the franchise record for consecutive games played at 131 — a streak that started in 2005.
As for Jones, a seventh-round pick, the momentous play has increased his confidence. And while the play required some measure of luck, fellow rookie Dion Jordan knew it was just a matter of time before Jones made a big special teams play.
“He plays really hard every snap, every time that he’s out there,” Jordan said. “That’s what he does — play hard.”