These two seemingly contradictory facts can both be true:
The Dolphins beat the Chargers Sunday because of the fourth-quarter play of their cornerbacks.
The Dolphins still need more help at the cornerback position.
Yes, three of Miami’s four interceptions in Week 10 were by corners.
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But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that refs flagged Dolphins defensive backs a staggering seven times. Slot corner Bobby McCain was called for four different violations.
It was emblematic of a broader issue. Since Xavien Howard went down with his second knee surgery of the year, the Dolphins have survived on scheme, pluck and some luck.
While it’s admittedly an imperfect gauge, Pro Football Focus player rankings can be instructive. And the scouting service’s take on the Dolphins’ top three corners: Byron Maxwell ranks 47th (out of 117), Tony Lippett ranks 57th and McCain ranks 82nd.
Yes, Maxwell is playing better than he did early in the season. And yes, Lippett has flashed at times. But the nickel position remains a work in progress, with McCain having a rough Week 10.
Still, as the Dolphins prepare to welcome No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff to the NFL Sunday, there’s no sign that much will change, personnel-wise, in the defensive backfield Sunday against the Rams.
Rather, the famously straight-shooting Vance Joseph sounded encouraged by the group when he met with reporters this week.
“They’ve played solid over the last month,” Joseph said. “Both of those kids have worked hard. They’ve improved with technique. We’ve given up very few big plays at the corner position. It’s been more concept, coverage stuff that has been exposed sometimes to force the big plays; but they’ve played solid and they’ve competed well. They’ve tackled well, both of those kids have for the last month. So I’ve been pleased.”
The Dolphins would love to get some contribution from Chris Culliver, but the veteran corner is simply not ready in their eyes. Culliver disagrees, saying repeatedly that he is recovered from major knee surgery, but if he’s shown that in practice, what incentive would they Dolphins have in not putting him on the field?
Adam Gase is clearly tired of that conversation. When asked this week why there’s a difference of opinion between the coaching staff’s assessment of Culliver and the player’s, Gase didn’t hide his irritation.
“When I’m ready to say he’s active, he’ll be active,” Gase said. “I think that’s pretty much the last time I’m going to talk about that.”
So instead of wasting time on someone who won’t play Sunday, let’s focus on those who will.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to Maxwell was getting benched. Since Joseph sat him down in Week 4, he’s been much better.
“I think what’s better is he’s playing to the system,” Joseph said. “He’s understanding where his help is. He’s doing a better job with his technique and leverage. It’s a corner-friendly system if you play to it, and he’s kind of figured it out.”
Lippett, the converted wide receiver, is playing with “a lot” more confidence, Joseph said. “He now believes he can make plays,” the coach added.
That’s great, but what about the blizzard of flags Sunday? The short answer: Joseph didn’t agree with most of them.
“I would say two or three were [legitimate],” Joseph said. “I don’t mind corners being close and playing with their hands. Sometimes it gets to be too much but I think two or three calls were the right calls.”
Joseph added: “I want them competing and that’s part of competing at corner. I’d much rather that than guys that are five yards off and not making plays and not trying to make plays. I’m OK with that. Some of it I’m OK with, not all of it.”