The Dolphins secondary, not particularly good to start the season, could have been an unmitigated disaster after losing Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones and rookie cornerback Xavien Howard.
The fact it hasn’t ranks among the delightful surprises of this ongoing six-game Dolphins winning streak.
The Dolphins are surviving with a safety (Bacarri Rambo) who was filling out job applications to work at a car dealership in October, a cornerback (Tony Lippett) who was playing receiver in college two years ago, another cornerback (Byron Maxwell) who was so awful that he was benched three weeks into the season and several others — led by safety Isa Abdul-Quddus — who have kept the secondary from malfunctioning despite losing its best player in Jones.
It hasn’t always been pretty — the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick blitzed the Dolphins for 296 yards passing this past Sunday — but generally it has been good enough. The Dolphins defense is holding opponents to an 85.6 passer rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Overall, Miami’s pass defense ranks 10th.
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Maxwell hasn’t allowed more than 41 receiving yards in a game since being torched by Cleveland’s Terrelle Pryor in Week 3. Against San Francisco, he forced a fumble and made a terrific play in coverage on the penultimate play of San Francisco’s final drive.
“I think sometimes with players, it’s a new environment for Max, and it’s expectations,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “Max is playing really well … great the last month and a half.”
Rather than always lining up in the same spot, Joseph had Maxwell “shadow” Pryor, the Jets’ Brandon Marshall and the Rams’ Kenny Britt, something Maxwell said he never did before with the Seahawks or Eagles.
“Anytime it’s a bigger man for us, Max is a better match than Lipp,” Joseph said. “Lipp is more of a thinner-bodied guy, and Max is a stronger player, so it was a good fit for us.”
Lippett, too, has been solid during this winning streak, not allowing any deep completions, picking off two passes, and diagnosing (presnap) the San Francisco pass play that resulted in a Lippett play on the ball and a Kiko Alonso interception.
“Lip is playing really well,” Joseph said.
Among 120 qualifying cornerbacks, Pro Football Focus ranks Maxwell 18th and Lippett 30th.
At safety, Rambo — who started eight games for Buffalo last season — spent his offseason recovering from knee surgery and was puzzled by lack of NFL interest early in the season; only Detroit gave him a workout before the Dolphins auditioned and signed him on Oct. 25, in the wake of Jones’ injury.
“I want to prove to everybody they should have given me a chance, show they made a huge mistake by not signing me,” he said. “The Dolphins gave me a chance, and I’m grateful for that.”
He has played significant snap counts in four games since signing with Miami and started the past two.
“I think it’s rare that a guy that wasn’t in our system jumps in there and does what he’s been doing for us,” coach Adam Gase said. “He brings a physical presence. He’s a really good tackler and a great communicator. The fact that he was still on the street, it was lucky for us that we were able to go out and get him.”
Explaining his ability to learn the defense quickly, Rambo cited his hat size and said: “Big brain. I absorb information.”
Meanwhile, Abdul-Quddus is ranked 20th among all safeties by Pro Football Focus.
“He has done an extraordinary job as far as us losing Reshad and him stepping in and being a little bit of a leader back there — being vocal,” Gase said. “When somebody breaks free, he’s a really reliable tackler.”
With Maxwell and Lippett playing well, Gase and Joseph have a decision to make when Howard returns in a week or two. Joseph said none of those three is equipped to play in the slot.
“Once he’s healthy, we’ll figure that out,” Joseph said. “We can rotate by series, maybe. But until he’s healthy, that’s a hard question to answer.”
The Dolphins are optimistic about having the left side of their offensive line back against Baltimore. Though left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Laremy Tunsil were listed as questionable, Albert — off wrist surgery — said: “You know I’ll be there on Sunday” and Tunsil — who had a shoulder injury — said he will play.
But wide receiver DeVante Parker (back) was again limited Friday. The Dolphins are preparing to play without him, though they listed him as questionable, and Gase kept open the possibility of him playing.
“We’ll be smart,” Gase said. “He might even tell me I’m ready to go, and I might say no.”
Besides those three, others listed as questionable: linebackers Alonso (hamstring) and Jelani Jenkins (knee/hand); defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (back); guard Jermon Bushrod (calf); and running back Kenyan Drake (knee). The Dolphins indicated they weren’t especially concerned about Alonso, one of their best defensive players this season.
Howard (knee) is doubtful, and center Mike Pouncey will miss his third game in a row with an injured hip.