The best way to help a sputtering Dolphins offense that looks lost in the wilderness?
Play suffocating defense and throw in some game-changing plays to boot.
Although the Dolphins offense again looked feeble, the defense was dynamic, scoring a touchdown and helping set up a field goal in a 16-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday in Miami’s first regular-season game this year at Hard Rock Stadium.
“Our mind-set on this defense is to be dominant,” said defensive end Andre Branch, who had two of the Dolphins’ six sacks. “There was a ton of energy, a ton of edge.”
The Dolphins put frequent pressure on quarterback Matt Cassel (who was filling in for injured Marcus Mariota), limited the Titans to 188 total yards, held them to 3.5 yards per rush and 2 of 13 on third-down conversions and scored a defensive touchdown on Reshad Jones’ 38-yard fumble recovery after Kiko Alonso’s strip sack of Cassel.
“It was nice that somebody could score points,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said of his defense. “That was really impressive to see, how they just came out and decided they were going to dominate the game, and they did.”
That’s the good news.
The bad? The offense remains a mess, able to generate only 178 yards on 3.0 yards per play.
Quarterback Jay Cutler, serenaded with boos and chants for backup Matt Moore, threw for just 21 yards and an interception (off an Anthony Fasano deflection) in the first half and went to the break with a 14.6 rating.
He finished 12 for 26 for 92 yards, one touchdown and one interception and a dismal passer rating of 52.1.
But Gase said “Jay’s way down on the list” of the problems on offense, adding the offense would be better “if guys would do their job, catch the ball, block the right guys, give the quarterback a chance to do something.”
But give Cutler credit for several strong throws on a 58-yard drive that put Miami ahead early in the fourth.
He hit Jarvis Landry for 17 yards, Julius Thomas for 15 yards on a third-and-10 and then Landry for a 6-yard touchdown on third-and-goal, with Landry using his strength to establish position just inside the goal line.
But Cody Parkey missed the extra point wide right, leaving Miami with a precarious 16-10 lead with 10:33 left.
Cutler’s accuracy wasn’t great, but he didn’t get much help. Though he was sacked only once (on a misstep by left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the fourth quarter), his offensive linemen were often beaten, forcing Cutler to hurry several throws.
Thomas, Landry, Kenny Stills and tight end MarQueis Gray all dropped catchable passes.
Cutler described the team’s offense as “piss poor.”
Making matters worse, Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker left in the first quarter with what’s believed to be a sprained ankle and didn’t return. He departed on crutches.
Running back Jay Ajayi had a fumble that led to a Titans second-quarter field goal and averaged just 3.1 per rush (25 for 77 yards) but ran for 8 yards on third-and-7 with 2:34 left, which helped the Dolphins run off some time.
The Dolphins defense was superb aside from a 69-yard Titans drive early in the third quarter, capped by Cassel’s 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Phillip Supernaw.
A Davon Godchaux forced fumble on DeMarco Murray, recovered by Jones, set up a modest 19-yard drive and a Parkey 41-yard field goal to give Miami a 3-0 lead with 53 second left in the first quarter.
The lead grew to 10-0, just 47 seconds later, on Jones’ fumble return after the Alonso sack.
Alonso, who hit Cassel as his arm was cocked, said he wasn’t sure if it was a fumble or incomplete pass. The ball squirted 14 yards, and Jones scooped it up and ran uncontested, with several Titans not bothering to chase him because they thought it was an incomplete pass.
Referee Bill Vinovich called it a touchdown, and the call was upheld on replay, giving the Dolphins a 10-0 lead.
“Our guys heard a whistle,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “The [NFL has] already come down from New York that there wasn’t a whistle, but I think I’ll believe my offensive linemen before I believe anybody in New York.”
But Jones said: “I did a great job of finishing the play. The ball’s on the ground; pick it up. You never know.”
Jones and Alonso had impactful games, as did Branch, Ndamukong Suh (one sack, very good against the run) and Lawrence Timmons.
Rookie first-round pick Charles Harris had a key third-down pass deflection and then an enormous sack on third down late in the game. Linebacker Rey Maualuga thrived in his Dolphins debut. William Hayes stuffed back to back running plays.
“Our D-line is the best in football,” Timmons said.
Cam Wake also credited defensive coordinator Matt Burke: “Everything we did today started with him. Stellar play calling.”
So the Dolphins are 2-2 while scoring only three offensive touchdowns in four games.
“A win’s a win,” Gase said. “I must’ve missed the column for style points.”