Rey Maualuga hates the heat. Hates it.
So playing in Miami was a curious choice for the California native. But you go where the jobs are, and the Dolphins offered him one back in August.
But he did not know exactly what he was getting into until Sunday, when the field-level heat index for his Dolphins debut was 113 degrees, according to CBS.
“When I stepped out there on the field, I had to catch myself a little bit,” Mauluga said. “'It's f---ing hot as s---! Holy crap.'”
So after warmups, Maualuga went back in the locker room and took not one, but two bags of IVs. And even still, he cramped up in the second half of the Dolphins’ win.
In the end, Maualuga not only survived his first game in Miami — ever — but flourished. He was on the field for 31 of the Dolphins’ 59 defensive snaps (more than he expected) and recorded five tackles.
And he might have been the missing piece for a defense that has made one of, if not the biggest, leaps forward in the NFL this year.
“I think we have one of the best front sevens in football,” safety Reshad Jones said.
The Dolphins’ defensive line is the most expensive in football, so that better be a strength.
The linebacker play, however, has been the most pleasant surprise of the year.
Maualuga, Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons played together for the first time Sunday, and they were better than perhaps even the Dolphins could have hoped.
They combined for 19 tackles, a sack, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. The Titans, a top 10 running team entering the game, managed just 69 yards on the ground.
Who would have seen this coming three weeks ago, when Maualuga was hurt and Timmons suspended after going AWOL? And remember, the Dolphins were already without two potential starters in Koa Misi and Raekwon McMillan.
So there was plenty of hand-wringing outside of the building, particularly considering the Dolphins’ terrible recent history with linebackers. (Need we remind you of Morlon Greenwood, Philip Wheeler, Dannell Ellerbe and Jelani Jenkins?)
Those concerns, at least to this point, were so off-base, Burke chuckled when reminded of them Thursday.
“I have high expectations in our room and it’s something that we preach — every man up,” Burke said. “It took a little bit. Obviously with Rey getting his first action last week, it was good to have him out there. I don’t know if they’ve exceeded anything. Again, I have pretty high expectations for every group and yes, we’ve dealt with it last year, when I was in the room with those guys. Nothing surprises me. I think it’s a talented bunch.”
The linebacker position is a point of pride for Burke, who coached that position here in 2016 before being promoted after Vance Joseph left for Denver.
And even he would acknowledge that he is working with a lot more talent now than the group that finished the year with a blowout loss to the Steelers in the playoffs.
The starters in that game? Alonso, with one good arm, and Jenkins, who is out of the league.
The Dolphins overhauled the position through free agency, signing Timmons back in March and Maualuga back in August.
The talent infusion has worked, at least so far.
Here’s Burke’s assessment of his starters:
▪ Timmons: “Lawrence surprises me every day with the way he runs. Honestly, he may have been a touch rusty two weeks ago, or in the London game, but he was sideline-to-sideline last week. He’s however old he is, I don’t even know; but he does it in practice every day. To watch Lawrence Timmons, literally he runs like that in practice. To see him run the way he does and chase balls sideline-to-sideline, it’s always impressive.”
▪ Maualuga: “I’ve been around Rey a lot. Rey, he’s somewhat typecast. He’s a big, big [middle] linebacker. Rey has a really, really, really good feel for the game. He’s played a lot of football. He’s been a linebacker most of his career, most of his life probably. He’s very nuanced in just getting reads. He reads play actions really quickly. So whatever he may – he’ll get mad at me – may lack in some speed, I mean he’s really quick off the spot.”
▪ Alonso: “Kiko’s just such a unique player for a linebacker. As an athlete, for him to be able to cover – I mean I said it last year – we match him up on receivers sometimes, backs, tight ends. He can run.”
▪ DeVante Parker is doubtful to play Sunday against the Falcons after missing the entire week of practice with an ankle injury. Byron Maxwell (foot) and Xavien Howard (shoulder) are questionable.