As the opposing quarterback barks out signals and the behemoth offensive linemen settle into their stance, a quiet confidence washes over Paul Soliai and Randy Starks.
Confidence not only in their ability to do their job, but confidence the other one will do theirs, too.
“Paul is to the point where I can really trust him,” Starks said. “You have to communicate sometimes without talking. We know what we’re thinking.”
Soliai and Starks have been Dolphins teammates for 4 1/2 seasons, but this is the first time they are paired together as starting tackles in a 4-3 base.
The two 28-year-old tackles stand at the epicenter of a defense that ranks third in the league stopping the run and is holding opponents to 3.5 yards per carry — tied for second best in franchise history, behind the 3.3 against the 2003 defense.
“They are exceptional,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said this week. “The entire defense, everything starts with them inside. They set the tone and make it very difficult for teams to run the ball.”
To appreciate their work, listen to how Coyle summarizes what they did against the Jets on Sunday.
“Randy made the play on the opening play of the game,” Coyle said, citing Starks’ and Chris Clemons’ tackle of Shonn Greene for a 1-yard loss on the Jets’ first offensive play.
“He comes inside and makes the hit in the backfield, and we get two or three other guys to clean it up. Sets the tone for the beginning of the game — just that very first snap.
“Paul, sometimes you go through a game and it may seem a little quiet, but when you look at [Sunday’s] game, he was as dominant inside as you can possibly be. He made four tackles inside where he took on blocks, came off blocks, set at the point of attack. Really is a force in there.”
Their improved conditioning certainly has made a difference.
Starks, whose weight reached 340 pounds during last year’s lockout, is playing now at 302 — his lowest since 2009. “I feel quick,” he said.
Soliai is in the low 340s, his lightest weight since 2005 at the University of Utah. He played most of his career at 355 and ballooned to more than 370 a few years ago, to the chagrin of Dolphins management.
“It helps with stamina and getting to the ball,” he said.
Said Coyle: “As strong as he is, he’s able to use his initial quickness now, and not only try to muscle the blockers, but he outruns them some in those plays that go tackle to tackle. That’s been impressive.”
Starks, with 3.5 sacks, is on pace to break his career high of seven. He already has four pass breakups, tied for the most in any full season, and has an interception, along with 18 tackles.
His adjustment from defensive end to tackle has gone splendidly, in part because he played the position in a 4-3 extensively with the Tennessee Titans earlier in his career.
Soliai has 15 tackles, a pace ahead of last season’s 27. But their value extends well beyond numbers.
“Your job is bigger than making tackles,” defensive tackle Tony McDaniel said. “You’ve got to hold up blockers for the linebackers to make plays.”
Soliai exasperated the Dolphins a few times early in his career — there were a couple team rules violations, including tardiness — but he has matured dramatically the past two years, and that has translated to performance.
More than a year ago, he and wife Letasha traveled to American Somoa to adopt a son, Paul Jr., who was two months old at the time.
That helped him become more responsible, as did prodding from his wife.
“My wife kept pushing me to be the man I am,” he said. “She told me the potential I have and the ability I have. It’s hard to find 340-, 350-pound guys that run. Every day, my wife says she is proud of me and we pray.”
Starks says: “I’m really proud of him,” too.
Soliai eschewed potentially higher offers elsewhere last summer, telling agent David Canter he wanted to re-sign here and accepting a two-year, $12 million deal.
Playing here “is a blessing,” he said.
Starks would like to stay, too, but he likely would consider outside offers as a free agent if the Dolphins don’t extend him before March. He said the Dolphins haven’t started serious negotiations. “Maybe they want to see more,” he said.
But his price is rising. One agent, unaffiliated with Starks, said he stands to make more than the four-year, $24 million deal that St. Louis gave to former Dolphins defensive lineman Kendall Langford this past March.