Louis Delmas and his Dolphins defensive teammates weren’t just disappointed.
They were spitting mad. And, by and large, they played that way Saturday night in Tampa.
“I definitely think we had a chip on our shoulder,” said Delmas, the team’s talkative safety, moments after the Dolphins’ 20-14 victory over the Buccaneers. “We had something to prove and we held grudges.”
What had them so steamed? A less-than-stellar showing in the preseason opener, a loss to Atlanta marred by a slew of missed tackles.
And so practice last week was intense, with players challenging each other. The Dolphins expect to play defensive football, they said, despite what they put on tape in Atlanta.
“We had a mind-set to come out this week and get that done,” Delmas added.
By and large, they did. The Dolphins gave up two scores all night — one on an unfairly short field after a turnover, and the other on Tampa Bay’s final drive, when a bunch of third- and fourth-stringers were on the field.
Those possessions aside, the defense had one major breakdown — when Jimmy Wilson missed an open-field tackle on Mike Evans that went for a big gain. But Brent Grimes chased Evans down and forced a fumble at the goal line, keeping the Buccaneers out of the end zone. That play ultimately was the difference between a confidence-building win and another loss.
“I don’t think our tackling was very good in the first half,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “I really didn’t, especially in the secondary. ... I thought we’d tackle better.”
Coaches are never satisfied, and the Dolphins’ starters gave him plenty to gripe about. But Miami also essentially shut down Tampa Bay after Evans’ big gain. The Bucs managed just 250 yards on the night, converted only 2 of 13 third downs and surrendered five sacks.
Olivier Vernon had a sack. Jared Odrick had one, too. Terrence Fede dropped the quarterback before leaving with an undisclosed injury (he later said he was fine).
And perhaps most encouraging, Dion Jordan made a splash play. The Dolphins have been waiting for a bust-out game from last year’s No. 3 pick for some time, and his quarterback pressure caused a fumble that the Dolphins recovered.
“It’s always consistent,” corner Cortland Finnegan said of the pass-rush. “Those guys do a great job.”
Finnegan is on to something. By and large, the Dolphins’ identity has been established. They will get good pressure from the edges and have enough in the back end to hold up. The question on defense has been, and will remain, about the linebackers.
Missed tackle aside, Wilson remains in the driver’s seat to start at safety when Reshad Jones serves his four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Meanwhile, Will Davis appears to have a lead over Jamar Taylor for the nickel corner job.
Davis was the first defensive back off the bench Saturday and played 29 defensive snaps, the most on the team.
Statistically, the defense already is beginning to resemble the one from last year, which gave up yards between the 20s but usually kept opposing teams out of the end zone.
Through Saturday’s action, the Dolphins ranked 23rd in pass defense, allowing 223.5 yards per game through the air. But opposing teams are completing just 52 percent of their passes against Miami and have a passer rating of 82.2.
Likewise, their total defense statistics (18th in the NFL, 311 yards per game) are mediocre but not the whole story.
As of Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense, third-down defense, run defense and yards allowed per carry.
In short, enough to put a smile on Delmas’ face.
“Obviously, it boosts our confidence and it allows us to know that we have the capability, we have the energy and we have the drive to win,” Delmas said.