In defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s mind, Reshad Jones is playing better now than at any point in the past three years.
Jones, meanwhile, has an even higher opinion of his work.
“I’m playing like the best safety in the league, actually,” Jones told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “Numbers don’t lie. If you compare my numbers to the other safeties in the league, with what I’ve done, it stacks up with the best of them.”
So, yeah, the Dolphins believe they have upgraded at the safety position in the three games since Jones returned from his month-long exile. (The league suspended Jones for the first four games of the season for failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs.)
It’s tough to argue with the Dolphins. In three October games, Jones has totaled a team-high 24 tackles (including 22 solo), picked off a pass (which he returned 50 yards) and recorded one sack.
And, most importantly, the defense has allowed just 18 points per game since Jones’ return — down nearly a touchdown from the four games he missed.
“I think Reshad is playing as good as he’s played since we’ve been here,” Coyle said Thursday. “He’s tackling extremely well. His presence on the field and coverage is really helping the back end. I think we just have to get some production in terms of some of the deep throws down the field, which I believe we are going to get. He hasn’t had that many opportunities, but I envision he’s going to continue to make some big plays for us.”
Coyle met with the media Thursday only because coach Joe Philbin was away from the team, dealing with what the organization called a “personal family matter.”
That afforded reporters an extra opportunity to ask Coyle how he plans to stop Philip Rivers and the league’s No.8 passing offense, at 268 yards per game.
Rivers has thrown 20 touchdown passes this season, including a league-best nine to tight end Antonio Gates.
That would seem to be a mismatch for the Dolphins, who struggled to cover tight ends with linebackers during Jones’ suspension. Philbin acknowledged then that the safeties needed to do a better job, particularly when it came to tackling.
But there has been marked improvement in that regard since Jones’ suspension ended. He has missed just two of 26 tackle attempts in his three games back.
“Each and every year, I want to continue to progress and continue to get better and climb,” Jones said. “I just want to continue to show everybody I’m one of the best safeties in the league.”
He certainly was in 2012, when Jones had what many believe was a season worthy of a Pro Bowl invitation (he was left off the team). Pro Football Focus rated Jones as the No.3 safety in all of football, and he seemed poised for even greater things in 2013 (particularly after signing a four-year, $29 million contract).
But Jones took a step back last year, allowing 82 percent of the passes thrown in his coverage area to be completed. And the news got even worse two month ago, when the league announced Jones’ ban.
The month Jones spent away from the team might have hurt as much as the half-million dollars in lost salary.
“I’m a competitor; I love playing this game,” he said. “Just watching those guys go out and play each and every Sunday was hard. I was anxious, really. I just wanted us to go out there and get a couple victories.”
When Jones came back, he was in spectacular shape. And his mental conditioning has proven just as sharp. Jones has been on the field for 201 of the team’s 204 snaps since the suspension ended. And his play has been noticeably improved.
Quarterbacks testing Jones this year have completed just 4 of 9 passes for 59 yards, with a touchdown, an interception and a passer rating of 63.9.
“He’s a great player,” cornerback Brent Grimes said. “Any time you can get a great player back … it completes our whole secondary.”
Jones won’t go so far as to credit the suspension (and the motivation that came with it) for his career renaissance. But he did acknowledge that it gives him “an extra boost.”
Now, the Dolphins hope he’s the boost that gets this season on track. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2008, and if they get there in 2014 they will have earned it. Six of their next seven opponents currently have winning records.
“I think it’s huge,” said Jones, when asked the importance of making the playoffs. “It’s a fresh start. Once you get in, it’s a new season. I’ve never been since I’ve been in the league. It would be fun.”