Miami Dolphins

How a long break and an aggressive scheme turned Earl Mitchell into a beast Sunday

The return of Earl Mitchell, right, strengthens an already-potent Dolphins defensive line.
The return of Earl Mitchell, right, strengthens an already-potent Dolphins defensive line.

Melvin Gordon was one of the hottest backs in football. Then Earl Mitchell got a hold of him.

Gordon, the Chargers second-year running back, managed just 70 yards on 24 carries Sunday against the Dolphins.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

He went for minus-5 in his four rushes that ended with a Mitchell tackle, including a six-yard loss on the goal-line in Miami’s win.

“My mindset was they were going to come my way,” Mitchell said of the red-zone stop. “I was just going to take advantage of it. ... The game is so much easier when you know what's coming. I pretty much just turned it up, hit it, and it just worked out great.”

It was a dream return to football for Mitchell, who spent the previous eight weeks on injured reserve with a calf injury.

Sunday wasn’t just the best game of Mitchell’s season. It might have been the best game of his career.

And here’s a contributing factor: associates say that Vance Joseph’s wide-9 defense is a perfect scheme for the athletic Mitchell.

“I think anytime you allow a defensive lineman to attack, that’s what most of those guys want to do,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard too many defensive linemen say, ‘Hey, I like kind of sitting back and seeing what the offense is going to do. I’ll react off of them.’ They want to get up the field. They want to get after the quarterback. They want to be disruptive and for what Earl likes to do, that’s what this defense is.”

Not so in 2015, when players privately griped about a defensive scheme that made them think first, and attack second.

Even with his two-month sabbatical, Mitchell remains one of the Dolphins’ better values. His cap figure is just $3.5 million this year, and isn’t much more next. If Sunday was a snapshot of how he fits into Joseph’s scheme when healthy, his return in 2017 is a no-brainer.

“I'm just trying to be disruptive,” Mitchell said. “One of the things I was thinking about was just making sure I didn't come back and hurt our team. That's one of the mindsets I had when I was out. I was just excited to be out there.”

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley