Manny Fernandez lives in Georgia, so he doesn’t see much Dolphins football.
But Fernandez, who had an absurd 17 tackles in Super Bowl VII to cap the Dolphins’ 1972 perfect season, caught their last two games. And as one of best defensive tackles of his era, he kind of wishes he didn’t.
“They're going to have to play a lot better then they did the last two weeks or they’re going to get beat,” Fernandez told the Miami Herald. “You just can't give up 500-plus yards every week and expect to win.”
There’s no better way to put it. If the Dolphins defense from the last month shows up Sunday in Pittsburgh, Miami’s return to the playoffs will last all of one game.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But if the Dolphins defense that knocked Ben Roethlisberger from the game and limited Le’Veon Bell to 53 rushing yards in October shows up, then they might just pull off the upset of the weekend.
The Dolphins (10-6) are double-digit underdogs against the Steelers (11-5), and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Miami travels north with not just the worst statistical defense in franchise history, but the fourth-worst playoff defense since the league expanded to 16 games in 1978.
The Dolphins surrendered a team record 6,122 yards in 2016. The only teams to allow more and make the playoffs?
The 2011 Packers (6,585), the 2013 Eagles (6,304) and the 1981 Chargers (6,136).
Two of those three teams were bounced in their first postseason game.
The only one to win in the playoffs? The Chargers, in the 41-38 Epic in Miami. But even after that, San Diego lost the next week.
“Somebody better come up big,” Fernandez said.
More specifically: Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake better come up big. Miami’s two Pro Bowlers didn’t have a tackle for loss between them in Miami’s 35-14 loss to New England last week.
Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph expects a far greater impact from his defensive line this week, if for no other reason than Roethlisberger holds onto the ball longer than Tom Brady.
“Obviously we have to make him hold it with coverage,” Joseph said. “It’s always about coverage first. If the coverage is not there, he won’t hold it. But if we can cover up early and make him hold the ball, that allows Suh and Cam to rush and hopefully get home. But it starts with the coverage being effective first.”
Joseph added: “If they can’t affect the game, we don’t play well on defense. ... That front four, that guides our success on defense.”
Particularly since the back end is so banged up. Corner Byron Maxwell didn’t practice all week because of a lingering ankle injury, and if safety Bacarri Rambo does play, it’ll probably be through pain. He’s been hampered by a chest issue.
And the Steelers are a handful even when your defense is at full strength. Pittsburgh ranked in the top 10 this year in yards (372.6 per game), passing (262.6), scoring (24.9), yards per play (5.8) and passing plays of 20 or more yards (64).
Another bad sign for the Dolphins: Sunday is the first time Roethlisberger, Bell and receiver Antonio Brown will all be in the lineup for a playoff game.
“It’s kind of like this: all three guys together, it’s a task,” Joseph said. “But it starts with Bell, because if you can’t contain Bell, you can’t contain A.B. Obviously Ben is the trigger-puller, and that’s important also, but Bell is getting the average of like 27 opportunities a game – in the run and pass game alike – so that’s where it starts.
”... It’s a matter of having a game plan where you can kind of bend, don’t break, in some areas; but also having enough scheme to keep [Brown] in front of you. It’s a tough task, but I’ve played these guys seven times in three years, so I’ve seen their good and bad.”
Fernandez has seen more bad than good from the Dolphins’ defense in 2016.
So he doesn’t have many answers for his old team.
“Borrow Minnesota's defense,” Fernandez joked. (The Vikings had one of the league’s best in 2016.) “Short of that, I don't know. They're just going to have to dial these guys up, get ready to play and play better than they have the last couple of weeks, that's for sure.”