Less than a week after getting shredded by Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints, the 24th-ranked Dolphins pass defense has been looking for encouraging signs while preparing for the defending champions.
Enter: Nolan Carroll.
The fourth-year cornerback shouldn’t even be here. As a former fifth-round draft pick, the odds were against him being in the league this long. Carroll wasn’t even supposed to be a starter entering the season, but a lingering groin injury has sidelined Dimitri Patterson for most of the year so far.
And although free agent acquisition Brent Grimes has gotten the lion’s share of attention — and rightfully so — Carroll has performed almost as well as Grimes on the opposite side.
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Brees did pass for an easy 413 yards against the Dolphins on Monday Night Football, but running back Darren Sproles and tight end Jimmy Graham were on the receiving end of more than half of that total.
Carroll allowed just two completions from the five passes thrown his way Monday. Compare that with the 30-for-39 efficiency Brees had against the defense as a whole.
Better yet, Carroll’s performance isn’t an anomaly.
According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks have a 69.6 passer rating when throwing at Carroll, placing him among the league’s top 20 cover men and just a few points behind Grimes. The 50 percent completion rate is one of the better marks in the league as well.
Not bad for a player drafted 145th overall.
And although Carroll has certainly beaten the odds with such success as a late-round pick, he has blossomed into the player he is because of a back-against-the-wall attitude — a mind-set he is intent on keeping amid a contract year.
“Every year is against the grain — you’re always against the odds,” Carroll said. “Most guys feel after the first year or second year that they’re established and they can just relax. A lot of guys aren’t in this league anymore because they’re comfortable, and I’m never comfortable. I’ve never felt like I’ve arrived or I’m established.”
Carroll’s struggle is familiar to Grimes, who went from being undrafted in 2006 to a stint in NFL Europe to the 2010 Pro Bowl.
“Being a fifth-round pick, he’s had to work all this time,” Grimes said of Carroll. “He’s got to keep that same attitude even now, even with him getting a lot of reps and getting some respect and with people realizing he can play. He’s got to keep the same attitude, just keep that edge.”
Carroll has been steady since he entered the NFL — allowing a 78.1 passer rating on 110 attempts entering this year — but he’s still improving.
The very way the Dolphins play defense shows faith in Carroll. Coordinator Kevin Coyle locks his cornerbacks to a side, meaning Carroll, a preseason No. 3 corner, sees considerable action against the opponent’s top receiver.
Marques Colston and Julio Jones combined to catch four of the eight passes thrown to them while being covered by Carroll.
In addition to disrupting opponents’ passing games more often, Carroll has improved his tackling this year. According to Pro Football Focus, Carroll missed four tackles last season, second-most among the team’s corners. This season, he has yet to miss a tackle and leads the group in total tackles.
With New Orleans picking on the safeties and linebackers last week, however, there was little Carroll and Grimes could do to prevent the onslaught. But whereas the Saints’ strengths fit like a glove into the Dolphins’ pass-defense weaknesses, Baltimore could present a more favorable matchup for Miami.
With projected starter Dennis Pitta on season-ending injured reserve, the Ravens are one of the worst teams at passing to tight ends. And running back Ray Rice, typically a versatile threat out of the backfield, is on pace for just 176 receiving yards, which would easily be a career low.
On Sunday, Carroll will spend time covering Flacco’s favorite targets: Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown — plus a little bit of Brandon Stokley.
Carroll said that as a rookie, he was just trying to keep his head above water. Three years later, he will be crucial in trying to stop the Super Bowl MVP from airing it out in Sun Life Stadium.
Carroll is confident because he has beaten the odds.
Confident — but never comfortable.