Miami Dolphins

It’s on! Dolphins’ Xavien Howard versus Raiders’ Amari Cooper, Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium

Xavien Howard and the Dolphins defense have had plenty of reasons to celebrate.
Xavien Howard and the Dolphins defense have had plenty of reasons to celebrate. adiaz@miamiherald.com

On Sunday, X marks the spot.

And that spot’s name is Amari Cooper.

Get your popcorn.

Dolphins-Raiders will be a battle of teams heading in different directions. Can the Dolphins get to 3-0? Can the Raiders win a game?

Many factors will determine those answers.

But the outcome of Xavien Howard versus Cooper on the outside might be the biggest.

Howard, the Dolphins’ ascending cornerback, was asked to cover a side, not a man, in the Dolphins’ first two games of the season.

But nobody on Tennessee or New York’s roster is the caliber of Cooper, a two-time Pro Bowler.

And so ...

“I’m following him this game,” Howard said. “I’m ready for it. .... I play against a lot of good receivers in the league. So it is what it is. I’m going to follow the best. Do my job.”

That kind of assignment only comes with great trust. And the Dolphins coaching staff has it in Howard, who has four tackles and an interception in the young season.

That trust really blossomed in 2017, when Howard got past a slow start and emerged as a true cover corner in the season’s second half. And it carried over into training camp, when Howard regularly vexed DeVante Parker in practice. His play in regular-season games has been the natural continuation.

“I think his physical skill set really has never been a question,” said Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke. “He’s tall, long, he can run and all of that sort of stuff. ... His growth comes from the knowledge of the game and start to understand how teams are attacking him or just seeing the nuances of splits and leverages and route concepts and matching things. The more that he plays for us and the more he sees.”

Howard’s growth might have been stunted by injuries as a rookie, but he has more than caught up in Year 3.

“The more he plays, I think he just keeps growing, and the confidence of understanding what an offense is doing to attack him and recognizing splits and stems and route concepts and studying those sorts of things,” Burke added.

Confidence? Yeah, that’s not an issue.

Particularly given the way the Dolphins secondary has played through two games. Miami entered Week 3 tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions, and its defensive backs are responsible for four of them.

The Dolphins lead the NFL in opposing passer rating (56.6) and have allowed just one touchdown through the air — second fewest in the league.

So you could forgive Dolphins players if they were feeling good about themselves in the locker room this week.

They even discussed possible nicknames for the secondary; the No-Fly Zone was dismissed for being “too cliche.”

When asked if the Dolphins have the best secondary in football, Howard replied:

“Most definitely I do. We’ve got players. We’ve got ball hawks on the back end. We’re playing at a top level, I would say.”

Now, that would change if Reshad Jones does not play due to a shoulder injury, but it seems more likely than not that he will. The combination of Jones, Howard, Bobby McCain, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick was not the Dolphins’ first choice this summer, but after trial and error, it turned out to be their best.

McCain has been excellent on the boundary, and so Raiders quarterback Derek Carr will have no great options Sunday when deciding whom to target.

“Bobby is a guy that you know what you’re going to get,” . He’s going to compete and bite your face off and play hard and do it right, do it the way you’re asking. And that’s what he’s done. We can win with that, for sure. He’s done a good job. He saved us. He made a hell of a play at the end of the half there (last week). That’s an unbelievable play by him. He’s been good.”

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard speaks to the media after practice at the Dolphins practice facility on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

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