First, it was defensive end William Hayes in the second quarter, gripping his right knee in pain after a second-quarter sack on Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. He didn’t return.
One drive later, it was defensive tackle Akeem Spence, ejected after being called for an unnecessary roughness penalty when he pulled off a Raiders player’s helmet.
And then in the third quarter, it was defensive end Andre Branch who left the field with a knee injury and didn’t play another snap.
So when Davon Godchaux nicked his ankle with a few minutes left in the Dolphins’ 28-20 win on Sunday, the defensive tackle knew he needed to find a way to work through the pain.
“I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye the next day,” Godchaux said. “There was no way I was coming out.”
At that point, it would have been tough to fathom what Miami’s defensive line options would have been. The Dolphins had just six healthy defensive linemen in the fourth quarter: Godchaux, Jordan Phillips and Vincent Taylor as defensive tackles, Cam Wake, Robert Quinn and Charles Harris at defensive end.
Offensive lineman Jesse Davis, who played defensive tackle for one season in college at Idaho, even came in to play defensive tackle for a snap in the third quarter.
“That’s a tough situation to be in because there’s nowhere else to go,” coach Adam Gase said. “Those are the only guys … Those were the guys left and we knew they were gassed and they were, you could tell they were fighting though. And that’s why I love this locker room as much as I do. Those guys, they just kept laying it on the line, trying to find a way to stop them.”
They battled through the lack of numbers.
The battled through the South Florida heat, with the temperature at Hard Rock Stadium coming in at 90 degrees at kickoff.
They battled through the long Oakland drives — with five of the 11 drives lasting longer than four minutes, including a pair of 15-plus play drives, one at the end of the first half and one to start the second half. The Raiders had a 17-minute advantage in time of possession.
“It takes a lot of guts,” said Quinn, who finished with three tackles and one of those quarterback hurry. “At the end of the day, we lost a few brothers today but we had to step up for them. We had to win as a team. Even though we were down as a D-line, we came together as a collective unit and made things happen when we needed to.”
And while the defense line bent at points against the Raiders, it didn’t break.
The Dolphins gave up just 10 points in the second half and held the Raiders to a field goal in the final 18 minutes of the game, doing what it could to give the offense every opportunity to make a play.
As a whole, the defensive line accounted for three sacks and six quarterback hurries on Sunday. Taylor, normally a backup, finished with a career-high seven tackles and a sack.
“My hat goes off to those guys who are out there literally getting down deep in your soul and going to a dark place and pulling out whatever you could to make sure you finish this game,” Wake said. “And those guys did so, me included. So I think it’s a tribute to the coaching staff and the way we practice and the way we play and it paid off today.”
Phillips added: “There’s no dropoff with us. We come to play. We play hard. Didn’t expect anything different.”
The rest of the defensive line was just as confident.
At halftime, Taylor went up to the ejected Spence and gave him a simple message: “Next time I see you, we’re going to have a ‘W’.”
Sure enough, the Dolphins closed out the game with a win.
“I’m tired,” Taylor said, “but we’re 3-0. That’s all that matters. I’ve got [Monday] and Tuesday to recover.”