So Matt, a reporter asked Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke on Thursday, the possibility of playing without Xavien Howard makes you feel …”
“Is that a real question?” Burke shot back, to a well-deserved chuckles.
How do you think it makes the guy in charge of the league’s 29th-ranked defense to go against Tom Brady and the Patriots without the team’s biggest playmaker and best cover corner?
“He’s a great player,” Burke said of Howard. “He’s been outstanding for us this year. So any time you have the possibility of not playing with one of your better if not your best player ...”
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Burke’s voice trailed off. He knew he was wading into excuse-making territory, no matter how valid the excuse.
“But that’s this league,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of injuries. We’ve dealt with a lot of those things. It doesn’t do me any good to worry about my feelings about it. If he’s available to play, he’ll play. If he’s not, he’s not. .... I try not to spend too much time examining my feelings. I could probably do a lot of woe is me throughout the whole season. It really doesn’t matter.”
Howard is questionable, at best, for Sunday’s must-win against New England with a knee injury.
With Howard in the lineup back in September, the Patriots rung up 38 points and 449 yards.
It was one of four games this year in which the Dolphins have allowed 30 or more points, and one of seven in which they surrendered 400 or more yards.
As a result, the Dolphins are near the bottom of the NFL in most every non-turnover-related defensive category.
Yards per play? 30th. Rush defense? 30th. Yards per carry? 27th. Yards per pass? 30th. Sacks per pass play? 29th. First downs allowed? 25th. Third-down efficiency? 25th.
The Dolphins have given up 258 points, 11th-most in the league.
Put it all together, and Burke has been an easy target for fans and some media alike.
On Thursday, he was asked for the first time about being a scapegoat for the Dolphins’ struggles.
Not surprisingly, he saw things differently.
“I feel like I’ve done a good job,” Burke said. “I try every week to put our players in the best position to make plays. I’ve done that some times. We haven’t some other times. There are calls I regret. There are calls I’m excited about. We’re week-to-week. It’s hard for me to big-picture evaluate myself in the course of the season.
“I’m trying to win a ball game this week,” Burke continued. “The feedback I’m worried about is [from] Adam [Gase], what he cares about, what he wants. I try to give him what he’s looking for as a coach. That’s really all I concern myself with.”
Burke is in Year 2 as defensive coordinator, and his side of the ball has not been great either season. But if Gase is inclined to make a change, it almost certainly won’t be until the season ends.
Plus, is it Burke’s fault that the team’s high-priced defensive ends — Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn and Andre Branch — have nine sacks combined?
Is it his fault that, despite explicit instructions, his back end has allowed receivers to simply lose track of receivers in the biggest plays of the last two games? The only reason that the Colts beat the Dolphins and the Bills lost to them is that Indianapolis’s Carlos Rogers hung onto a wide-open fourth-down pass and Buffalo’s Charles Clay dropped it.
“Golly, man,” Burke said. “It’s maddening.”
Particularly since Burke and Gase made the point to Miami’s defensive backs and linebackers to “latch on” to Bills receivers if Josh Allen breaks contain on the Bills’ final play.
Allen did. The Dolphins players didn’t.
“[Clay] reversed field about four times,” Burke explained. “He got lost in the wash a little bit. If you watch him, it’s kind of hard to explain, but he was in the middle of the field and literally in the back of the end zone and floated. As Allen moved to the defensive right and everyone started drifting that way, he just kind of drifted back. He was almost hiding in the back of the end zone and kind of came up through the back end of it.
“Not good,” he continued. “A couple of people should have had a chance to locate him and didn’t. When the ball’s in the air, I promise you guys I wasn’t going to cuss so I can’t give you my thoughts, but I felt like it was in the air for about three minutes, one of those slo-mo, heart sinks things in your stomach. We were fortunate that the ball fell short and bounced out of there with the win. Try not to have that happen again.”