Armando Salguero

PFF grades Week 14: Defensive line lives up to billing; Vance Joseph figures out Larry Fitzgerald; Stills makes plays

dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

The Miami Dolphins have invested a lot of money and resources on their defensive line.

Ndamukong Suh is the highest paid defensive player on the team. Cameron Wake is a star and he’s highly paid. The team signed Earl Mitchell as a free agent three years ago and drafted Jordan Phillips in the second round in 2015. Lots of money. Lots of resources.

And on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals the Dolphins got fine return on their investment because the entire defensive line played well.

That’s what the folks at ProFootballFocus.com are saying based on their study and grading of the tape this week. The Dolphins top graded defensive players?

Wake by a mile.

Then Suh.

Followed by Mitchell, Andre Branch and Jason Jones.

Wake actually had his best game of the season, per PFF, grading out at 90.1. He recorded two QB hurries, two QB hits and a sack. Did I mention he also had a forced fumble? He was the top graded overall 4-3 defensive end for the week and for the season ranks third overall and first in pass rushing grade.

Suh, meanwhile, had a season-high six QB hurries against the Cardinals. His grade of 85.8 was good for second best at the NT/DT position in Week 14 and he ranks as the second best at his position for the season, trailing only the Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.

Branch and Jones each added a pair of pressures, with Branch racking up a sack as well. Branch has 5.5 sacks for the season and two in the last three games. Branch also had a forced fumble.

The rest of the defense? Hit and miss as they did, after all, give up 23 points.

The linebacker corps -- all backups or players not expected to be starters when the season opened -- had one significant good moment when middle linebacker Mike Hull intercepted a tipped ball off a Carson Palmer throw.

Hull, making his first career start, otherwise struggled filling in for the injured Kiko Alonso, particularly in pass coverage where he allowed four of five passes thrown his way to be caught for 39 yards. Hull did play 70 snaps and that was huge for a team missing starter Alonso.

Both Hull and Spencer Paysinger led the team with eight tackles each. Donald Butler, meanwhile, was something of a ghost, collecting only one assisted tackle.

Safety Bacarri Rambo had his best game of the season, per PFF, allowing only one catch for nine yards and intercepting the only other target thrown his way on the afternoon. His run defense continues to be the biggest weakness in his game, and as has struggled with missed tackles each of the last two games.

(Salguero thought here: I have to tell you, I was wrong about the Dolphins ability to match up with Larry Fitzgerald. I thought it impossible for the Dolphins to cover the 6-3 future Hall of Fame candidate with Bobby McCain or Michael Thomas or anyone, really. Well, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph figured it out. He mixed coverages and defenders -- sometimes even letting Byron Maxwell cover him. The result? The Dolphins held Fitzgerald to 12 yards on three catches. Indeed, those three catches came on nine targets so that was good. The fact this was Fitzgerald’s least productive game since he accounted for only two yards against Seattle in 2012 was simply outstanding work by the scheme, the coordinator and the players.)

CB Byron Maxwell had another solid game in pass coverage, allowing only three of seven passes thrown his way to be caught for 34 yards. He has not allowed more than 42 yards in any game since Week 3 against Cleveland and has been a top 10 cornerback in the league the second half of the season.

Also this: Maxwell’s 15 passes defensed this season are the most by a Dolphins cornerback since 2008 and are only six short of the team record established by Patrick Surtain in 2000.

Onto the offense ...

Wide receiver Kenny Stills was the star in the passing game. He led the team with six receptions and was second in yards with 97 while catching his sixth touchdown of the season, which leads the team. Stills’s overall grade of 81.6 was his best of the season and he did most of his damage against Arizona cornerback Justin Bethel (three targets, three receptions for 55 yards), particularly on the final drive that helped Miami kick the game-winning field goal.

RB Jay Ajayi struggled with wet conditions and poor offensive line run blocking, as he picked up more yards after contact (56) than he did total on the ground (48). Yes, Ajayi had some rushes for negative yardage to account for the statistic. He forced four more missed tackles on the afternoon and now leads all NFL running backs with 48 forced missed tackles for the season. Despite the effort, Ajayi’s grade of 67.9 was his worst in the last two months.

Speaking of the offensive line:

RT Ja'Wuan James was the standout player on the Miami offense in Week 14. His 83.2 overall grade was tops on the team and ranked third for all tackles for the week. He graded out well in both pass protection and run blocking and did not allow a QB hurry all afternoon after allowing six against Baltimore the week before. He has not allowed a QB hurry in two of the last three games after allowing at least one in each of the first seven games of the season.

Center Anthony Steen was the lowest-graded player on the Miami offense against Arizona. He struggled in pass protection, allowing two QB hurries, and had two penalties that halted Miami drives. The Dolphins finally shut down starting center Mike Pouncey for the season on Tuesday -- details here -- so Steen must raise his level of play to help the Dolphins continue their playoff push.

QB Ryan Tannehill picked apart the Cardinals' defense when facing no pressure (9-of-13 for 143 yards and two touchdowns) and was solid under pressure as well (6-of-7 for 52 yards, one touchdown and one interception). Unfortunately his season came to an end with a partially torn ACL and MCL that Salguero says requires careful management.

Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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