Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero: Miami Dolphins on course for playoff berth

Coach Joe Philbin is shown as the Miami Dolphins host the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014.
Coach Joe Philbin is shown as the Miami Dolphins host the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason game at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Maybe a 5-3 record now doesn’t seem notable by NFL excellence standards. Only one of four AFC teams with that record is currently on a playoff footing, and the ground is not exactly firm under those Kansas City Chiefs.

But for the Miami Dolphins, 5-3 is a revelation.

It’s an accomplishment.

It’s the best record the franchise has managed at the halfway point of any season since 2003.

(Yes, the past decade has been a dark time.)

These Dolphins are imperfect on many levels. The interior offensive line needs improvement. The linebacker corps isn’t exactly speedy. The quarterback’s deep ball accuracy is so poor the team has shifted away from taking shots down the field.

And yet this team is on a three-game win streak with a chance Sunday at Detroit to extend it to the longest winning streak by a Dolphins team since 2008.

So these Dolphins at midseason are enjoying good times.

How did that happen? How have they gotten here?

If you’re handing out midseason grades — and I am because you like that sort of stuff — you have to start with highest grades and that goes to the defense.

That unit delivered a shutout last week against the San Diego Chargers and dominated in the victory against Jacksonville the week before. That unit is No.3 in the NFL in points allowed per game. That unit boasts perhaps three of Miami’s four best players in defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon and cornerback Brent Grimes.

And that’s the unit that is getting great play from safety Reshad Jones, coming off his early season suspension, and defensive tackle Jared Odrick, whose timing is great because he has playing better than he ever has in a contract year.

The Dolphins defense has had three players win AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors the first eight games this season.

“We’ve got some good players on defense,” Grimes said in his typically understated way. “We play some good defense, that’s what we try to do. If we go out and play our game, we can make it a tough game for anybody. We just try to do that week in and week out. Obviously, every game is not going to be 37-0, but we take pride in trying to make it a tough day for the offense.”

Miami’s defense has been good before. Remember, this is the franchise that wasted the Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Tim Bowens years.

But this defense is lately doing something few others have done around here. This defense is delivering turnovers and, yes, scoring points. The Dolphins have nine interceptions and nine fumble recoveries, and their 18 turnovers ties for second most in the NFL, behind only Houston’s 21.

“We’ve had a relatively good pass rush since we’ve been here. Our scoring defense has been relatively good since we’ve been here,” coach Joe Philbin said. “I think our takeaways, at least right now where we stand, have kind of been accelerated ...”

Last week, the Chargers began their game with the Dolphins with only five turnovers in their previous eight games. The Dolphins took the ball away four times in that game.

“That’s got to be a big part of what we do from here on out,” Philbin said. “I’d say that’s the one thing that is the difference.”

The next biggest reason the Dolphins are in the postseason conversation at the season’s midpoint is the improved play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

He came into this season with a 79.1 career quarterback rating. His rating is 90.9

That dramatic increase must be tempered some because ratings are up across the board as the NFL has emphasized allowing receivers to have more freedom while making life harder on defenses.

But for the Dolphins, improvement at the quarterback position is, well, improvement for the entire offense. And that beats the alternative.

“I’m definitely progressing,” Tannehill said. “I think that I’m not where I want to be at by any stretch, but I’m progressing. I’m seeing improvements, seeing better throws, seeing the ball coming out quicker, creating some plays out of the pocket.

“I think we always say make the plays that are there, take advantage of the looks that we get, making the throws when we get a shot and give our guys a chance to make a play. I think you see the kind of playmakers that we have on the outside. So it’s just a matter of me getting them the ball.”

The Dolphins have become more of a horizontal pass offense in that they don’t throw the ball down the field as much as even they would want. But offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is trying to maximize what Tannehill does better.

And that’s better than beating his head against a table while his quarterback misses deep throws.

The approach is working for now. The Dolphins don’t have Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers or even Andrew Luck. But Tannehill is trying to get into the next tier of quarterbacks and maybe that can be good enough.

Maybe that can keep the Dolphins on course to match the 2008 team that surprised everyone with a playoff berth.

“Everybody’s confidence is building,” said center Samson Satele, who played on that last Miami playoff team. “Everybody is more loose on offense, just having fun out there. When we start doing that, you can see us performing a lot better.”

Midseason grades

OFFENSE

POS.

PLAYER

GRADE

COMMENT

LT

Branden Albert

A+

Solved team’s ’13 LT issue

LG

Daryn Colledge

C-

4 good games, 3 terrible games

C

Samson Satele

B-

Good enough to allow Pouncey shift

RG

Mike Pouncey

C

Still working rust off

RT

Ja’Wuan James

B-

Never hear his name, which is good

WR

Brian Hartline

C

Has ability to do way more

WR

Jarvis Landry

C+

Dependable, the future

WR

Mike Wallace

B-

Deep threat turned possession WR

TE

Charles Clay

C

Knee, hands have hurt him

QB

Ryan Tannehill

B-

Inaccurate deep but doing other things

K

Caleb Sturgis

C-

Excellent on KO, inconsistent on FG

DEFENSE

POS.

PLAYER

GRADE

COMMENT

LE

Cameron Wake

A+

Oustanding pass rush, good run stop

DT

Randy Starks

B-

Struggled vs. Jax & GB, otherwise good

DT

Jared Odrick

B+

Playing best ball of career

DT

Earl Mitchell

B

Paul Soliai who?

RE

Olivier Vernon

A

Rarely doubled but always vs. LT

MLB

Koa Misi

C+

Durability is an issue

SLB

Phillip Wheeler

C+

Playing time diminished lately

WLB

Jelani Jenkins

B

Why wasn’t he starting?

CB

Brent Grimes

A

Worth every penny

CB

Cortland Finnegan

C

Yields yards but only 1 TD

S

Louis Delmas

B+

Very good attitude, play speed

S

Reshad Jones

A-

Great in 4 games, but the suspension hurt

NICK

Jimmy Wilson

B

Good at FS, better at SCB

NICK

Jamar Taylor

C-

Work in progress

P

Brandon Fields

C+

Struggled early, way better lately.

KEY RESERVES

POS

PLAYER

GRADE

COMMENT

WR

Brandon Gibson

C

Trying to regain form

RB

Damien Williams

C-

2.8 yards per carry

RB

Daniel Thomas

C-

Size, experience keep him on roster

TE

Dion Sims

C

Role player filling his role

G

Dallas Thomas

C

Fits role as backup

LB

Jason Trusnik

B-

Valuable in an emergency

DE

Derrick Shelby

C+

Solid on field, but that moment off?

DE

Dion Jordan

I

Should be, better be better.

WRITER

POS

NAME

GRADE

COMMENT

COL.

Armando Salguero

C-

Slow starter, always great in Dec.

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