Barry Jackson

A look at how Miami Dolphins’ defensive newcomers are making a difference

Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman seperates Miami Dolphins linebacker Lawrence Timmons from his helmet last Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman seperates Miami Dolphins linebacker Lawrence Timmons from his helmet last Sunday. TNS

In a Dolphins season tarnished by a coaching scandal, a player going AWOL, a 3 ½ game stretch of offensive ineptitude and multiple significant injuries, here’s something the Dolphins should be very happy about:

Most of the defensive newcomers have exceeded expectations. And that’s a big reason why the run defense is dramatically better.

Lawrence Timmons and to a lesser extent, Rey Maualuga, have elevated the play of the linebackers alongside reliable Kiko Alonso. Rookie Charles Harris and more so, veteran William Hayes have made an impact at defensive end.

Rookie fifth-rounders Davon Godchaux and to a lesser extent, sixth-rounder Vincent Taylor have been a godsend at defensive tackle.

Rookie third-rounder Cordrea Tankersley won a starting cornerback job three weeks ago and has impressed everyone. And Nate Allen has been at least serviceable at safety opposite Reshad Jones.

Cam Wake said all off the defensive newcomers have something in common. “They’re dogs,” Wake said.

In other words… “In order to play in this defense the way [coordinator Matt Burke] has it set up, if you don’t have that anger and that aggression and that pride of self that, ‘I don’t care what’s going on. I’m going to get my job done,’ if that is stopping the run, if that’s getting to the quarterback, if that’s stopping such and such receiver, you have to have a sense of pride above all else, whatever it takes,” Wake said.

“And the guys that you just named – the guys that they brought in here – I feel like they all have that mentality. In the locker room, we call it, ‘You have to have that dog in you,’ and that’s that pitbull mentality that, ‘I’m going to die, or I’m going to get my job done.’ One or the other. It’s not, ‘Oh, well. Darn. You got me.’

“If you look across the board and go back and watch some of the film, all of those guys [have been] playing that way. That’s the only way we can be successful is everybody has that.”

Here’s how each is helping:

• After a one-game suspension for going AWOL before the opener, Timmons has been genuinely impactful, with 21 tackles and two passes defended in three games. He ranks fifth among all linebackers this season, according to Pro Football Focus, with Kiko Alonzo 19th; Maualuga would be 37th of well over 100 linebackers if he had enough snaps to qualify.

Timmons looks like Miami’s best free agent linebacker pickup in years after several who failed to measure up (Phillip Wheeler, Kevin Burnett, Dannell Ellerbe).

Alonso says he’s the best linebacker he’s ever played with.

“The guy plays like he's in his early 20s,” Alonso said. “The guy moves great, knocks the [bleep] out of you. Great player.”

As Maualuga said, “he walks around saying ‘I’m 31, I’m 31.’ I tell him that doesn’t mean nothing. He’s still running around making plays” and displaying speed that some thought had diminished.

After reportedly telling Steelers players he wishes he would have stayed there, Timmons told me he’s happy here. “I stay to myself, play for the love of the game,” he said. But “it's been going real well. These guys here are very cool.”

• Maualuga had six tackles in just 58 snaps and though he’s a one-year stopgap, he’s doing what he’s asked in Miami’s base defense.

“Everyone brings something to the game; for me it’s my strength taking on blocks and stopping the run.”

• Don’t judge Harris merely on his four tackles and one sack in 155 snaps. He’s beginning to make an impact that doesn’t always reflect in stats, such as good work setting the edge on runs last week and a critical pass deflection against Tennessee. PFF ranks him 40th among 104 edge rushers.

“He has so many gifts, talents,” Wake said. “He’s a hard worker. He’s obviously explosive. Physically, mentally, he has all the pieces.”

The Dolphins wanted a front seven defender at No. 22; two players they passed on – Atlanta’s Tak McKinley and Dallas’ Taco Charlton – haven’t been as good as Harris.

Seattle’s Malik McDowell hasn’t played because of a car accident. Linebacker T.J. Watt, picked 30th by Pittsburgh, has been very good, but Miami has no regrets with taking Harris in the first round and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (out for the year) in the second.

“When he has rush opportunities, he’s been better kind of the last few weeks of getting chances and getting closer when he has his opportunities hitting the edge,” Burke said. “I’m happy where he is in terms of his speed starting to show up and he’s getting closer and closer. When he’s had a chance or two, he’s gotten there. I’m happy there.”

• Hayes has a higher impact per snap ratio than perhaps any Dolphins (10 tackles, in 119 snaps). Of his nine solo tackles, all except one have limited runs to three or fewer yards.

He has made significant plays the past two weeks, including dropping Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman for an eight-yard loss late in the Falcons game. PFF says he ranks second among all edge defenders in run stop percentage, behind only Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham.

“He’s been one of the most impressive players I’ve ever been around with his work ethic,” coach Adam Gase said. “Everybody respects him.”

• PFF ranks Godchaux only 101st among defensive tackles, but coordinator Burke said he and Taylor “have done a really good job. They’re both just hard-nosed, tough kids that if you stick them in there … I said this the other day, it was funny. We started one of the series and all three of them were out there at one point. I was joking with ‘T’ (Defensive Line Coach Terrell Williams), I was like, ‘Man, you’ve got three rookies. What are you doing to me?’

“But I honestly don’t think about it. Both of them have done a really good job in the run game. They’re stout. They take pride in it. Godchaux is probably one of the best on the team at holding double teams. He’s just a squared off safe. He’s like an old-school safe. He just holds in there and hangs and doesn’t get moved. Vincent has a little bit more wiggle to him. He gets on edges a little bit more and can do some stuff in that sense. So a little bit different approach, there’s a little bit different technique the way they do it, but their mentality and their approach has both been kind of identical, so it’s been cool to see.”

• Rated 49th among 114 qualifying cornerbacks, Tankersley has allowed 12 completions in 16 targets, but for limited yardage (90 yards). He was targeted five times in New Orleans in his first drive, just 11 times in 11 plus quarters since.

Coaches love his confidence. Case in point: After Tennessee’s Rishard Matthews started trash-talking him during the second half of their Oct. 8 game, Tankersley said he turned to him and said: “You want to talk to me now? The game is almost over.”

When Tankersley was named a starter before the Saints game, he said: “It’s about time.”

Adam Gase’s response? “I love the fact that he thought we were all nuts for him not being out there sooner. He feels like he’s one of the best guys on the field. That’s what you want.”

• Allen, on a one-year deal, has had the toughest time of the newcomers, ranking 79th among 83 qualifying safeties. T.J. McDonald (signed through 2021) will have every chance to win the job when his eight-game suspension ends and projects as Reshad Jones’ safety partner in 2018 and potentially beyond.

But Gase said Allen “has done exactly what we’ve asked him to do. There have only been one or two times where I felt like where he missed a tackle that I felt like he could’ve made.”

Here are my notes, observations and postscripts from UM’s win against Syracuse on Saturday.