Removing one of the best defensive tackles of this generation from a defense that was already statistically mediocre would seemingly be a recipe for disaster.
Yet these Dolphins — without Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh but augmented by several key additions — today find themselves fourth best in the league in points per game allowed, best in passer rating against and tied for most interceptions.
The fact this defense has been a strength, and not a shortcoming, stands as the most pleasantly surprising development of this 2-0 Dolphins start.
“There’s something special going on here,” defensive end Robert Quinn said.
Three areas where the Dolphins appear dramatically improved, with the caveat being that the sample size remains small:
▪ Rushing defense: Even without Suh, these Dolphins have gone from allowing 4.1 yards per carry last season (16th in the league) to 3.3 per rush this season, which is third best.
The defensive tackle group of Akeem Spence, Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips and Vincent Taylor have held up well, and Quinn has been an asset against the run.
Kiko Alonso (13 tackles Sunday) and reliable tackler Minkah Fitzpatrick have been excellent against the run.
Safety Reshad Jones said he believes the defensive tackles were motivated to prove they could thrive without Suh. Just don’t ask the defensive tackles about that.
“He’s not here no more,” Phillips said Monday of Suh. “I don’t care about anything about what has to do with him. We’re doing it for ourselves.”
The Dolphins are allowing 79 yards per game on the ground (eighth best in the league), compared with 110.5 last season (14th). Yet Phillips said the defensive tackle play must improve.
“We’re not playing good enough,” he said. “Left a lot of plays out there. Got to do better.”
▪ Pass coverage. Yards per game isn’t an accurate measure, because teams can pad their passing numbers when trailing.
More indicative is passer rating against. And in that area, the Dolphins have gone from fifth worst in the league last year (94.8) to best (56.6).
“It’s a total team effort,” Jones said. “We have one of the best front sevens in football. We got a chance to be one of the best secondaries in all of football. I have to give credit to the front men; they’re playing lights out, making our job easy.”
And Fitzpatrick’s addition has been enormous, complementing solid play by Xavien Howard and Bobby McCain on the boundary.
“Minkah is good,” Jones said. “Comes from a winning program, always asking questions. He’s been thriving [in the slot]. He definitely has brought a spark to the room.”
▪ Turnovers. The Dolphins had only 15 takeaways all of last season, fourth fewest in the league. They already have six (third most) and are on pace for 48 if they keep this up.
The Dolphins already have five interceptions — just four fewer than all of last season. Two of the interceptions in particular — the second by Reshad Jones, as he fell to the ground, in the opener and Xavien Howard’s especially athletic move Sunday — were particularly impressive.
“We’re not really impressed because we’re in the NFL and that’s what guys are supposed to do,” linebacker Raekwon McMillan said. “Guys are making plays they are expected to make.”
Gase said creating turnovers was emphasized more this offseason than the previous one. “We carved out time in practice, said this is really important,” Gase said.
McMillan said all of that has made a difference.
“We practice it every day,” he said. “When we run to the ball in practice, we try to punch it all the time. It’s something we worked on the whole offseason. My job as the middle linebacker was to come in and implement it and put it in guy’s brains before the play even starts.”
Take all of those factors together — takeaways, stout run defense, a decent pass rush and generally tight coverage by the secondary — and that explains why Miami is allowing 16 points per game (fourth best) compared with 24.6 last year (fourth worst), even while Gase pointed out Monday that the Dolphins are still missing some tackles that they shouldn’t.
Here are my Dolphins notes from Monday, including Gase’s explanation for DeVante Parker not playing Sunday, why Mike Gesicki didn’t catch a pass and a lot more.