Barry Jackson

Here’s how Dolphins cornerbacks graded out without Howard, and the problem looming Sunday

Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain is disappointed in himself in their defeat to the Texans

Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain talks to the media after the game against the Houston Texans Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, at the NRG Stadium in Houston. Texans won 42-23.
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Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain talks to the media after the game against the Houston Texans Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018, at the NRG Stadium in Houston. Texans won 42-23.

The first chapter of life after Xavien Howard didn’t go particularly well for the Dolphins’ secondary last Sunday.

And with Howard — whose seven interceptions are tied for the league lead — unlikely to play Sunday, Act 2 appears very daunting, too.

Though Adam Gase refused to rule out Howard for Sunday’s game at Minnesota, he did not practice for a second consecutive day in the wake of last week’s minor knee surgery, making him something of a longshot to play.

That could be problematic against a Vikings offense that features a receiver who is third in the league in reception yards (Adam Thielen), another who ranks 19th in receiving yards (Stefon Diggs), and a quarterback (Kirk Cousins) who is second in completion percentage (71), eighth in passing yards, and 13th in passer rating (98.4).

Without Howard, Bobby McCain shifted back to the boundary against New England, opposite Minkah Fitzpatrick, in base defense. In nickel packages, McCain moved inside and Torry McTyer played the boundary, with Walt Aikens and Cornell Armstrong getting a few snaps in the defensive backfield.

All were victimized against Tom Brady and New England’s tight ends and receivers but played better collectively in the second half.

“”They gave up some plays and made some plays,” defensive coordinator Matt Burke said. “They battled all game. That’s what we ask.”

For the game, McTyer allowed two of three passes thrown against him to be caught, for 29 yards, with a pass-interference penalty, but said Julian Edelman “pushed off” on one play.

Fitzpatrick, in perhaps the worst game of a very good rookie season, allowed four of seven targets to be caught for 63 yards, with all going for first downs. Three of those completions (for 46 yards) came when covering Josh Gordon.

Even on a day off Monday, Fitzpatrick called defensive-backs coach Tony Oden to join him for a film session.

McCain allowed both passes against him to be caught for 26 yards and a touchdown, against Rob Gronkowski, who caught all eight of his targets for 107 yards. Aikens allowed his only target to be caught for 37 yards and a touchdown, to Cordarrelle Patterson. And Armstrong allowed the only pass thrown against him to be caught, for a 2-yard touchdown to Edelman.

T.J. McDonald, who allowed two of three passes thrown against him to be caught for 16 yards, said the responsibilities for the safeties increase in some ways without Howard. “Having a guy who can eliminate a side of the field makes your job easier,” he said.

Miami’s linebackers must also play better in pass coverage. Against New England, Kiko Alonso allowed five of six targets to be caught for 71 yards, Raekwon McMillan permitted all three of his targets to be caught for 32 yards. And Jerome Baker allowed five of eight to be caught for 67 yards.

Minnesota essentially has two No. 1 receivers in Thielsen (103 catches, 1,236 yards, nine touchdowns) and Diggs (88 for 915 and six touchdowns).

“The way Thielen is playing right now, he’s a tough guy to cover,” Gase said. “I’ve seen every way he’s been doubled. Some people got creative and it didn’t matter; he still found a way to get open.”

Of Howard, Gase said: “We want to make sure when he comes back, he feels great.”

THIS AND THAT

Though McDonald has been limited with an ankle injury this week, he said he’s playing Sunday. Burke said McDonald has “done a great job” this year and is “a real physical presence for us. He’s one of our best communicators out there. He’s had an underrated season.”

Also limited this week: quarterback Ryan Tannehill with his ankle (Gase already has said he’s playing Sunday barring something unexpected), left tackle Laremy Tunsil (knee), receiver Danny Amendola (knee), running back Kenyan Drake (shoulder), and receiver DeVante Parker (shoulder).

Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James has risen to 29th among 78 tackles in Pro Football Focus’ ratings and said “the game is slowing down for me” this season.

Gase said his play this year “has been as consistent as I remember.”

With the Dolphins having dropped to 30th in third-down conversions: Gase said: “We’re open to business to try some different stuff on third downs.”

Brandon Bolden said he wasn’t given advanced notice that he would get carries the past two weeks beyond a coach asking “you good with everything this week?” He said he has never felt unhappy when he wasn’t used as a ball carrier because “I enjoy the game” in general.

Receiver Kenny Stills said he has watched the game-ending touchdown against New England “less than 10 times.” Special-teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said quarterback Brock Osweiler, from the sideline, was the one who asked before the snap, “Why is Gronk out there?” Gronkowski took a bad angle on that game-winning play.

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