Defense and kicking game making the difference

The Dolphins did what they were supposed to do on Sunday. They handled the Jets. Didn’t give up a touchdown. Cruised to a 20-3 victory. That’s what happens when 6-4 faces 0-10. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was more businesslike.

Now having said all of that: How sweet is it to outscore the Jets 44-3 in the two meetings? How sweet is it to be the franchise on the ascent not on the descent? I’ve covered too many Jets games over the years not to appreciate the ease in which the Dolphins disposed of the Jets in these two meetings.

The storyline was just enough Ryan Fitzpatrick on offense and a strong bounce-back defensive performance clearly highlighted by a fourth-and-one stuff in the fourth quarter by linebacker Elandon Roberts. That one play, a textbook tackle on Frank Gore, made a 13-3 lead look a lot more comfortable.

With Fitzpatrick throwing a pair of touchdown passes replacing the injured Tua Tagovailoa and seemingly in command throughout, the question was quickly posed to Coach Brian Flores: Tua or Fitz next Sunday against Cincinnati?

The answer: If Tua is healthy, he’s still be the starter.

This is undoubtedly the way to go. As nice as it is to have a player like Fitzpatrick, we can’t lose sight of the importance of what this season means to the growth of Tua. He needs to play. He needs to play a lot. He needs to experience the experience.

I know there are those who prefer for Tua to learn from the sideline, certainly given how well Fitzpatrick has been playing. But I don’t buy that. Tua’s upside is too high. He can take this team further than Fitzpatrick. Yes, even in his first season.

As for the team in general, two players stood out to me on Sunday, both for what they did against the Jets and what they have done all season. Two players who have been great through 11 games, and I don’t throw around great very often.

Xavien Howard and Jason Sanders. Together they have as much to do as anybody with this 7-4 record heading into three straight home games.

Howard picked off his seventh pass of the season against the Jets. He had at least two other outstanding defensive plays. He is elite. He is playing as well as any cornerback in the league right now. It’s crazy how the ball always seems to find him. Maybe, though, it’s just one special player at the very top of his game.

As for Sanders, he is on extraordinary run, having made 22 of 23 field goal attempts this season, including a 54 and a 51 yarder against the Jets. I’ve never seen a kicker so accurate from long distance. In his three seasons, Sanders has converted 12 of his 14 50-yard plus attempts. Think about that. It’s mind-boggling.

With the offensive deficiencies, specifically the lack of a running game, you know there will be some close games down the final stretch of the season. Having Sanders, provides a huge edge for this team. It has been that way all season. I mean most kickers are accurate. This is taking it to an entirely different level.

So where are we with five games remaining? The record says the Dolphins are in the thick of the playoff race and reality says that’s where they deserve to be. But another reality points to those problems on offense, problems that probably can’t be solved until the next offseason when playmakers must be the No. 1 priority.

It will be incumbent on the defense and kicking game to be the difference on most Sundays. It was certainly the difference on Sunday against the Jets, a nice workmanlike victory but an important one nonetheless.

Got to believe Tua will bounce back strong

As much as I would like to make this column all about the Jets and how downright awful they have been through 10 games, the events of last Sunday in Denver have clearly shifted the focus.

Now, from my perspective, this Sunday’s game is more about the Dolphins than it is the Jets.

It’s about getting Tua back on track after a forgettable performance against the Broncos. It’s about an offensive line trying to regroup after giving up six sacks. It’s about a running game stuck in neutral and a rushing defense that faltered badly against the Broncos.

Wrap it all up and put a big red bow around it and the bottom line is this: The Dolphins need to be more concerned with how they are playing than who they are playing. It was only a week ago when they were the darlings of the NFL with a great young coach and quarterback and with that five-game winning streak providing clear proof of the direction this organization is heading.

Then came Denver and the conversation took an about face. Now people are wondering whether the Broncos exposed some weaknesses that other teams will also try to seize upon. Now they are wondering whether all that praise was more wishful thinking than reality.

We’ll certainly learn a lot more on Sunday. No, a victory over the Jets won’t solve the problems or eliminate the concerns. After all, they are 0-10 for a reason. But at the very least it can get this team back on track, certainly feeling good again because, in truth, it doesn’t matter how bad the Jets are, a victory over the Jets is, well, a victory over the Jets.

There is no player that needs a bounce back performance more than quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. By now his benching in the fourth quarter last Sunday for Ryan Fitzpatrick has been dissected from coast to coast. It was something few of us would have expected coming in and, although he did play poorly, I was among those wondering whether it was a smart move by Coach Brian Flores.

Sunday affords this team and Tua in particular the opportunity to put that performance in the rearview mirror. I believe Tua will play well. I believe he will get the ball out a little quicker, make his decisions with more certainty and generally do many of the things he failed to accomplish against the Broncos. There is absolutely nothing he has done so far that has at all soured my expectations for this young man. From his accuracy to his calculating mind to the kindness he exudes on a daily basis, this is a very special player. No doubt there will be blips on the radar. There always is for young quarterbacks. But what Tua has you just can’t teach and the feeling here is that days like last Sunday in Denver will be the exception far more than the rule.

The caveat I will always include in my evaluation of Tua: None of us can properly judge him until he is surrounded by more talented playmakers, and it’s going to take another draft and free agency to do that.

Having said all of this, I guess we all need to be reminded that the Dolphins are still 6-4 and in the thick of the playoff conversation.

They’ll be 7-4 on Sunday after beating the Jets. Dolphins 31, Jets 14.

A tough day for Tua, a sobering day for the Dolphins

This was a harsh reality check anyway you look at it. As good as the Dolphins looked winning five in a row, we saw on Sunday the flipside. When the defense can’t stop the run. When Tua struggles. When the offensive line can’t protect him. This in a nutshell is what happened in Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Denver Broncos.

But it’s no time to cast an ominous shadow over this team. This was one game. One lousy performance.  The big picture still says the Dolphins are 6-4 with the Jets and the Burrow-less Bengals up next. They have a chance to right things in a hurry.

But at the same time we can’t ignore the reality of what transpired a mile above sea level. Every weakness we feared this team might have was certainly amplified. The Broncos did a number on the Dolphins offense. This is when they could have used some more playmakers, exactly what I’ve been saying even in the best of times.

The Dolphins need an elite running back and another elite receiver. They have gotten by with what they have, but you just felt it would catch up to them against a formidable defense, a defense like the Broncos. That’ll be the concern moving forward.

Now for the story behind the story. Coach Brian Flores pulled Tua in the fourth quarter in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick. It was not, Flores said, injury related. It was performance related. Tua had struggled and the offense had produced very little. Flores believed Fitzpatrick could provide a spark and he certainly made things interesting before an end zone interception sealed the outcome.

I don’t agree with Flores’ decision. I would have left Tua in there. I believe in order to grow in the manner we believe he can, he needs to experience every possible situation and in this case that meant trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter on the road. I don’t see how that move can expedite his growth.

I understand Flores knows these players far better than any of us. I also believe that he has done little wrong in his 26 games as a head coach. He is the right coach for now and for years to come. But that doesn’t mean a decision of his can’t be second-guessed and this one certainly falls into that category.

Tua will start next Sunday against the Jets. There is no controversy when it comes to that. He remains the centerpiece of this team. I firmly believe that as much as we try to judge him this season, we won’t be able to totally judge him until he is equipped with more talent around him. That’s how he thrived in college at Alabama and that’s how he’ll thrive in the pros.

The immediate concern is addressing the problems that surfaced against the Broncos and the list was long. I don’t believe the offensive line is as flawed as it appeared in this game and I know the defense can play a whole lot better, especially against the run. It is days like this when the quarterback needs to make a difference and this just wasn’t one of those days.

So we swallow hard, accept the reality of what happened, and move on to the Jets. Sunday was a sobering bump in the road. Whether it was an aberration or a sign of things to come will have everything to do with how this season plays out.

Dolphins in good place to handle success

I figured all along the Dolphins would be improved this season. But I truthfully never imagined they would reach this level so quickly, certainly not with so many new players trying to contribute without the luxury of a productive offseason.

So, what a nice surprise it has been, seeing the Dolphins reel off five straight victories and watching how they have gotten better each week, now attracting the adulation of the national media who also never really saw this coming.

So that’s where they are. The question now: Where do they go from here?

You look at the schedule and you see three straight games against teams with losing records, starting Sunday at Denver, continuing the follow week at the Jets and then finishing it off with the Bengals are Hard Rock Stadium. After that, the final four games are a whole lot tougher.

So a 9-3 record heading into a game against Kansas City certainly no longer seems preposterous does it?

Whoa. Let’s slow down a minute. Nothing in this league is a given and the worst thing the Dolphins could do at this point is start paying attention to the long haul instead of the step right in front of them. I’ve seen that happen to so many Dolphins teams over the years. Put a nice winning streak together and heads become too big for helmets.

But this group appears to be different and how refreshing is that? There is a hunger coming from every corner of this team, a hunger fueled by Coach Brian Flores and accentuated by a group of players who are smart enough to understand they really haven’t accomplished much of anything yet.

Go up and down this roster. You’ll see that the fabric of this team, the team this brain-trust so meticulously put together, has been weaved with high-character veterans (most in their mid to late 20’s) who lead so well by example. Don’t take this for granted. Many teams don’t have it. This team apparently does.

Sunday’s challenge is a trip to a mile-high altitude against a team who has lost three of its last four to fall to 3-6. The Dolphins should win this game and it should look like many of the other victories: strong on defense, special on special teams and some more tasty morsels from Tua Tagovailoa.

I expect it to remain close much of the way because that’s what usually happens when you’re on the road. But this team, I firmly believe, understands and embraces the position they are now in. It’s been too much fun to stop now, too much fun seeing three become four and four become five and who knows how long this run of victories can last.

No, the Dolphins aren’t a great team. But they are a very good team and in these next three games they will face teams with a combined record of 5-21-1. Yes, the prospects are enticing and, as previously noted, these players haven’t experienced enough success to let it adversely affect them.

Last week in this column I picked the Dolphins to beat the Chargers 28-20 and they ended up winning 29-21. Not bad, don’t you think? With that in mind: Dolphins 27, Broncos 23

Put the re-build on hold – this team is awfully good

Well, look at them now. Five straight victories. A 6-3 record. A season now filled with enticing possibilities. Maybe we should put that rebuild on hold for a while; the Dolphins certainly have. This is no longer about the future, although isn’t it looking awfully bright right now? This is about the present, what this team has done and what it is capable of doing.

The latest example arrived Sunday in the form of a 29-21 victory over the Los Angles Chargers. The script followed form from previous victories. A big special teams play, this time a blocked punt. A strong overall defensive performance, holding the Chargers to 273 yards. And some special deliveries from Tua Tagovailoa who raised his record to 3-0 as a starter with a poised and proficient two touchdowns and no interceptions performance.

The formula is working. It has enabled the Dolphins to overcome some of their deficiencies, most notably the lack of a dominant running rushing attack and big play threats on the outside.

Have you checked out their schedule? If the Dolphins beat Denver next Sunday and with the Bills having a bye, it would leave both teams at 7-3 atop the AFC East. And what, no New England? Welcome to the dawning of a new day in the AFC East. And the Dolphins are right in the thick of it.

But before we get too far ahead with the big picture, there was an impressive overall performance Sunday that deserves our attention and appreciation.

Tua vs. Herbert. The statistics say Tua played better. Justin Herbert threw an interception and Tua didn’t. But the one statistic that propels this first of many head-to-heads decisively toward Tua was the final score. That can’t be disputed.

In case you’re keeping tabs – and I know I am — Tua now has five touchdown passes and no interceptions on the season. He also has a big tackle, coming on a fumble return by the Chargers in the second quarter of Sunday’s game. What can’t he do?

Some other thoughts about Sunday:

• OK, Jason Sanders finally missed a kick. But cut him a little slack. Sanders was brilliant once again and the pressure of perfection is now removed from his shoulders.

• Another interception for Xavien Howard, who is making a habit of this and the one he got Sunday was probably the biggest defensive play of the game with the Dolphins clinging to the lead.

• A running back by committee approach has now brought us Salvon Ahmed, who surprised me with his toughness and efficiency against the Chargers, finishing with 85 yards and a touchdown. It’s good that they have some depth now, but I remain convinced that the long-term answer will come from next April’s draft.

• Another big play from second-year player Andrew Van Ginkel, this time a blocked punt. Last week it was a fumble return for a touchdown. Sure looks like he has a knack for being in the right place and that’s something you just can’t teach.

• The offensive line did not give up a sack against a pretty good defensive front and that’s so important as Tua develops. Keep in mind three rookies are playing prominent roles. • One stat that will surely go unnoticed: The Dolphins committed just three penalties for 15 yards. They were among the least penalized teams in the league a season ago and that’s where they are again. Smart. Disciplined. Well-coached. If you’re looking for a reason for five straight victories, that’s got to be near the top

Can they make it five-in-a-row? Why not.

This week it’s Tua vs. Justin (Herbert).

Last week it was Tua vs Kyler (Murray).

The week before it was Tua’s First Start.

Every week there is a Tua angle and, really, did you expect anything else considering the resume he showed up with and the franchise-turning hopes he has ignited.

We knew coming in that this season would be so much be about him. What we didn’t realize was that the team itself would share top billing. The Dolphins enter Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers on a four-game winning streak and one the league’s real surprise teams. The defense is far better than anyone had expected, the special teams have been downright special, and the emergence of Tua has helped overcome a shortage of quality running backs.

Look at the Dolphins schedule. Check out the records of their next three opponents, the Broncos, Jets and Bengals. If the Dolphins beat the Chargers, this roll could continue a while and while Tua has certainly been a part of this streak, it’s every corner of this team that has stepped up.

See, with such a limited canvas to call upon, the biggest difference in these two rookie quarterbacks are the teams they play for: Herbert, the sixth overall pick last spring, is 1-6 as a starter. Tua, the fifth overall pick, is 2-0.

What does all of this mean? It means that Tua vs. Herbert is a nice storyline, and we’ll follow it closely, but the major storyline, thanks to what we’ve seen over the past month, is a Dolphins’ team looking every bit a playoff contender.

The Chargers won’t be an easy out. They’ve played teams close. They’ve lost the last two games in the final seconds. Herbert has played well. But something’s missing with this Chargers’ team, something the Dolphins apparently have.

I’ll be the first to tell you I’m surprised at what I’ve seen over the first eight games. I figured there would be improvement, but I also assumed it would come over the second half of the season. These four victories in a row mean the Dolphins are ahead of schedule and much of that success falls upon a defense that is sure looking like some of those New England defenses of a few years ago. No one or two stars that tower over everyone else. Just a lot of very good players who understand their roles.

Sure, there are some major concerns heading into the second half of the season, two most glaring: the receiver spot is woefully thin and the running game has been un-productive. I can tell you there isn’t an easy fix for either problem, which means the defense and of, course Tua, is going to have to carry this team through the second half the season.

It begins on Sunday. Not as much Tua vs. Herbert anymore as it is the Dolphins seeing how far they can take this nice little run they’re on.

I say it continues: Dolphins 28, Chargers 20

Tua shows us how special he can be in victory over Cardinals

What’s the bigger story? Tua raising his game or the Dolphins raising their record to 5-3. It’s got to be Tua because of what it means in the big, and now so much rosier, picture. But don’t undervalue this 34-31 victory over Arizona and how the Dolphins pulled it off.  This was impressive stuff on both fronts, a victory over a talented and ascending team on the road and a performance by Tua that years from now will deserve a spot on his wall of memories.

For Tua, it showed that last week against the Rams was simply a dip your toe in the water day. On Sunday, he dove in head-first. And what we saw was what all of us hoped we would see, a wonderfully talented quarterback taking this offense on his shoulders and leading in a manner that had to get you thinking: what could he possibly do next?

For the Dolphins it was their fourth straight win and once again the story lines were everywhere: a defense that scored yet another touchdown, a pass rusher in Emmanuel Ogbah who has reached elite status, a kicker in Jason Sanders who is on a ridiculously perfect roll and, of course, Tua leading the way.

How good is this Dolphins team? Playoff good. With Tua stepping up this way, the possibilities become so much more enticing.

Look at it this way. The two most important ingredients to winning long-term in this league are the coach and quarterback. Always has been. Always will be. The Dolphins are now top tier in both departments. Brian Flores has proven that over the past season and a half and Tua, well, what we saw Sunday against Arizona – the uncanny accuracy, the decision-making, the open field running – was so special you know it wasn’t some one-time tease.

Yep, with the coach and the quarterback now in place, with a defense that keeps making game-turning plays and with the powerful right leg of Sanders deciding close games, the midseason arrives with this team now a viable playoff contender.

Stay relatively healthy. Keep Tua upright. Build off these four straight victories. Keep getting across-the-board performances like we saw against the Cardinals. Do all of that and you can overcome some of the deficiencies this team has, most notably a running game that just isn’t much of a threat. We’ve seen one-year turnarounds before with this franchise. But this has a different feel to it, doesn’t it? With both lines now just about re-built, with the defense so much better than it was a year ago and with Tua now firmly entrenched as the starter, I can hardly remember the last time I felt so good about the long-term potential of this team.

Another important test for Tua and Dolphins

Chapter Two of Tua – has a nice ring to do it — as the team’s starting quarterback should provide us with another important measuring stick.

For Tua as well as the Dolphins.

This is not the old Arizona Cardinals the Dolphins will be facing late Sunday afternoon in Glendale, Ariz. This is a talented offensive team led by one of the top young quarterbacks in the league in Kyler Murray. Sure, it would be nice to get the type of defensive performance we saw last Sunday against the Rams. That made Tua’s job a lot easier. But you can’t count on that two Sunday’s in a row, nor can you count on Jakeem Grant taking a punt to the house.

The Dolphins will need more than two touchdowns from their offense to walk away with their fourth straight victory. That means Tua needs to be far better and more efficient. He needs some big plays, some key third down conversions and enough touchdowns to keep up with an Arizona team capable of making a defense look bad in a hurry.

Murray vs. Tua. Haven’t we seen this before in a national semifinal playoff game? Two young heavyweights, in so many ways the future of this league giving us a tasty morsel of what’s in store. Tua’s Alabama team beat Murray’s Oklahoma team in that BCS playoff game.

But this is a different ballgame altogether.

The Dolphins have been hit hard by injuries at running back and weren’t exactly tearing things up when they were healthy. Not sure you can count on much from the ground game this Sunday, which only adds to the significance of Tua’s performance.

Yes, I expected more in his debut, but I didn’t expect a 28-10 halftime lead that changed the complexion of the game and placed the Dolphins in a more conservative mindset.

I don’t expect them to be afforded such a luxury on Sunday. I’m anxious to see how Tua responds, how he grows from one game to another and how he matches up against Murray, already one of the league’s most electric players.

But it will also be incumbent on the defense to keep the game close. I’ve got to admit I’m surprised at how well this defense has played over the first seven games of the season and certainly how it became the feel-good story of the win over the Rams. Now let’s see if they can keep that going against Murray and arguably the league’s best receiver in DeAndre Hopkins.

My gut tells me that this Dolphins’ team isn’t quite ready to beat a team the caliber of Arizona on the road, that this offense currently has too many unresolved issues to envision them winning a shootout.

I see Arizona winning a close one. Unless, of course, Tua owns the day.

Tua just had to manage, the defense did the rest

We’ll have to wait a little while longer for Tua Tagovailoa to hoist this Dolphins team on his shoulders and carry them to a victory.

On Sunday against the Rams, his first start, all he had to do was manage.

The defense and special teams did the rest in a 28-17 victory, the Dolphins’ third in a row and further evidence that this team is a viable playoff contender.

There was no way I thought going in that Tua wouldn’t be the headline of this day. After all, this was his moment, undoubtedly the most anticipated start by a rookie quarterback since Dan Marino came along back in 1983.

But on this day, a Tua-minute drive to win the game was unnecessary. The Dolphins got a short touchdown pass from Tua, a few nice third down conversion passes, and that was about it. The offense was not a thing of beauty and that’s putting the 145-yard total output – yes TOTAL! — as nicely as possible.

But what says volumes about this team is that it didn’t have to be.

Not when the defense forces four turnovers in the first half alone, one of them a fumble that was returned 78 yards for a touchdown by Andrew Van Ginkel. And not when Jakeem Grant decides to take a punt 88 yards for a special teams touchdown.

After the concoction of those accomplishments gave the Dolphins a 28-10 halftime lead, they simply spent the second half playing it safe, refusing to expose Tua to that Rams pass rush and generally deciding to limit what they asked him to do. He had zero runs, for instance.

I understand this line of thinking. You’ve got a nice lead. Let Tua soak in the moment, get his first start out of the way, develop a feel for the speed of the pro game and move forward in baby steps. I’m sure if this game played out differently, we would have seen more. With at least nine more starts in front of him, there’s plenty of time for that.

Clearly the offense has some issues with or without Tua. The running game has been generally anemic. The receivers aren’t getting much separation and the offensive line has been hot and cold. Unleashing Tua will help, but it can only help so much if these other areas don’t show some improvement.

My lasting memory of Tua’s first start will be more about the play of this defense, a defense that seems to be getting better every week and a defense that is rapidly taking on an elite personality. The secondary is outstanding and the pass rush is much improved. In fact, it’s starting to look like some of those defenses Brian Flores coached in New England, and that’s saying plenty.

So Chapter 1 of the Tua Era started off with a win against a quality Rams’ team. That’s encouraging. What’ll be more encouraging is when the Dolphins open up the offense and let Tua take his game to another level.

It’s time to unwrap the gift that is Tua

The wait is finally over. The most anticipated first start by a Dolphins quarterback since a kid named Marino bolted on to the scene some 37 seasons ago will unfold this Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.

About 13,000 fans will be in attendance. Twenty years from now, I’m guessing about 100,000 will claim they were there.

What will we see Sunday against the Rams? Will Tua Tagovailoa pick up right where he left off at Alabama before that hip injury, throwing darts all over the field, leading with a poise that belies his age, completing passes with uncanny accuracy?

In other words, will he be as special and as extra-ordinary on the professional level as he was in college? And will it happen right away?

My guess is that it will. My guess is that we will see clear, undeniable signs against the Rams of what Tua is capable of doing, just a much larger sample size than what we saw in that late series against the Jets.

Will he be flawless? Hardly. Marino threw two picks in his first start. But he’ll be good enough to let our imagination run wild and certainly good enough to justify moving him into the starting lineup.

I used to tell people that with Marino, every Sunday was special because you always had a real chance to see something you’ve never seen before. I feel the same way about Tua. Look at it this way: the ceiling for Ryan Fitzpatrick only went so high. The ceiling for Tua is somewhere in the clouds.

Certainly, he’s going to need plenty of help. Since Tua is a lefty, it will be up to rookie right tackle Robert Hunt to protect his blind side. Keeping Tua upright is a huge part of this equation and Hunt has already shown he has the tools to own up to that task. We just have to hope that there are no close-up introductions, or at least very few, to all-pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

The Dolphins find themselves in an interesting position They are 3-3 after winning their last two games. The defense is playing well, the team in general doesn’t commit many costly penalties and the kicker is dealing with perfection. The offense doesn’t have the arsenal of firepower you are looking for, but there are enough quality playmakers to give Tua some enticing options.

If Tua is as good from the outset that I expect him to be, this team has a chance to grow up far quicker than many had thought possible. The talent is clearly in place to make a playoff run. Tua becomes the X-factor. If he plays as well, this season has a chance to get a whole lot more interesting.

But let’s not take things too far too quickly. Every journey begins with the first step and that, in so many ways, is what Sunday is about for Tua Tagovailoa.

Marino lost that first start 38-35 to the Buffalo Bills, but his performance was good enough to put a smile on Don Shula’s face, even after a gut-wrenching overtime defeat.

Wonder if Bryan Flores will be smiling just like Shula come late Sunday afternoon. Got a feeling he will be. The question then is: How big will that smile be?