The eye test told Dolphins fans through the first five weeks of the season that their team’s secondary was one of the worst in the league.
Miami finished 21st in passing yards and tied for 25th in passing touchdowns allowed last season, and with cornerback Bryon Maxwell — the reclamation project the Dolphins were hoping would fix their secondary — benched in September, 2016 had the looks of another long year in Miami.
But then strangely, the Dolphins shut down the Steelers, one of the most potent passing attacks in the league, in Week 6. And when we say shutdown, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t break the 200-yard mark and failed to throw a touchdown until there was under a minute left in the game.
A lot went well on both sides of the ball for Miami against Pittsburgh, but the Dolphins two safeties are holding the backend of their defense together and keeping the idea of a midseason turnaround possible. That all goes for not, however, if one of their safeties suffered a significant injury Sunday.
For better or for worse, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, defensive end Cameron Wake and Maxwell get all the press from the Dolphins defense. When they are at their best, they are elite players, but there’s no debate who has been Miami’s best defender over the last season and a half: Reshad Jones.
The free safety made 135 total tackles, including 106 solos last season, as he was all over the field for Miami’s defense. He also had 10 pass defenses, five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, and 2.0 sacks, all of which either set new career-highs or tied them.
He not only passed the tests in the box score, but also the analytic grades. Pro Football Focus gave Jones a 86.9 grade for his performance last season; their website’s scaling system goes up to 100, but anything about 90 is considered elite. In summary, Jones has been borderline All-Pro the past two seasons with a 88.7 grade in 2014 and then 86.9 last year.
Through six weeks this season, he’s even better at 88.5, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s the third-highest grade any safety has earned this season, and according to the website, he’s ranked second in pass coverage among safeties.
Miami has another very good safety in Isa Abdul-Quddus. The Dolphins made him one of the most underrated free agency acquisitions this past offseason when they signed him to a three-year deal. Abdul-Quddus is ranked the 28th-best safety with a grade of 78.1. Like Jones, he’s best against the pass.
The Dolphins may be struggling to find consistency at cornerback, but these safeties are keeping this defense from completely collapsing. And not only that, but Miami has actually improved defensively. The Dolphins are ranked 13th in passing yards allowed per game and are yielding 1.5 passing touchdowns per week rather than an average of 1.94 each week.
Both Jones and Abdul-Quddus had interceptions of Roethlisberger in Sunday’s big victory against Pittsburgh. Without these two safeties, it’s no telling where this Dolphins defense would be.
Unfortunately, Miami might find out over the next few weeks. NFL.com reported Monday that the Dolphins fear Jones has a torn rotator cuff. The 28-year-old underwent tests, and if an MRI reveals his rotator cuff is torn, then his season will be over.
Miami must hope that the damage is significantly less than a full tear to his rotator cuff. The loss of Jones absolutely crushes any hopes of a miraculous turnaround this season.
Fans may laugh at the notion that the Dolphins are still alive in the playoff race, but the Chiefs began last season 1-5 yet made the postseason. After their impressive Week 6 performance, the Dolphins turned themselves into a candidate to be the next 2015 Chiefs.
It won’t be possible, though, without the services of Jones. He is the key to Miami’s entire improvement defensively.