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Defense leads the Dolphins to win in Cincinnati

I see you, Sean.
I see you, Sean.

Consider all the negatives. Allowing a touchdown on the opening drive of the game. A bad throw by Chad Henne into triple coverage that results in an interception. A would-be interception being tipped into the air by Chris Clemons that gets plucked out of mid-air by Terrell Owens, who walks into the endzone. A muffed punt by Davone Bess that results in a turnover. Key dropped passe by Brian Hartline and Anthony Fasano.

All of the above occurred on Sunday in Cincinnati. And yet, the Dolphins showed their mental toughness, refused to surrender, and defeated the Bengals 22-14 to get back over .500 a week after suffering a potentially deflating loss at home to the Steelers.

It wasn't pretty. It never is with this Dolphins team. But we take wins any way we get them - especially on the road against a talented but desperate team like the Bengals.

Defense toughens up in second half to lead the way

We were all expecting this Dolphins team to come out fired up after the way last week's game ended. Instead the defense allowed Caron Palmer and the Bengals to march right down the field, converting four third downs en route to a Terrell Owens touchdown.

That drive saw the Bengals march 86 yards - more than Miami's defense would allow in the entire second half on Sunday.

Just how dominant was this Dolphins defense in the second half?

The Bengals gained only 78 yards, averaging only 2.5 yards per play. Carson Palmer completed only 8 of 22 second half passes, for 52 yards and an interception. Their offense started the second half with four consecutive three and outs and didn't even pick up a first down until midway through the fourth quarter.

Palmer's struggles began before halftime, though. After opening the game 7 of 8, Palmer connected on just 10 of 30 pass attempts - one of which being that fluke touchdown pass to Owens that should have actually been an interception.

It's probably not a coincidence that Sean Smith - not Jason Allen - was on the field covering Owens for most of those final 30+ pass attempts. The switch was made after Allen got beat by Owens for a touchdown on the first drive of the game. And Sean remained on the field as the other cornerback opposite Vontae Davis for the rest of the game - and likely for the rest of the season. His late fourth quarter interception ended Cincinnati's lone second-half scoring threat late in the game and all but sealed Miami's fourth road win of the season.

Smith, the very confident and talented young corner, should reclaim his starting role from this point forward. But he is a perfect example of what this Dolphins team is - very talented but very inconsistent. It'll be interesting to see how he performs from this point forward.

As for Vontae, his outstanding play can't go unnoticed. After allowing two early completions to Chad Ochocinco - both converting third downs on that opening drive - Davis shut down Ochocinco. Mike Nolan actually allowed Davis to shadow Ochocinco all around the field - something this regime has been reluctant to do for much of the season. Vontae responded by shutting down Ochocinco the rest of the game. Chad's only other reception came against Chris Clemons - not Vontae Davis.

After the game, Davis told the media, "Once he caught two balls on me I said, 'OK, two balls, you're done for the rest of the day. I'm sorry. You woke me up."

But when you talk about how dominant this defense was in the second half yesterday, I think you have to take notice of one key stat. After allowing Cedric Benson to gain 52 yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half, the Dolphins limited Benson to just 17 yards in the second half. Making the Bengals one-dimensional was something I felt was very critical for this defense. They were able to do just that in the second half on Sunday - leading to that dominant performance.

We have to credit Mike Nolan as well. He did an excellent job confusing Carson Palmer and this Bengals offense. The defense disguised their coverages well. His schemes were well timed. They effectively adjusted to the no-huddle offense Cincinnati tried to run. Nolan's game plan was well executed by his players.

Any time you hold an offense with guys like Palmer, Benson, Owens, and Ochocinco to just 250 yards of offense and 14 points, you did a great job. On Sunday, the Dolphins did a great job on defense.

DC$ earns his nickname

Those of you who have been around here since Dan Carpenter's rookie season know that Carpenter has been dubbed "DC$" (read as "D.C. Money) by all of us here. For the second straight week, he showed us all that he is indeed worthy of that nickname.

While it's never a good thing when your kicker is the first offensive player mentioned for the second consecutive week, you have to respect what Carpenter has done these past few weeks. He's made 13 consecutive field goals since having his 53 yard attempt blocked against the Patriots.

He also became just the fourth player in NFL history to connect on at least five field goals in back-to-back weeks. The last player to accomplish such a feat was Richie Cunningham in 1997.

Carpenter was also part of perhaps the most critical stretch of the game. Following the Henne interception and ensuing fluke touchdown pass from Palmer to Owens, the Dolphins drove down the field and settled for a short field goal by Carpenter with just 58 seconds left in the first half. The defense then forced a huge three and out, giving Miami the ball again with 21 seconds. Three plays later, DC$ was asked to attempt a 54 yard field goal to cut Miami's deficit to two points at halftime. Carpenter connected (with distance to spare) on that career long field goal and gave the Dolphins the momentum heading into the locker room.

A big sequence of events for the Dolphins just before the half capped by a huge field goal by DC$ - the team's offensive MVP these last two weeks.


More quick thoughts on Sunday's win:

  • Chad Henne wasn't great. That was a terrible decision to throw over the middle into triple coverage, trying to make a play - resulting in that interception. But he wasn't bad, either. He made a few outstanding throws. He was sharp in the second half, completing 11 of 17 passes for 122 yards - including two huge completions on their lone touchdown drive.
  • That touchdown drive was a thing of beauty on a day when the offense struggled at times. That 6 play, 98 yard drive saw outstanding play-calling and outstanding execution. It's amazing how execution can make play calls look brilliant, isn't it?
  • Brian Hartline, who was demoted out of the starting receiver role, certainly redeemed himself on Sunday after that critical dropped ball on the modified flea-flicker. Hartline not only lost his starting job but also lost playing time to Roberto Wallace in three receiver sets early on. But he bounced back, making a couple of very key plays and drawing a couple of pass interference penalties. I wonder what his demotion was about, though. Outplayed in practice? Discipline? Not sure what to make of this.
  • Cameron Wake was quiet except for a couple of quarterback hits. But did you notice he was consistently double-teamed? It's a shame this defense lacks a quality second pass-rusher.
  • The Dolphins had the ball for over 18 minutes on the second half - likely having to do with Miami's ability to shut down Cedric Benson.
  • The Dolphins had an average starting field position of their own 40 yard line following a kickoff. The Bengals had an average starting field position of their own 22. Big difference and a good sign of improvement by Miami's special teams.
  • No, I don't like running the football three straight times with over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and an eight point lead. Yes, that's too conservative. And yes, it's even worse that two of those three runs were out of the Wildcat - particularly the 3rd & 4 Wildcat run. Let's chalk it up to classic Dan Henning and move on.
  • Red zone play calling wasn't the problem on Sunday. Red zone execution was.

Final Thought

The Dolphins look to close out the first half of their schedule - one of the toughest in the league - with a win next week in Baltimore. Doing so would put the Dolphins at 5-3, a record many would have signed up for back in August. The fact that the Dolphins can still achieve that goal despite their offensive struggles (they still haven't scored more than two touchdowns in a single game) and heart-breaking losses is an impressive accomplishment.

Some probably won't give the Dolphins much of a chance against the Ravens next week. But after the game, Brandon Marshall asked an astute rhetorical question.

"Didn't Cincinnati beat Baltimore?"