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The curious case of the Miami Dolphins secondary

What exactly is happening with what was supposed to be the strength of the defense?

Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Heading into the 2020 regular season, the strength of the Miami Dolphins was clearly their secondary. A cornerbacks group headlined by Xavien Howard and Byron Jones was poised to become the elite unit in the league, while Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe, both converted cornerbacks, were set to take a step forward at safety and provide the team with the versatility to cover in man-to-man situations while also playing over the top as a centerfielder-style free safety. Miami’s secondary was ready to lead the team into the next phase of the rebuild.

Except, as with everything in 2020, things did not go as expected. Howard has been recovering from a knee injury last year that required offseason surgery. Jones sustained a non-contact groin injury on Sunday. Rookie first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene has played like a rookie. Second-year cornerback Nik Needham, who developed last year when thrown into a starting role due to injuries, has regressed back to the mean and is making mistakes when the Dolphins cannot afford mistakes to be made.

Howard was on a “pitch count” in Week 1, protecting him from aggravating the knee. Whether by design or by necessity when Jones was injured after just four snaps, Howard played 60 of the 61 defensive snaps in the game. Miami locked Howard on John Brown for the game, with the plan to have Jones on Stefon Diggs. Igbinoghene covered Diggs the remainder of the game, and it looked like a rookie trying to cover Diggs, who finished the game with eight receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown.

“Noah is a mentally tough kid,” Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said of Igbinoghene on Monday. “I think playing against a receiver of that caliber the entire day after an injury, getting put in that position, he had some instances where he covered him well and then he had a lot of instances where Diggs was able to get open against him. I think it’s a good experience for him. I think he’ll learn from it. I think just watching it, there are some things he could easily do better to put himself in a little bit better position. I think hopefully in the long run this will be a good thing for him.”

“It’s definitely a teaching moment,” Igbinoghene said of the experience gained on Sunday. “I learned a lot today, not only about this team but about myself. Of course, I didn’t play up to my standard at all. I’ve got to move past it and move on to the next game. That’s all I can do, just learn from it”

He continued, when asked about the challenge of covering Diggs for the entire game. “I’ve had many challenges. Of course, he’s one of the top receivers in the league, and it’s for a reason. He’s a very good player. Tremendous route runner, stuff like that. Like I said before, I learned a lot today, not only about him but about myself, as well. I’ve just got to respond and come back next week.”

I wasn’t surprised. It was the game plan,” Howard explained after the game on Sunday when asked why he was not covering Diggs more throughout the game, especially after Jones’ injury. “I knew the game plan what was going on. Coaches did what was best for us and at first Byron was covering and something happened with Byron, so Noah ended up coming in. It was the game plan that we had.”

Asked about Howard’s health, Flores explained, “I would say he’s healthy. We wouldn’t put him out there if we didn’t think he was healthy. Obviously we had injuries yesterday, as you guys saw. He was on Brown. I think he’s healthy. To me, we’ve just got to cover the guys that we’re on. I think we had issues with Stefon Diggs, we had issues with Brown, we had issues with (Cole) Beasley. My message to the guys is the guys we put you on, those are the guys we expect you to cover, whether that’s Noah on Diggs or Byron Jones on Diggs or ‘X’ (Xavien Howard) on Brown or Nik Needham on Beasley. We all just have to do a better job of covering. We felt like that was the best matchup, so that’s why we did that.”

Losing Jones hurt the team, and it is a loss that could stretch into Week 3. The Dolphins face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football this week. “He’s in this morning,” Flores said of Jones on Monday. “We’ll take a look at this. Obviously it’s a quick turnaround. He’d have to heal pretty quickly. We’re not ruling him out or anything just yet. We’ll just take a look at how this goes the next couple of days. Again, we’re playing in three days. We’ll see where he is. No official update right now.”

The Bills dominated the Dolphins with crossing patterns throughout the game. The Dolphins, who are primarily built to be a man-to-man, press-coverage type of secondary, simply could not keep up with the receivers as they worked across the middle. Rubs and picks were the game plan for the Bills’ passing attack, and they worked it to perfection. “It’s a combination of pressure, missing coverages, potentially keeping someone on the weak side. All of those things,” Flores said of how the Dolphins can avoid seeing the same type of issues in the future. “We have answers to all of those things. As a press team, as a Cover 1 team, we’ve got to cover better. We can’t let people off the hook from that standpoint. We’ve got to coach it better, we’ve got to mix the coverages, we’ve got to cover better. We’re all a part of it. This is one team. We’ve got to coach it better and that starts with me. We’ve got to play better. I think the players understand that. We’re not pointing fingers or making excuses. We’re just going to come to work and work to get better. I think (you guys) asked what we could build on and it’s that these guys work. They come to work every day and they want to get better and it’s important to them. We’ll build on that. My experience says we’ll improve if we have the attitude that we’ve had.”

Howard explained how they improve even more simply. We have to put ourselves in a better position to make a play and make a play on the ball,” he said. “We just got to – Teams know what we doing, what we’re going to do, so we just got to put ourselves in a better position to make a play.”

After the game, safety Bobby McCain addressed the Bills use of crossing routes. “It’s tough on DBs,” he explained. “It’s tough on corners for sure trying to play, keep leverage — all crossers do, overs and crosses — they just beat your leverage and they just run away from your leverage. We made some corrections and we we’ll … You live and learn. You play and learn and that’s what we’ll have to do quickly. We’ve got to turn it around quickly.”

Late in the game, the Bills ran back-to-back plays featuring the same crossing route for Brown, with an incompletion on the first attempt, then a 46-yard touchdown on the second. The touchdown pushed Buffalo’s lead to 11 points, putting the Dolphins two scores down, a lead that proved to be insurmountable. Howard took responsibility for the play. He ran to open space,” Howard said. “That was my guy. I take fault of that, he scored a touchdown. I just got to be on top of it.”

Safety Bobby McCain did not think it was completely on Howard, however, saying after the game, “We were in a specific call, I’m not going to tell you the call, but we were in a specific call and I peeked over on the other side and I tried to help as much as I can. I’m not sure what he told you, but it’s not just on him. As a defense, we could have played better throughout the game and was giving up big plays. But we’ll get it corrected. We’ll get it fixed.”

The Dolphins have only four days to get it fixed before they are once again on the field. Will Jones be able to return? Will Igbinoghene be able to take the lessons learned against the Bills and apply them against the Jaguars? Will whatever led to Needham, who started as the slot cornerback on Sunday, looking lost throughout much of the game, be fixed before Thursday? Miami’s secondary is supposed to be the strength of the team. Right now, it is simply a mess and a liability. They have four days to figure out what went wrong and get it corrected before the Jaguars use the same game plan.