The Dolphins, in five days, have gone from watching their boundary cornerbacks suffer through one of their worst conceivable games to seeing them play a statistically perfect one.
And they did it without Byron Jones, their highest-paid player.
The remarkable transformation, on a short work week, for rookie Noah Igbinoghene and former Pro Bowler Xavien Howard was as much a relief as anything.
A relief because the Dolphins saw visual evidence validating the selection of Igbinoghene with the 30th overall pick in April after a dreadful performance against Buffalo.
And a relief because the Dolphins witnessed visual evidence that Howard is moving closer to regaining his 2018 form after knee surgery in December.
And here’s the most jarring way to frame their improvement:
Quarterbacks had a 147.7 passer rating in the coverage area of Howard and Igbinoghene against Buffalo — not far off from a perfect 158.8 QB rating.
Against Jacksonville, the rating in those two players’ coverage area was zero, according to the NFL’s passer rating formula.
“X is a mentally tough guy; so is Noah,” coach Brian Flores said Friday. “I expected both guys to bounce back.”
Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew completed only one of three passes in Igbinoghene’s coverage area, with the completion going to Lavisha Shanault Jr. for just 2 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
Meanwhile, with Howard in coverage, Minshew’s three passes (all to Chris Conley) were incomplete, with Howard intercepting the last of those. Howard was holding the back of his leg after that pick but said Friday that it was just a “little cramp” and he’s fine.
The interception was Howard’s 13th in his past 25 games dating to December 2017. Only Chicago’s Kyle Fuller has as many interceptions in that span.
Asked if he’s back physically to where he was in 2018, Howard said: “I feel great.”
“They are prideful guys [and] especially at that position, you’ve got to have a short memory,” Flores said of Howard and Igbinoghene. “Occasionally, they make plays on us. We make plays on them. You’ve got to be able to move on to the next play, next game and try to be better, which they were last night.”
The boundary cornerback play was quite a contrast to last Sunday, when Igbinoghene was victimized repeatedly by Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs and allowed 7 of 11 passes in his coverage area to be caught for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
Twice during Thursday’s NFL Network broadcast, Fox’s Troy Aikman said Dolphins coaches did a “disservice” to Igbinoghene by leaving him in man coverage with Diggs.
Meanwhile, Howard permitted four of six passes in his coverage area to be caught for 71 yards against Buffalo — including a 46-yard game-sealing touchdown reception by John Brown.
Aikman praised the Dolphins for playing more zone Thursday.
Asked Friday if the Dolphins changed their coverage as Aikman said, Flores said: “Every week we will do what we feel is best to win the game. Josh Boyer and our defensive staff came up with a good game plan for this particular week.
“It was a mix of zone calls, man calls, blitzes. Thought we mixed it well, got some more balance. You never want to do just one thing or doing just a couple things. You want to be able to mix the calls, mix the fronts,... to keep our opponent off balance. That’s what we always try to do. I thought Josh did a great job of that defensively.”
It also helped that Jacksonville was without its best receiver, DJ Chark, who missed the game with a chest injury.
A stiffer challenge awaits in Miami’s next game, Oct. 4 against visiting Seattle, with DK Metcalf (8 catches, 187 yards, two touchdowns in two games) and Tyler Lockett (82 catches-1,057 yards in 2019, 15-189 this year). The Dolphins hope Jones can return by then.
Here’s what else Flores discussed in his Friday news conference, a day after his team’s 31-13 win in Jacksonville:
▪ Asked why defensive lineman Zach Sieler played more than Davon Godchaux (31 snaps to 28), Flores said: “Sometimes you go with the hot hand. Sieler has gone in there and been productive, been productive at practice, went in there and had production in the game yesterday....
“No knock on Godchaux; he’s had many good plays himself and that’s why he’s played a lot in this league. Last night we called Sieler’s number. We got a locker room full of team players. They are happy for each other’s success.”
▪ On getting their first win to move to 1-2: “That’s why we practice, why we prepare. I’m excited for our players, our coaches to see the fruits of their labor. Now the goal is to try to string them together. There are a lot of things we can correct.”
▪ Offensively, “we did a good job of spreading the ball around. You create issues for our opponent and force them to guard everyone and force them to defend every inch of the field,” Flores said. “That’s what you want to do offensively. I wish we would have sustained it a little better in the second half.”
▪ On why running back Myles Gaskin continues to play a lot: “He’s been productive, runs it effectively, catches the ball, blocks on pass protection, plays some in the kicking game. He’s tough, competitive and he’s been productive. If you are productive in this league, you will get more opportunities, and that has been the case for him.”
▪ Flores said that there was no issue with rookie defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge, who was inactive for a third consecutive game and did not make the trip to Jacksonville.
“We decided not to travel him. Strow has worked hard, done a good job. He’s developing. We expect him to be part of the future here. I wouldn’t make too much of if he traveled or not. He’s doing a very good job. When the opportunity presents itself, hopefully he’s ready.”
Flores said he expects Strowbridge to practice next week.
▪ Flores - without elaborating with names - said “a few guys” got “banged up” in the game and “all are getting treatment…. We’ll see what they look like next week.”
Tight end Adam Shaheen returned to Thursday’s game after leaving briefly and is getting “rehab from nicks and bruises.”
▪ With Seattle visiting in nine days, Flores said “we’ve seen some [quarterbacks] who are mobile over the last few weeks” and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson “is one of the best guys in the league. It will be a challenge.”
▪ Asked why the defense improved Thursday, Flores said: “Better communication, better awareness, overall better energy. It was just better overall. Communication was at the forefront. We rushed the passer better. Better situations to rush the passer. Rushing the passer having a lead is different than rushing the passer when you don’t have the lead.”