The new Miami vise Dolphins: While the offense makes headlines, inspired play from another 'No-Name Defense' has been crucial to Miami's 4-2 start.

October 16, 1997|By Michael Mayo | Michael Mayo,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DAVIE, Fla. -- Jimmy Johnson is at it again. Mining the draft for hidden nuggets. Polishing them in his brash image. Watching a once-soft defense harden like a diamond.

Lost in the headlines and head games of Johnson's threat to bench Dan Marino, the real story of this Dolphins' season has been a swift and stunning defensive turnaround. When Miami (4-2) comes to Baltimore on Sunday, an emerging crop of no-name defenders could have as much to do with the outcome as Marino.

Gone are the days when a gunslinging Marino would end up on the short side of a shootout, done in by a defense that inevitably caved at the end.

Now the tables have turned: Marino and his talent-depleted offense have struggled, but they've been bailed out by a young and hungry defense.

In three of Miami's four wins, the Dolphins have scored 17, 16 and 16 points. Although 22nd in the NFL in yardage allowed, Miami's revamped defense has held opponents to 18.5 points per game. The team's takeaway ratio is plus-five, fifth in the league.

"Maybe some people are surprised, but we know we have the players," rookie linebacker Derrick Rodgers said. "As the weeks have progressed, we've gotten to know each other a lot better. Big plays are starting to happen, and I think we'll start making more."

Johnson has almost totally replaced the unit he inherited when he took over in 1996, one that allowed 536 yards in Don Shula's last game, a 37-22 first-round playoff loss to Buffalo.

Plodding veterans have given way to fast, swarming attackers.

"Playmakers," said Rodgers, a third-round pick from Arizona State who leads the team with 52 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles. "Jimmy wants people who are always around the ball, people who can make plays that can change the game. A lot of it has to do with desire and intensity, guys who get excited and bring that college enthusiasm. But we know we're not in college anymore."

All told, seven of 11 starters on defense have come to the team in the last two years. Only one full-time starter under Shula remains: defensive tackle Tim Bowens, a first-round draft pick in 1994.

Johnson's first first-round pick, Daryl Gardener, lines up next to Bowens. The others came to South Florida with suspect pedigrees and oddball resumes.

There is Zach Thomas, last year's big surprise, a fifth-round draft pick from Texas Tech who led the team with 180 tackles as a

rookie. He is nothing if not resilient. He was nearly killed as an infant when he was run over by a truck. He broke his leg in August, missed one game, and quickly climbed back atop the tackle chart: He is tied with Rodgers at 52.

"What I like about this defense is we don't let things get to us," Thomas said. "We might make a mistake early, but we come back and make a play at the end."

This year's big surprises are two third-round picks: Rodgers and defensive end Jason Taylor from Akron.

Neither is the typical NFL jock. Rodgers is 26, having spent four years in the Air Force. A scrawny teen, he didn't play football in high school in New Orleans, but he did play trumpet in the school's acclaimed jazz band. His first exposure to the game came at an air base in Okinawa, Japan, where he played flag football. He liked it so much he said he would make it to the NFL.

"Being naive helped me a lot," Rodgers said. "I had no idea how hard it would be trying to do what I've done."

He played at Riverside (Calif.) Junior College before landing a scholarship at Arizona State. He was a lab technician in the Air Force who studied microbiology in school. While in junior college, he earned extra money collecting blood and urine samples at nursing homes.

"If this didn't work out, I always had my brains," said Rodgers, excited about playing in Baltimore because his brother and sister (who live in Alexandria, Va.) will get to see him play for the first time.

Taylor is a tall (6 feet 6) and lean (255 pounds) pass-rushing specialist who has two sacks and numerous pressures. He comes from a family that has produced a long line of military officers. He was home-schooled but still played for a high school team in Pittsburgh. A devout Christian, he memorized the Book of James as a teen-ager.

"Jason's a special player, but we have to make sure we don't wear him out by using him too much," Johnson said.

Johnson has guarded against overexertion by rotating six linemen throughout games. That has kept everyone fresh, especially in crunch time.

In two wins over the past two weeks, the defense hasn't allowed a touchdown of consequence in the second half. The Dolphins posted a second-half shutout in a 17-14 win against Kansas City two weeks ago.

The image of the game: undrafted second-year linebacker Anthony Harris flapping his arms and screaming like a maniac on the final drive. And that was moments before he tackled Marcus Allen short of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-four screen pass.

"I can say I put it on a Hall of Fame running back, even for just one day," Harris said.

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