As Buffalo Bills quarterback Rob Johnson left the field at Pro Player Stadium on Sunday, his body language said plenty about how dominant the Miami Dolphins' defense has become. His aching right elbow was bandaged, his eyes stared straight ahead with a defeated glaze, and he plugged along at a deliberate pace, looking like a man who had been sacked five times. In the Dolphins' locker room, defensive end Jason Taylor shook his head as he thought about what Johnson had been through. "Rob's a tough guy," he said. "I even hurt myself sometimes when we hit him hard. I know he had to be hurting out there, but then it's always good to see a quarterback bleed."
The pain Johnson suffered was only a sample of the damage Miami, which beat the Bills 22-13, has inflicted on the rest of the AFC East. The Dolphins, whom most observers expected to finish around .500, are 5-1 and boast the stingiest defense in the league (8.5 points per game). The three touchdowns they've allowed are the fewest in the first six games of a season since the Atlanta Falcons gave up the same number in 1977. "We're real tough in the red zone, and that's what I like most about this defense," says middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "Last year we would get rattled at times in the red zone. Now, even if the other guys get the ball on the one-yard line, we know there's a good chance they're not getting into the end zone."
It would be easy to say that Miami, which started last season 7-1 and then dropped six of its last eight games, is teasing its fans again. But even with an offense that has six new starters and remains inconsistent, the Dolphins manhandled the Bills in a manner suggesting that this is a team built to last. By limiting Buffalo to 39 yards, Miami mustered a 13-3 halftime advantage—but its biggest defensive plays were yet to come.
With the Bills pinned at their one-yard line early in the third quarter, Dolphins defensive tackle Jermaine Haley crashed through and dumped running back Jonathon Linton in the end zone for a safety. Then early in the fourth quarter Buffalo had a first-and-goal at the Miami five and couldn't get the ball across the goal line; after three incomplete Johnson passes, the Bills settled for Steve Christie's 23-yard field goal. Finally, after Buffalo had pulled to 15-13 on fullback Sammy Morris's three-yard touchdown run, Dolphins cornerback Patrick Surtain stripped Morris of a pass reception, and fellow corner Sam Madison picked the ball out of midair and returned it 20 yards for the game-clinching touchdown with 4:45 left.
Miami finished with six sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception. Johnson, who scrambled for a team-high 44 yards, was hit so hard on one third-quarter play that on the next down he couldn't handle the shotgun snap. Explaining later that he had been "seeing colors," Johnson let the snap sail through his hands but had enough presence of mind to recover the ball 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Late in the game he experienced such pain after being hit on his right elbow that Doug Flutie was summoned to mop up.
The Dolphins ended the 1999 regular season ranked fifth in the NFL in defense, but they got a wake-up call in the AFC divisional playoffs when the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated them 62-7. Miami players admit that they got sloppy, losing their technique and forgetting fundamentals as the season wore on, so this year they're staying focused in those areas.
Equally important to the Dolphins' success has been the influence of their new coaching staff. When Dave Wannstedt replaced his good friend Jimmy Johnson as Miami coach last Jan. 16, he gave the defensive coordinator's job to Jim Bates, who had spent the previous four seasons as a Dallas Cowboys assistant. The Dolphins implemented the same aggressive scheme that Wannstedt had designed as the defensive coordinator under Johnson at the University of Miami in the late 1980s and with the Cowboys in the early '90s. Wannstedt wanted a coordinator who understood the scheme well enough to make subtle adjustments.
Enter Bates, who altered some of the defensive fronts to give the Dolphins more opportunities to pressure the quarterback and who changed the way they play the pass. Miami spends about 60% of the game in man coverage, as opposed to 80% last season and has cut back on its zone blitzing. As a result, the Dolphins have given up fewer big plays. "My philosophy is just to play sound football," Bates says. "I don't rely on gimmicks. You can steal a game with gimmicks, but you also might get into trouble if you do a lot of exotic things. We want to play within our schemes and make people beat us at what we do best."
"The scary thing is they're so effective even though they're not very complicated," says quarterback Drew Bledsoe, whose New England Patriots collected only 210 yards in a 10-3 loss to the Dolphins on Sept. 24. "If anything, they've gotten simpler this year. When they line up, you know what they're going to do, and they do it to you anyway."
Bates has also injected new life into the rigors of weekly game preparation. While an assistant at Texas Tech from 1978 through '83, he once donned a helmet in practice and took on a fullback in an attempt to ratchet up the intensity during a hitting drill. Though he got knocked silly, such hands-on exuberance remains a hallmark of his coaching. When a defender makes an outstanding play in practice, Bates often will sprint across the field to deliver a high five. "One thing that hasn't changed about football is that players can tell when a guy is sincere and dedicated to making them better," Wannstedt says. "The guys on defense can see that Jim is serious about making them better."