Considering its performance in Saturday's 31-10 victory over Seattle in the Orange Bowl, the Miami Dolphin defense is once again more Killer B than drone. No, the B's aren't as good as the old no-name defense that helped carry Miami to three Super Bowl games in the early '70s, but teamed as they are with an offense that may someday be bronzed en masse in Canton, Ohio, they look competent enough to get Miami to the Super Bowl for the second time in three years and for the fifth time in Don Shula's 15 seasons. Remember, Shula is 4-0 in AFC championship games, and the Dolphins will be at home again this week against Pittsburgh.
Everyone knows what Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino can do. And it's odds on that one or both parts of the Dolphins' Mark II offense—against the Seahawks it was Mark Clayton, though against the Steelers it may well be Mark Duper—will make a couple of catches that no human being should make. But what matters most now is that confidence and aggressiveness have returned to a Miami defense that had been found wanting in the latter part of the season. Pittsburgh quarterback Mark Malone and running back Frank Pollard could be in for a long afternoon.
"I'm really happy about our defense," said Shula after the Seattle game. "The players hung together and believed in themselves."
A few weeks ago, however, Shula was ready to hang them separately. After playing solidly through the first nine games of the year, the defense suddenly went south in November and December. The B's (the surnames of nine of the 11 starters and two of the backups begin with B) surrendered an average of 25.5 points in a six-game stretch that included losses to the Chargers and the Raiders, the Dolphins' only defeats of the season, and a couple of narrow escapes. There were injuries, to be sure. Cornerback Don McNeal hurt his knee; end Doug Betters played with a cracked rib; tackle Mike Charles underwent arthroscopic knee surgery; end Kim Bokamper hobbled around on a bad ankle; inside linebacker Jay Brophy broke both thumbs; and nose tackle Bob Baumhower hurt a little of everything. "I'll put it this way," said Baumhower, after the game. "I could still be healthier."
But injuries were only part of the picture. Along the way the B's had lost some of their sting. "We had no fire, no zip, no gang-tackling," said strong safety Glenn Blackwood. "I don't want to say we were spoiled," said Blackwood's brother, Lyle, the free safety, "but maybe we were a little complacent." A players-only meeting of the defensive unit before a season-ending 28-21 victory over Dallas helped, but no one could predict how the B's would perform against Seattle, a team with a recent history of playoff upsets, including a 28-20 win over the Dolphins one year ago.
The answer came early as the Dolphins stopped Seattle cold on its first two series. "Three [plays] and out, that's what we wanted to set the tone," said nickel back Mike Kozlowski. Throughout the game the Dolphins stuffed Seattle's rushing attack, which had been so productive (205 yards) the week before in the Sea-hawk's 13-7 wild-card win over the Raiders. Ground Chuck, so named for coach Chuck Knox, was just so much ground chuck against the Dolphins, leaving Dan Doornink's unlikely campaign to become Mr. December a fizzle. The journeyman running back, who had 126 yards against the Raiders, gained just 35 on 10 carries, fullback David Hughes only 14 on seven. That was it, aside from a two-yard scramble by quarterback Dave Krieg. BEE-utiful, as far as the Dolphins were concerned.
A stretch of Dolphin defensive complacency was entirely understandable, too, in light of the spectacular accomplishments of Marino & Co. No matter how hard the defense fought it, there had to be a subconscious feeling that the offense would put enough points on the board to win—the San Diego Charger Syndrome, as it were. Shula has apparently found a once-in-a-lifetime quarter-back in Marino, and he's decided to damn the torpedoes and turn him loose. Marino will put a few more gray hairs on Shula's head—he made ill-advised throws that resulted in two first-half interceptions by Seattle free safety John Harris—but Shula's not going to rein him in, not now, at least. In fact, he becomes a little defensive when Marino is criticized. "We've come this far attacking," said Shula, "and we're not going to stop now."
With receivers like Clayton and Duper and backup Jimmy Cefalo, why should they? Marino showed, too, that he needs only one of his magic Markers to have a good day. Duper missed the second half, nursing a cut in his mouth, and had only three catches for 32 yards. But Clayton finished with five receptions for 75 yards, two of them works of art. Or works of the occult.
Midway through the first quarter Clayton reached back and took a pass right off the helmet of Seahawk corner-back Keith Simpson for a 26-yard gain. Five plays later, Tony Nathan scored Miami's first touchdown on a 14-yard sweep, dragging safety Kenny Easley along. It was the beginning of a disagreeable afternoon for Simpson. Late in the third quarter he was running chin-to-chin with Clayton on a 90, Miami's basic fly pattern. At the two-yard line they went up together, but Clayton outjumped Simpson, tipped the ball straight up in the air and came down with it in the end zone for his 19th TD of the year, extending his NFL regular-season record. That made the score 27-10, and put the game out of reach for Seattle.
Said Clayton of the catch: "I should've come down with it the first time." Said Simpson of Clayton's acrobatics: "He made two damn good catches. But if a defensive back had done it, he would have been called for pass interference." Sour grapes, perhaps, but no one drank as deeply from the cup of frustration as Simpson, who twice was called for penalties on goal-line plays that preceded Miami's third touchdown, a three-yard Marino-to-Bruce Hardy pass.