MIAMI GARDENS — Not a single one of the 6,122 yards the Miami Dolphins defense has allowed this season will matter, if they can find a way to win at the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a playoff game next weekend.
This is, statistically, the worst season a Dolphins defense has ever had.
Miami dramatically exceeded expectations, achieving a 10-6 record despite a defense that allowed, frankly, too many yards on the ground and too many yards through the air.
There are two observations that stand out to me after losses this season.
After Miami fell to 1-4, I noticed Cameron Wake, 34, sitting at his locker, long after the loss to Tennessee was over, holding his shaking head in his hands.
And after the Dolphins defense was smashed on Sunday by New England — again — 35 points, 396 yards, 22 first downs, I noticed Ndamukong Suh visably upset at his locker.
Suh hung his head and demonstrated visable frustation and disappointment.
Suh and Wake are the highest-paid defensive players on the Dolphins. Combined they will make more than $21 million this season ($12.6 million to Suh).
But what should also be known is how competitive Miami’s only two voted Pro Bowlers are. And how much they care.
And for Miami to have a chance to win at Pittsburgh, to defeat a two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and a Top-5 NFL running back (Le’Veon Bell) and Top-5 NFL wide receiver (Antonio Brown), Suh and Wake may have to turn in mind-boggling, history-making type performances.
Because I’m not sure who else on Miami’s defense can do such a thing.
After this loss, Miami defensive players told me they were able to upset the Steelers at Hard Rock Stadium earlier this season by limiting their star players.
But this isn’t that defense.
In that game, safeties Reshad Jones and Isa-Abdul Quddus (both on season-ending injured reserve) started. In that game, cornerback Byron Maxwell (who has an ankle injury and made no promises Sunday about his playoff availabililty) started. And in that game, linebacker Jelani Jenkins was available.
In fact, in looking at the 11 Dolphins defensive players who count the most againt the 2016 salary cap, seven may not play at Pittsburgh. They are: 3) Maxwell (ankle), 4) Jones (shoulder), 5) Mario Williams (benched/performance), 7) Koa Misi (neck), 8) Dion Jordan (reserve/non-football injury list), 10) Abdul-Quddus (neck) and 11) Jenkins (knee).
All this must be taken into consideration before too harshly criticizing defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who has tried every conceivable type of scheme and formation and strategy to compensate for deficiencies. Even the most ardest Dolphins fan knows there must be reinforcements for next season, especially at linebacker.
The Dolphins have developed into a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
But on Sunday, they appeared broken.
Miami coaches have said the statistics that matter more than yards allowed are points allowed, third-down defense, red zone defense, and turnovers.
Against New England on Sunday, the formula was not a winner: 35 points, third-down (7-for-12, 58 percent), red zone (3-for-4, 75 percent) and 0 fumbles forced, 0 turnovers and 0 sacks.
Earlier this season, I asked Suh if he would like to be fondly remembered by fans, in a way like Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas are. Those two never won Super Bowls, but they endeared themselves to fans with passionate play and yes, a few playoff appearances.
“I would hope so,” Suh told me that day in the Dolphins locker room. “I plan to play at that elite level as Zach and Jason Taylor did. But I have to focus at the task at hand, and that’s going out each and every week and being a dominant force for our defense and help us win.”
Next weekend will be Suh’s first Dolphins playoff game. He must be dominant for his team to have a chance to win.
Only two other times in franchise history have the Dolphins yielded more than 6,000 yards. Once, was last season, when the team finished 6-10 and Joe Philbin was fired.
Once was 1986, when the Dolphins led the league in points (see Dan Marino, Mark Clayton, Mark Duper) but finished 8-8.
We don’t know if Ryan Tannehill will play next weekend, but as good as Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry have been this season, this is not the Dolphins offense of 1986.
This will be Wake’s first playoff game, the long-awaited opportunity some thought might never come. Especially after he ruptured his Achilles tendon last season.
On Sunday, Wake suggested the notion that he has an extra level of intensity is wrong. Wake suggested his level of play is always 100 percent, and thus another level does not exist.
I’m not buying it. I think Wake has another level, a level he’s been waiting his entire career to reach. And I’m suggesting with this undermanned defense, Miami needs him to reach it next weekend.
Or this remarkable unexpected ride will abruptly end.