Miami Dolphins’ Darren Rizzi: Kicking battle is even; Raekwon McMillan still on special teams

Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi explains some of the options coaches have on special teams.

DAVIE — A day after Jason Sanders was perfect on field-goal tries, Greg Joseph had four misses during Dolphins mini-camp.

Don’t read too much into that, says Darren Rizzi, the special teams coordinator and associate head coach.

Rizzi’s point was that behind closed doors that the media haven’t seen, the kicking battle has been much closer than when kickers have been in full view.

“It’s been about even,” Rizzi said Wednesday.

It didn’t appear that way after Sanders, drafted in the seventh round out of New Mexico, went seven-for-seven and Joseph, an undrafted free agent from Florida Atlantic, had four misses, including some from very makable range. Rizzi pointed out that Joseph earlier had a near-perfect day, so there’s a long way to go before those two are sorted out.

“What everybody has seen is both guys have really good leg strength,” Rizzi said. “Both have a lot of pop on the ball. Both have really gotten the ball up well, meaning elevation on the ball.”

Both performed well on kickoffs, Rizzi added.

Because they’re rookies, they’re trying to impress coaches while Rizzi is “tweaking” their mechanics. It could be “something as simple as an inch or two on your plant foot,” Rizzi said, but the effects of those changes won’t come overnight.

That’s not all Rizzi has to concern himself about.

Raekwon McMillan, whose rookie season last year was wiped out by a knee injury while covering a punt on his first play of preseason, now is a starting linebacker.

So now what? Is he still on special teams? Is it too risky?

Rizzi said it’s “the 10,000-pound elephant in the back room because he got hurt last year. I get it. His first play in the NFL, he ran down a punt and got injured. Rookie linebackers play on special teams. It doesn’t matter if they’re drafted, undrafted, first round, second round, 10th round, 90th round. Rookie linebackers and defensive backs and running backs and receivers, they play special teams.”

McMillan isn’t a rookie now, and he won’t play on every aspect of special teams, but he’ll still be used on some, Rizzi said. The injury history won’t factor into coaches’ thinking.

“We’re going to coach everybody the same,” Rizzi said. “Listen, it was a really unfortunate thing that happened to him last year. To his credit, he’s jumped right back in. He’s doing our drills. He’s doing everything. … Everybody is going to have some type of role on special teams. We’re not going to start making decisions based on injury history. You’re not going to have anybody left on the field.”

When the Dolphins traded Jarvis Landry, they lost one of their punt returners. Odds are Jakeem Grant will continue to handle his share of those duties, with newcomer Danny Amendola the favorite to be the “safe” return man when the Dolphins are backed up. Several others, including Albert Wilson and Drew Morgan, are getting looks.

Between all the newcomers and rule changes to make kickoffs safer, the Dolphins have miles to go before sorting out the kick-return unit. Options deep include Wilson, Senorise Perry, fourth-rounder Kalen Ballage, Torry McTyer and last year’s top return man, Grant.

“We’re still trying to fudge with this new rule a little bit,” Rizzi said. “ … We’re trying to kind of figure out how we’re going to do it, whether it’s one guy deep, two guys deep.”

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Dolphins K Greg Joseph out to win open competition with Jason Sanders

Greg Joseph once kicked as a hobby. Now he’s got a shot at the NFL. (Andres Leiva/The Post)

DAVIE — Many times throughout his life, Greg Joseph could’ve simply brushed kicking aside. Given how much of an afterthought it was to him at certain points, it’s a bit of an upset that he’s put himself in position to win a job with the Dolphins as he heads into Organized Team Activities this week.

Joseph was born in Johannesburg, 8,000 miles from the nearest NFL team, and spent most of his childhood on soccer fields. He moved to West Boca at age 7 and remained submerged in soccer, only picking up football heading into his final year at American Heritage School in Delray Beach because coach Stacy Sizemore talked him into it.

“Heritage was a big football school, so if you’re on the football team, it was kind of a cool gig,” Joseph said. “It was very fun. It was appealing because I’m a competitor and I actually had to compete for the job.

“I could kick a ball far, but that doesn’t mean it was going through the uprights. Changing the form from soccer to football was a big step. I can’t say I was good at all. And when I look back four years from now, hopefully I’m saying right now I wasn’t good. Hopefully I keep growing.”

Even after success at American Heritage, he had to claw his way onto Florida Atlantic’s team as a walk-on and didn’t give serious consideration to becoming a professional kicker until nearly the end of his junior year with the Owls.

The way he describes that epiphany now sounds nonchalant, but it was a turning point in terms of dedicating himself fully to the craft.

“I was kicking just to help out my team; I love my guys at FAU,” he said. “Towards the end of junior year, I kind of realized it was a possibility. I earned a scholarship. I was busting my butt. If I’ve come this far, why not give it a shot?”

Joseph now has the chance to turn what was once a hobby into high-paying career as he begins what will likely be a three-month audition with Miami. He’s in as good of a position as any rookie kicker can be, facing a one-on-one battle with seventh-round pick Jason Sanders of New Mexico as the Dolphins look to replace Cody Parkey.

Based on how they’ve handled things the last two years thanks to the NFL relaxing its preseason roster rules, they probably won’t decide between the two until shortly before the September cutdown deadline.

With no veteran incumbent in the mix, there will be an open competition between Sanders and Joseph. Sanders, the 229th selection out of 256 total picks, has no upper hand, and their college stats were comparable.

While neither posted overwhelming numbers in their collegiate careers, both impressed special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi in pre-draft workouts.

“A lot of people don’t want to hear this, but when you look at a college placekicker, one of the last things I look at is field goal percentage,” Rizzi said. “It’s completely different than the NFL. I can sit here for hours and talk about the guys and give you examples.”

Joseph hit 70 percent of his 82 field goal attempts at FAU, while Sanders made 71 percent on 35 tries. Both were very strong on kickoffs as well, according to Rizzi.

Rizzi, by the way, was the only NFL coach to put Joseph through a workout leading up to the draft and volunteered some helpful tips during that meeting in Boca Raton.

Joseph spent the last several months training and did some of that work in Jupiter with Parkey, who signed with Chicago as a free agent in March. That helped him tremendously, and he still refers back to some of the pointers he got in those sessions.

“A lot of mindset advice, and he did help me out with my form because he’s experienced and he’s seen a lot in his time in the NFL,” Joseph said. “I took all of it to heart and I wrote it down.”

One similarity between the two appears to be their mentality, though Joseph has yet to get the opportunity to prove he can maintain it under the pressure of kicking in an NFL game. Both players emphasize an absolute concentration on routine, which is something Rizzi often praised about Parkey.

The machinelike process is what attracted the Dolphins to Parkey in the first place, and it’s something they noticed about Joseph as well. That kind of disposition is reassuring to the coaching staff, and maintaining that outlook will help Joseph as he tries to secure his spot. It comes out in listless clichés, but it’s exactly how Rizzi wants him thinking.

“I’m gonna be kind of boring to you guys,” Joseph said. “I’m coming in here with the mindset that I’m putting my head down and working and worrying about what I can control. I can’t control what (Sanders) does. I’m just gonna do what I can.”

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Why proposed changes to kickoffs could give leg up to Miami Dolphins, Jakeem Grant

Jakeem Grant returns a kickoff vs. the Patriots last season. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

DAVIE — When Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi was asked about scouting kicking prospects and responded by rattling off the field-goal percentages of the NFL’s top kickers coming out of college, there was no getting around that this guy spends a crazy amount of time mulling such things.

Next week, there’s a good chance that when NFL owners gather for their spring meeting in Atlanta, there’s a good chance they’ll OK changes in kickoff rules to enhance safety without compromising excitement.

And Rizzi’s special teams could stand to benefit immensely.

Without delving too deeply into the minutiae of what’s being (pardon pun) kicked around, Rizzi, part of a select committee chosen to make recommendations to the owners, believes the changes could open up the return game, which by extension could be a boon for those with speed to burn.

If you’re a Dolphins fan, you know exactly where this leads: Jakeem Grant, who has been timed at 4.38 in the 40.

“Listen, I’ve talked to Jakeem about the new rules,” Rizzi said. “ … I think a guy like Jakeem could certainly benefit from the rule. It being a more wide-open play, I know he’s excited about it for sure.”

Nor should he be the only one. Kenyan Drake (4.45) has handled return duties before, including that memorable 96-yard return for a TD against the Jets in 2016. But with his promotion into the featured-back role, it remains to be seen whether the Dolphins will lighten his special teams load in 2018.

And among the newcomers, there’s Albert Wilson (4.43), who returned some kicks for the Chiefs, and fellow receiver Danny Amendola (4.58), who handled some punt-return duties for the Patriots. And fourth-round pick Kalen Ballage (4.46), a running back, averaged 20.8 yards on kickoff returns at Arizona State last year.

Rizzi believes if the changes are approved, you’ll see more skill-position players and fewer linemen on special teams. You’ll see fewer of those high, short kicks that the Patriots like to utilize because kicking teams will have less of a running start and therefore will be hard-pressed to pin returners inside their 25-yard line. And, reversing a recent trend, you’ll see returners more likely to take it out of their end zone rather than settle for touchbacks.

So much of this could benefit a Dolphins team that needs every inch of field position for the offense that it can get. Last season, the Dolphins were seventh in the NFL with an average of 54.4 kickoff return yards a game. For perspective, the Chiefs led at 65.7. But Miami was 20th in return average at 20.9 after finishing tied for fourth in 2016 at 25.1 yards. Miami’s longest return in 2017, 37 yards, ranked 25th in the league.

Individually, Grant tied for seventh with a 22.8 average.

The impact will be felt before the season even starts. If teams are going to load up on running backs, receivers, tight ends, defensive backs and linebackers on special teams, it’s bound to affect competition for the final roster spots.

“I’ve talked about that with our front office,” Rizzi said.

It’s only May, but of course Rizz has.

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Miami Dolphins look for new punt returner to replace Jarvis Landry

Danny Amendola could be the “hands” guy on punt returns this year. (Getty Images)

DAVIE — The Dolphins never clearly stated how they divided up punt returns between Jarvis Landry and Jakeem Grant, but they appeared to lean toward Landry when they were backed up and Grant when there might be more room to run.

Grant is still here, but Landry’s departure to Cleveland means the team needs a new return man for punts that look like they’re going to be in high-traffic situations.

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Veteran receiver Danny Amendola, who often returned punts for New England, seems like the most likely man to replace Landry in that role. Special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said today he’s consider Amendola, receiver Albert Wilson and rookie running back Kalen Ballage on punt returns in addition to Grant.

“We’ve added a couple of guys onto the roster that have had return experience,” Rizzi said. “We all know Amendola did it with New England. Albert Wilson is a guy that did it in Kansas City. He just got buried behind a couple of really good returners, but he’s got returner experience.

“Then Kalen Ballage was a kick returner at Arizona State. He’s a big body that can run really well. He had some really productive kick returns. We’ve kind of added a couple of pieces there, as well.”

Rizzi said all four players will get reps as punt returners over the next several months. The Dolphins begin four weeks of offseason practices May 22 and start training camp in late July. There’s plenty of time to nail it down before the season opener.

Amendola returned 27 punts last year for an average of 8.6 yards, including a long of 40 yards. Between his time with the Patriots and Rams, he has returned 174 punts and 152 kicks.

Wilson has no punt returns on his record and returned three kicks in four years with the Chiefs, but he did work on return teams in practice.

Ballage, a fourth-round pick, was a running back and kick returner at Arizona State. In four seasons he returned 48 kickoffs for an average of 22.1 yards per return.

Last season, Grant was used on 36 of 51 punts. He returned 25 for 190 yards and called for a fair catch on 11. Landry handled the other 15, fair catching three and returning the other 12 for 81 yards.

Over the last two seasons, Grant was on the field for 59 punts compared to 46 by Landry.

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No gold star for Miami Dolphins’ special teams (but they did earn a gold belt)

Cody Parkey makes a 54-yard field goal to beat the Chargers in the opener. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

EIGHTH IN A SERIES

What went wrong for the Dolphins this season? What went right (if anything)? We assigned letter grades to each position group after every game. So with the season over, it’s time to issue final grades and see who flunked and who gets a gold star. Today: a unit in transition, special teams.


Straight talk

It was during a late-November trip to New England that Bill Belichick kicked things off by calling a fake punt from his 27-yard line, with the line to gain 8 yards downfield.

If that weren’t enough of an insult to Miami’s special teams, try the fact that the Patriots converted, turning a three-and-out into a touchdown drive.


FINAL REPORT CARD FOR 2017 MIAMI DOLPHINS

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[GRADING THE DL: Lots of dollars, so why not lots of sacks?]

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[GRADING THE DBs: Veteran safeties, youthful corners form good nucleus for ’18]


Hold that thought and consider what happened a week later, when a Matt Haack punt pinned the Broncos on their 5, leading to a safety. Before that day was over, six more of his punts were downed inside the 20, a team record. Terrence Fede blocked a punt. MarQueis Gray recovered an onside kick. The punt coverage team recorded a second safety.

Right there, in a two-game span, you have the 2017 Miami Dolphins at their worst and their best. It’s no surprise that my special teams grade for this season is a C.

This was a transition season for the unit, starting with the fact that the team replaced two dependable specialists, punter Matt Darr and kicker Andrew Franks, with an undrafted rookie punter in Haack and kicker Cody Parkey, a Jupiter native whose release from the Browns delighted the Dolphins only slightly more than a certain Daily Dolphin reporter I know. Good thing, then, that the Dolphins have 39-year-old long snapper John Denney to keep the specialists grounded.

Parkey was nearly automatic, making 21-of-23 field-goal attempts and missing only from 48 and 50 yards. He also helped the Dolphins recover four onside kicks.

Haack had an impressive 30 punts downed inside the 20 and averaged 44.5 yards per punt with a net of 40.7 — not great, but a good start.

Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ longtime special teams coordinator, rewards outstanding special teams performances each week by lending one player a gaudy, WWE-style championship belt that’s way heavier than you’d think. Key contributors this year included special teams captain Michael Thomas (led team with 11 special teams tackles), Walt Aikens and Chase Allen (seven tackles apiece) and rookie Vincent Taylor (two blocked kicks).

In fact, the Dolphins developed a knack for blocking kicks, or at least altering them with the threat of a Bobby McCain using his quickness on the edge.

The season also gave us insight into what goes into special teams — more than you’d think. One day, Rizzi was listing calls at his disposal, including spike, swing back, bunt, dribble, slam, smash, pooch, mortar. Those are just some of the onside kick nuances he can call. Didn’t know there was that much you could do with the football equivalent of a bunt, didn’t you?

What it all means

Stats and league rankings: Haack averaged 44.5 yards per punt. Parkey was 21-of-22 on FG tries with a long of 54. The kickoff coverage team led the league, with opponents’ average start at 23.0 yards. The kick return team was 25th (24.1 yards).

Number of times ST received an A: 1

Number of times ST received an F: 1

Season GPA: 2.07 (C)

Analysis: Despite the explosiveness of return man Jakeem Grant, the Dolphins did not return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown this season after totaling two last year. Given how close he appeared to come to breaking some, we’ll want to keep an eye on that for 2018.

Adjusted final grade: C

Coming tomorrow: Overall thoughts and a final team grade for the 2017 Dolphins

 

Dolphins: Cody Parkey is “upgrade across the board” over Andrew Franks

Cody Parkey is in the hunt for a Pro Bowl spot (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE—The Dolphins believe they’ve found the kicker they need in Cody Parkey.

After three months of watching him work every day, in games and practices, special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said he’s been exactly what they hoped he’d be when they chose him over Andrew Franks at the start of the season.

“He’s really been what we expected: He’s a consistent guy, he’s got a great approach, he has a professional approach,” Rizzi said. “He’s a very good self-evaluator and a lot of times, it might sound simple; but as a kicker, that’s a big thing. He’s got a great demeanor.

“He’s been consistent since he got into the league, and hopefully that continues. I’ve had a pleasure working with him. He’s been really good, not only in the field goal area but also on the kickoff area. We ask him to do a bunch of different things between deep kicks, short kicks, onside kicks. He’s been a great welcome addition.”

He’s been a good presence in the locker room as well. Rizzi was talking about what a good mentor long snapper John Denney has been to Parkey and punter Matt Haack, though he pointed out that The Jupiter Juggernaut already had a good grasp of what’s required as a professional when he arrived.

“For Matt, I think it’s a great thing to come in and have two guys that are really, with the approach and mentality that those two guys have, that’s really helped Matt out in his rookie season,” Rizzi said. “It’s really laid a really solid foundation for him.”

Parkey, 25, is tied for fourth in the league in field goal accuracy at 92.9 percent (he’s second in the AFC). He is 10 for 11 on kicks of 30 yards or longer, and his only miss of the season was a 50 yarder against the Ravens.

His main competition for a Pro Bowl selection is Indianapolis’ Adam Vinatieri and New England’s Stephen Gostkowski. Vinatieri leads the conference in field goal percentage at 95.7, and Gostkowski is the top vote getter as of now. Both of those have gotten many more kicks than Parkey, who has just 14 tries (he’s made 13). He’s tied for 29th in the NFL in attempts, thanks to the Dolphins’ offensive struggles.

Click here to vote for whoever you want as the AFC’s Pro Bowl kicker.

Parkey’s also been good on kickoffs, where Miami leads the NFL in average opponent starting position after a kickoff (the 22-yard line). Parkey is believed to be the only kicker in the league to execute two successful onsides kicks, including one he bounced along to himself and picked up for the recovery.

The one downfall for Parkey is he’s missed three extra points, though Rizzi defended one of those because of the field conditions at Hard Rock Stadium and another because it was a meaningless last-second PAT at the end of a 20-6 loss to the Jets.

“I really like his every day approach,” Rizzi said. “He knows exactly what he does. From the minute he walked in the door, he had a routine: ‘This is what I’m going to do and this is how we’re going to handle it.’ He’s really done that every step of the way, so I don’t have one stat on the top of my mind to blow you out of the water; but I know since he’s been in the league, he’s been a guy that’s made field goals, and hopefully that continues.”

Rizzi spoke well of former kicker Andrew Franks, who remains unsigned, but said there was no doubt in the Dolphins’ minds that Parkey would be better in every facet.

“I just thought we needed more consistency at the position,” Rizzi said. “Andrew Franks was a very talented kicker, (but) I thought we were just inconsistent there the last couple of years. He made some big kicks and all of that.

“What Cody has done in his career is just the same thing over and over again. It really is just that consistency thing. That’s where I thought we could make an upgrade, overall, in everything that we do: our kickoffs, our high kicks, short kicks, field goals, PATs, onsides kicks–whatever it is. I just thought it was a better overall upgrade across the board.”

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What Miami Dolphins’ Darren Rizzi said Wednesday on penalties, being an underdog

Rizzi

What Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ special teams coordinator and associate head coach said Wednesday:

  • Says team was “really good at the beginning of the season in not getting penalties in the return game,” but that hasn’t been the case lately.
  • On penalties: Pre-snap penalties have “nothing to do with the opponent, that’s us. It’s a discipline thing, an accountability thing.” Some during plays are almost not preventable. Post-play penalties are preventable, “you obviously control yourself as well.” During-play penalties, “For us, Square 1 is getting rid of the pre- and post-snap penalties. You get that done, we’re going to be on our way.” Then you have to minimize the ones during plays.
  •  On the non-safety: “We thought we have enough video evidence.” Says you need to challenge that play because of the risk/reward part of it.
  • Says an emphasis this week is getting off to a good start (which team hasn’t done this season). “We feel we’ve got out of the gate stronger.”
  • Says he never pays attention to point spreads. “Last time I checked the Russians were supposed to beat the Americans in ice hockey.” Then corrects himself, says it may have been Georgetown-Villanova.

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What Miami Dolphins associate head coach Darren Rizzi said Thursday

Dolphins associate head coach and special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

DAVIE — Highlights of Dolphins associate head coach Darren Rizzi’s huddle with the media on Thursday:

  • On Senorise Perry’s kick-return duties: “I thought he did a really good job last week with his opportunities.” Jakeem Grant also will be back there.
  • On the non-bye week this week: “Adam’s done a great job of understanding that with the schedule” regarding giving players time to recover. “This is the hand we’re dealt. We just deal with it.”
  • Says kick coverage team has “done very well so far.” Dolphins lead league in holding opponents to weakest starting field position.
  • On Damien Williams: “Any role we’ve ever given him, he’s done well with. … You’re always looking him to get involved in anything.” Says Williams “flashed immediately” upon arriving in Davie as an undrafted free agent.
  • On team’s mindset: “It’s easy to get lost in results of past three weeks.” Says team is relying on 1-0 mentality and that they’re still in middle of playoff race. “There’s a lot of teams in the same position we’re in.” Asks players, “What’s your approach going to be? Are you going to wallow? … We’ve got to keep things positive.”

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What Miami Dolphins associate head coach Darren Rizzi said Thursday

Rizzi

DAVIE — What Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ associate head coach and special teams coordinator, said Thursday:

  • On Kenyan Drake as kickoff returner: “It’s something we’ve been going through all week,” whether roles increase or decrease on special teams for all three RBs because of Jay Ajayi trade. “We’re still trying to figure out what the best solution is on special teams.” All three RBs will have some kind of role on special teams.
  • On Michael Thomas (who starts because of S Nate Allen’s injury): “Some of those younger DBs have to step up.” Mentions Maurice Smith, Torry McTyer, WR Rashawn Scott, among others.
  • Vincent Taylor “does a great job of studying the opponent” when it comes to blocking kicks. Says he got a hand on two this year although he was only officially credited with two.
  • Says Ndamukong Suh is the emergency kicker if Cody Parkey should get injured. In a regular week he gets a couple of kicks in practice. Parkey is backup punter. Suh’s range? “If you ask him or you ask me? The sky’s the limit for him.” Usually Suh practices from 35-45 range.
  • Says Adam Gase has put an emphasis on fundamentals following Ravens game. “We have to do the basic things much, much better.”
  • “Everyone got a few days off here. That certainly helped the mind, the body.”
  • On long snapper John Denney: “It really is incredible what he’s done. He’s coming up his 200th game. Only Dan Marino and Jason Taylor have played that many games for the Dolphins. I know he’s in elite company. I know it’s a different position … but he does a great job of keeping in outstanding shape. He’s constantly working on his body.” Says he’s “got a great mentality and temperament for his position.” Says Denney still top third of long snappers in the league. Credits Denney as great leader in locker room.
  • Says velocity and accuracy starts to fade if long snapper gets too old. Also their blocking ability declines. Says Denney is one of best-blocking long snappers in this league and does a ton of running to still be able to cover downfield. “John has kept his game up to par in all areas.”

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What Miami Dolphins associate head coach Darren Rizzi said Tuesday

Dolphins associate head coach and special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

What Dolphins associate head coach and special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi said Tuesday:

  • On Cody Parkey’s winning 39-yard field goal vs. the Jets: “At that point, I wasn’t thinking about the field conditions, because we’d kicked earlier.” Said he saw kickers slipping in Saturday’s UM-Syracuse game. “I was concerned more about getting everybody blocked.”
  •  On Parkey’s three winning FGs: Believes the Chargers kick was most challenging because Parkey had just arrived. “New environment, new teammates, some of the guys didn’t even know his name.”
  • On degree of difficulty for the winner vs. the Jets: “A 39-yarder to win the game, those might as well be a 59-yarder.”
  • On Ravens’ kicking game: “Justin Tucker is a phenomenal kicker.” Says Ravens are not afraid to try longer FGs than most teams might skip.
  • On winning 12 straight one-score games: “Our guys do a heck of a job locking in at the end of the game. You could argue we need to do a better job locking in at the beginning of games. … We’ve won in a variety of different ways. It hasn’t been all offense, defense or special teams.”

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[Dolphins down to one healthy starter on offensive line]

[Anthony Fasano on the brink of a receiving (yes, receiving) record]

[Dolphins “cutting corners” everywhere in Baltimore preparation]

[Trust Adam Gase on Dolphins QB decisions]

[Matt Moore brings entertainment, enthusiasm that Jay Cutler can’t match]

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