Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel doesn’t like to speak in absolutes. However, when doing the postmortem report of his team’s Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, he had an easy statistic to identify for the defeat: three turnovers by the offense and zero takeaways from the defense.
“The No. 1 indicator in wins and losses has been and forever always will be turnovers,” he said on Oct. 16. “When you’re minus-3, you’ve got to be pretty epic in other ways to try to come out on top, and we just didn’t have that really in our game this week.”
A week later, the roles had been reversed. In the Dolphins’ 16-10 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, the offense avoided turning the ball over, albeit with help from Pittsburgh defenders who dropped multiple interceptions. On defense, the unit got its first takeaways since Week 3, with none being more important than the two interceptions that halted a pair of go-ahead drives late in the fourth quarter.
“This is something that we’ve been making a big point of emphasis within the team on turnover differential,” McDaniel said after the game. “So it’s something that we’ve been focusing on, getting one early, and then at the end of the game when it mattered most to get two more was obviously the difference in winning and losing.”
The Dolphins’ first takeaway came from a player in Bethel who wasn’t even suspected to play defensive snaps this season. The team signed the special teams ace before Week 1 but injuries pushed him into the slot corner role the past two games.
On the Steelers’ second drive, they used a slot fade concept, with wide receiver Chase Claypool running vertically but drifting to the outside along the sideline. The Dolphins were in a Cover 1 concept, a man-to-man defense with safety Jevon Holland patrolling as a lone deep safety. As Holland worked his way from the far hash mark to Claypool’s route, Bethel was stride-for-stride with the receiver. But Claypool tripped as rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett released the ball, and Bethel secured his first pick since the 2017 season.
“When you’re in good position, you basically as a [defensive back] or a coverage linebacker, become the receiver,” defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said last week.
Bethel INT. Steelers run slot fade concept, Dolphins are in Cover 1. Claypool trips on the route and Bethel is in position for the pick. pic.twitter.com/2WFcSxALVU
— Daniel Oyefusi (@finsfilmstudy) October 25, 2022
Holland’s interception on the Steelers’ penultimate drive was the byproduct of a great disguise by Boyer and an instinctive play from Holland.
Facing third-and-16 with 3:06 left, the Dolphins were in a Cover 3 buzz concept. Before the snap, they lined up with two deep safeties — Holland and rookie Verone McKinley III — giving the impression that both would drop into coverage to each cover one half of the field. After the snap, McKinley drifted into the middle of the field as a lone deep safety, while Holland moved forward to the first-down marker, watching for any incoming receivers. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson ran a deep curl route, breaking off right at the line to gain a first down. But Holland noticed and undercut the pass for his second interception this season.
3 Buzz coverage (safety drops as the hook defender). https://t.co/s3UvxkbskG
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 24, 2022
On the game-sealing interception, the Dolphins were in a Cover 2 Man concept, with two deep safeties — Holland and McKinley — a four-man rush and the remaining defenders in man-to-man coverage. Playing inside leverage to take away an in-breaking route, Igbinoghene shadowed Johnson on a vertical route. But Pickett started to scramble to his left to avoid the pass rush. Holland, playing the deep half on Igbinoghene’s side, began to sprint up from his spot to get to Pickett, leaving Igbinoghene 1-on-1 with Johnson. But as Johnson started to veer to the right in the end zone, Pickett’s pass was inside, closer to the pylon. Igbinoghene, who last week acknowledged he missed opportunities for interceptions in Week 6, got his head around, caught the ball and tapped his two feet in bounds for his first-career pick.
Noah INT. Dolphins in Cover 2 man: Two deep safeties and man-to-man across the board. Noah plays with inside leverage, gets his head around and seals the game. pic.twitter.com/uVZVqEfyDB
— Daniel Oyefusi (@finsfilmstudy) October 25, 2022
All three of the Dolphins’ takeaways came without blitzing and it was indicative of the defense’s philosophy against Pickett. They sent extra rushers on a season-low 18.8 percent of dropbacks, likely to protect a secondary that had just three healthy cornerbacks and lost starting safety Brandon Jones to a knee injury in the third quarter.
But the unit limited explosive plays and was able to turn the ball over in key moments.
“We felt pretty good about our matchups with regard to our front and how we could really disrupt them and get them out of the pocket,” McDaniel said. “We didn’t really get the sacks that we were hoping for, but you have to be very disciplined with that young quarterback because he is quick and he can make you pay if your rush lanes don’t have integrity.
“We’ve been working on a lot of open-field tackling and things like that and getting turnovers, and I thought collectively the entire defensive staff and the defensive players put forth a very winning effort, so it’s encouraging.”