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Davis And Smith Spearhead Turnaround By Secondary

Posted Dec 22, 2011

Painful to watch is how the defensive backs for the Miami Dolphins would describe the game film from this season’s opener against the New England Patriots.

There it was for the whole world to see under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, a surgical destruction of the secondary by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. By the time the final whistle blew Brady had thrown for a career-high 517 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 victory, including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker.

Brady did throw one interception on a ball that was deflected by Dolphins cornerback Benny Sapp to defensive end Jared Odrick. Sapp was released by the Dolphins a few days later and Odrick’s interception was one of only two by the team in its first eight games as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan described the loss as the worst he’s ever experienced as a coach.

Interim Head Coach Todd Bowles, who was Miami’s secondary coach and assistant head coach up until last week, has seen a dramatic progression since that night. The Dolphins intercepted 11 passes in their six games and third-year cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith have been playing like the tandem they claimed they could be.

“They’ve come along. They started out the season rough,” Bowles said the day after last week’s 30-23 win at Buffalo. “Vontae and Sean, yesterday I thought both of those guys competed extremely hard. I can’t say enough about Vontae the past couple weeks. The guy’s been making plays. He’s been studying more. He’s becoming a true professional, Sean as well. Sean does all the little things right. He prepares and he’s a very smart individual. Those guys are playing well.”

Davis picked off two Ryan Fitzpatrick passes in the snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium and has tied his career-high for interceptions in a single season with four. Smith has two so far, also a career-high, and they’ve been complimented well by 11th-year veteran Will Allen in the slot, Nolan Carroll and rookie Jimmy Wilson.

Opposing quarterbacks have had it rough throwing to either side of the field on Davis and Smith as their overall game, specifically their cover skills, has significantly evolved. Some of that can be chalked up to continuity in the secondary after Davis bounced back from a hamstring injury, but solid coaching and solid study habits are what Smith believes incited the turnaround.

“We weren’t on the same page and looking back on it we talk about it all the time,” Smith said. “We had a lot of guys, myself included, who sometimes veered off from the game plan and tried to look out for ourselves. You can’t do that because at corner if you guess wrong it’s six (points) and there were certain times where we put ourselves in bad situations and you just can’t do that.”

If Davis is not smiling out on the field then there’s something wrong because the younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis relies on having fun to bring about big plays. Between the hamstring injury and just the toll Miami’s 0-7 start was taking on him, Davis couldn’t seem to find his rhythm early in the season.

The Dolphins’ first victory, a 31-3 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, was one that Davis watched from home and that really tested his resolve. He returned to action at Sun Life Stadium the following week against Washington and got his first interception of the season, flashing that easily recognizable smile again at the end of the play, and now he looks to be totally unencumbered.

“I’m just in the right place at the time,” said Davis, who also recorded his first career sack on Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer on December 4th. “It feels good to be around the ball and make plays because that’s the nature of the game. You want to be in that position and I’ve learned a lot.

“This is year three for me and I think differently as far as taking care of my body. That’s because I’m maturing and I’m learning what it takes to become a good player in this league. The main thing is taking care of your body. That’s where it all starts, and studying film. I’ve become more of a student of the game.”

Those attributes are what Bowles and Nolan are expecting to see out of Davis and Smith at this stage of their careers and continue to gain confidence in them. Nolan has felt more comfortable calling blitzes and trusting Davis and Smith to handle their receivers one-on-one.

There will be no greater test than this Sunday at Gillette Stadium against the red-hot Patriots and Brady, who has amassed a career-high 4,593 passing yards with two games still to be played. The secondary as a whole and the coaching staff believe that Brady will be looking at an entirely different unit in this game compared to the opener.

“This week is all about us,” Smith said. “The Patriots have been doing the same thing for years now and they do it well. They have their strategy and they stick to it and it’s going to be up to us to not make those little mistakes. We need to be fundamentally sound, play our technique and do whatever the game plan is and do it right. If we go out there and let these guys get a big play in the game that could easily turn into six points, so as long as we do our job and try to keep things close and allow the offense to do what they do we should be okay.”

Should that approach and execution succeed, Smith, Davis and the rest of the defensive backs could then erase the tape of the opening game from their memories.

INJURY UPDATE: Tight end Anthony Fasano (head) did not practice ... Wide receiver Brandon Marshall (knee) and tckle Jake Long (back) were limited in practice ... Cornerback Will Allen (wrist) practiced in full ... For the Patriots, linebacker Brandon Spikes Spikes (knee)and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) did not practice . . . Cornerback Kyle Arrington (foot), wide receiver Deion Branch (groin), safety Patrick Chung (foot), center Dan Connolly (groin), wide receiver Julian Edelman (back), linebacker Dane Fletcher (thumb), safety Vincent Fuller (forearm), running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (illness), safety James Ihedigbo (shoulder), cornerback Devin McCourty (shoulder), wide receiver Matthew Slater (shoulder), running back Shane Vereen (hamstring), guard Brian Waters (ankle), wide receiver Wes Welker (knee), center Ryan Wendell (calf) and running back Danny Woodhead (abdomen) were all limited in practice.

HOLIDAY NUGGETS: Bowles and wide receiver Brandon Marshall both shared their Christmas sentiments as well as some funny memories as the holiday weekend is fast approaching. First on Marshall’s mind was the importance of remembering that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ.

“Second was the family get-togethers,” he said. “We had a huge dining room table and I remember just sitting there with my family and playing games and listening to music and opening up presents. It was an amazing time, so family and friends is what I enjoy most about the holidays.”

As far as one gift that stands out for him it was the Pitt Panther football he got as a kid because he said that’s where it all started for him.

Bowles managed to pull some classic television memories out of the vault when he talked about how he celebrates Christmas with his memory.

“I just sit down and watch The Grinch and Heat Miser and Cold Miser with the kids and that’s about it for me,” Bowles said.

He also dug deep for one of his funnier childhood memories in terms of his favorite gift.

“I got a 5-speed black Apollo bicycle,” he said. “At that time you could jack the handlebars up and take the brakes off and I did and I crashed it the next day.”

BURNETT DRAWS INTERESTING PRAISE: Bowles drew the biggest laugh from the South Florida media when he was asked to give his thoughts on inside linebacker Kevin Burnett and his different personality.

“Kevin Burnett’s the best player that Kevin Burnett knows. Just ask him,” Bowles said. “He’s a great guy. He’s smart, he’s sharp and he wants to know everything. He’s like that little kid that just won’t stop talking. He has questions, he has answers, he’s bright and he’s upbeat. Everybody laughs at him but seriously he’s a heck of a football player. Again, just ask him.”
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