Ever since future Hall-of-Famer Jason Taylor retired from the Miami Dolphins after the 2011 season, the question remained as to who would take compliment two-time Pro Bowl defensive end
Teacher and pupil have become the two most feared pass rushers on Miami’s defense, combining for 19 sacks through 13 regular-season games. Wake is no stranger to high sack totals, racking up 15 in 2012 to earn his second start in the Pro Bowl and totaling 14 in 2010 when he made his first Pro Bowl start.
Vernon has reached double figures for the first time in his career at 11.5 headed into Sunday’s home game against the New England Patriots. He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after registering three sacks at the New York Jets on December 1st, something only Wake had garnered to that point in the season. Now the second-year player out of the University of Miami is firmly on the radar of opposing offensive coordinators.
“He’s been a tremendous part of this defense and this is not a surprise by any means to us,” said Wake, who is already in the top 10 all-time among Miami Dolphins in career sacks with 50.5. “We’ve seen him do it from the moment he got here so it’s great to see him actually getting some more recognition outside of the locker room. He’s literally a four-down kind of guy and that’s what you want to do when you play this game. He’s not just a specialist. On first down he’s stopping the run, third down he’s rushing the passer, he’s doing special teams and he’s done it all. So I’m glad to have him on the other side for sure.”
With three games left on the schedule and Miami fighting for a playoff berth, these two are on pace to establish themselves as one of the most prolific pass rushing duos in franchise history. Vernon had one of his team’s three sacks of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on October 27th on the road and also one of three against the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins’ next opponent, on October 20th.
Throw in his performance at the Jets and he has five sacks against Miami’s last three opponents. Wake is only getting stronger at the end of the season so that rarefied air occupied twice by Taylor seems well within reach. Back in 2000, Taylor and Trace Armstrong combined for a ridiculous 31 sacks, with Armstrong leading the way at 16.5 and Taylor adding 14.5. Three years later, Taylor (13) and Adewale Ogunleye (15) combined for 28 sacks and both times Taylor at 6-foot-6 was clearly the taller and longer of the two with both Armstrong and Ogunleye measuring 6-4.
The San Diego Chargers put rookie left tackle D.J. Fluker on Vernon the entire game back on November 17th, figuring his 6-5, 339-pound frame would be too much for the much smaller ex-Hurricane to handle. Vernon is 6-2, 268, so he was giving up three inches in height and 71 pounds in weight.
As it turned out, Vernon pretty much had his way with Fluker and led the Dolphins in tackles with six (five solo), one for loss and two quarterback hits. His sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was the turning point of the game as he pushed them out of field goal range with 4:07 remaining, knocking Fluker off balance and to the ground before wrapping up Rivers from behind.
“It’s about angles and he plays with great angles,” defensive tackle
Creating leverage, finding angles and winning the one-on-one battles are things Wake (6-3, 258) has perfected since splashing onto the scene with the Dolphins in 2009 after dominating the Canadian Football League for two years. Ever since registering 5.5 sacks that first season in part-time duty behind Taylor and Joey Porter he has steadily climbed the ranks to be considered among the league’s elite at his position.
Wake’s 43 sacks between 2009 and 2012 were the fourth most in the league during that span, so Vernon didn’t need any prodding to latch himself to Wake’s coattails and he hasn’t let go.
“I study him when he’s not even thinking I’m studying him,” said Vernon, who sacked the quarterback 3.5 times as a rookie last season in a reserve role. “I look at him in practice, during the games and all of the games that we’ve played in. I try to learn everything that can give me an edge and he’s still pretty much a big mentor right now to me.”
When Wake talks about Vernon he sounds like a proud parent lauding the success of his son and he was beaming the day Vernon received his award. Back when he first joined the Dolphins it was Taylor serving as Wake’s mentor so he knew what kind of an impact that had on him at the time and wanted to do the same for Vernon and the other young guys on the defensive line like rookie
But as much as Wake contends that he was not at all surprised at the success Vernon is presently enjoying, he also realizes how important having someone playing at Vernon’s level opposite of him is to his own success on the field. It means that Brady has to keep his head on a swivel Sunday because he can’t just worry about Wake anymore.
“I guess I can give myself a slight pat on the back and I’m not just happy for him, but obviously for selfish reasons as well,” Wake said. “Having both guys who can cause problems for offenses and they don’t know which way to go, slide left or slide right, pick your poison, I think it helps the team as a whole. He’s been doing it and to play that position is a certain mindset. It’s not a finesse kind of game. We’ve got to go out there and have that kind of pit bull mentality and from the day he got here that’s been who he is.”
Taylor easily could have spoken those words back in 2010 about Wake during his second season. The two would wind up playing together for one more season before Taylor retired, but Wake is still in his prime and Vernon is just entering his, which means opposing offenses could be facing multiple headaches from Miami for quite some time.