DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Miami Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith started all 16 games as a rookie and broke up a dozen passes but failed to catch any. His interception total: zero.
Did he find it frustrating to be shut out? Embarrassing? Shocking?
“I’m going to go with all of the above,” Smith says. “It took awhile for me to get over it.”
Such are the growing pains for a young cornerback, whose every misstep can become fodder for highlight shows. The Dolphins had rookies at both corner spots last year, one reason they ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed per pass.
Smith and Vontae Davis are back for a second season, looking to make more plays and fewer mistakes. Their anticipated improvement would help solidify a defense revamped after a disappointing 2009 season.
“If those two guys compete every play like we know they can, we’ll be a very good defense,” strong safety Yeremiah Bell says. “If they clamp down, it means more sacks for the d-line and more interceptions for the safeties and linebackers. It makes life so much easier.”
The Dolphins made the two young cornerbacks their top draft choices in 2009 with the expectation the team would be set at the position for years. Davis joined Smith in the starting lineup in October as a replacement for veteran Will Allen, who underwent season-ending knee surgery.
Allen required a follow-up arthroscopic procedure two weeks ago and is expected to be sidelined until at least the end of the exhibition season, leaving Davis and Smith unchallenged in their starting roles. The Dolphins envision the sort of partnership Pro Bowl cornerbacks Pat Surtain and Sam Madison enjoyed in Miami from 1998 to 2004.
“When we first came in, everybody was comparing us to Surtain and Madison,” Smith says. “Those are real big shoes. And when you give up a touchdown, and the crowd is on your back and yelling things, it would be easy for a guy to tank it. But Vontae and I came up at the same time, and we were going through the same experience, and we were able to pick each other up.
“Even the best get beat. We understand that. You have to be the most arrogant guys on the field sometimes.”
Youthful arrogance can backfire, though. Davis says he and Smith learned that last year.
“Us being young, we carry ourselves with a lot of confidence, and that kind of gets in the way sometimes,” Davis says. “We relax. The ball can be thrown your way every time, and you have to work on that.”
While the Dolphins have more experience at cornerback this year, they’re younger at free safety, where second-year pro Chris Clemons will be a first-year starter.
“We have talented people out there, regardless of how old they are,” Smith says. “Talent means a lot.”
Too often last year, the Dolphins’ talent was insufficient. They gave up an average of 8.2 yards per attempt and 14.2 per completion, both NFL highs. They allowed 14 touchdown passes of at least 20 yards, second-most in the league, and those plays averaged a league-high 35.9 yards.
Mistakes in the secondary contributed to a disappointing 7-9 record, and the breakdowns persist this preseason. Seeing limited duty in the first two games, the first-team defense has allowed completions of 35, 30 and 25 yards, along with two touchdown passes.
“The explosive plays we have to limit,” coach Tony Sparano says. “That concerns me that a couple of them have showed up in these two preseason games. So we need to become better in those areas.”
Clemons is the biggest question mark in the young secondary. A fifth-round draft choice in 2009, he saw limited duty as a rookie behind Gibril Wilson, who endured a dismal season and was released in March.
Clemons joined the starting lineup only after the Dolphins failed in their attempts to sign a veteran free agent. Sparano concedes there’s no assurance Clemons will tackle in the open field or close on receivers any better than Wilson did.
“I hope we don’t have to see him make any tackles 20 yards down the field, but I think that’s going to happen,” Sparano says. “Tackling and ball in the air and all that — those are questions that the only way they’re going to get answered is if that situation occurs during the course of a game.”
From his cornerbacks, Sparano wants more consistency. He knows they’ll get beaten, because every cornerback does. The key is how they react when it happens.
“When you give one up, being able to turn around and get after the very next one and maybe stop the bleeding is really important,” Sparano says. “That kind of consistency is what I want to see out of them.”