(Eds: Updates with details and quotes. With AP Photos.)By STEVEN WINEAP Sports Writer
The Miami Dolphins’ defensive line stops the run, pressures the quarterback and even grabs an occasional interception.
Stout stuff up front gives the Dolphins cause for optimism as they enter the most inviting part of their schedule. Coming off a breakthrough win, Miami (2-3) is an opening-line favorite for the first time this season Sunday against the St. Louis Rams (3-2), and no other game against a team with a winning record looms until after Thanksgiving.
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If the Dolphins are to climb above .500 – an elusive goal in recent years – they’ll likely do it with defense. Miami is the NFL’s stingiest team in rushing yards allowed per game (61) and per carry (2.7), and by forcing opponents to throw, the Dolphins are accomplishing coach Joe Philbin’s goal of making the other team one-dimensional.
”To a large degree we’re getting that done,” Philbin said Monday. ”We’re getting the run shut down well and getting favorable down and distance where we can tee it up and go after the quarterback a little bit. That’s only going to help us as we move forward.”
The formula worked at Cincinnati on Sunday, when the Dolphins won 17-13 to give Philbin his first road victory as an NFL coach. After blowing late leads in consecutive overtime losses, the Dolphins held on by making a pair of defensive stops in the final four minutes.
Miami allowed only 80 yards rushing, and 46 of the Bengals’ 65 snaps were pass plays. They netted just 218 yards passing with three sacks, two interceptions and a long gain of 24 yards.
”The game plan every week never changes,” linebacker Kevin Burnett said. ”Stop the run, eliminate the big plays and get two turnovers. If you can do that, you can beat anyone in this league.”
Tackle Randy Starks led the defensive charge with half a sack, two passes broken up and a remarkable interception, where he raised his arms as Andy Dalton threw and managed to snatch the ball from point-blank range.
The defensive line had practiced that very sort of interception in a drill Friday – with ugly results.
”Balls were bouncing everywhere,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle recalled with a chuckle.
But the practice paid off in the game, and the 305-pound Starks came away with his fourth career interception.
”He looks like Jerry Rice out there,” Coyle said.
More important to the Dolphins is the value of Starks and the other linemen as run-stoppers. Miami hasn’t allowed a 100-yard performance by a rusher for 19 consecutive games, the longest such active streak in the league.
The big guys up front are about more than mere muscle. Reserve 305-pound tackle Tony McDaniel hustled downfield to recover a Bengals fumble.
”Sheer effort,” Coyle said.
And on a 29-yard run by Cincinnati’s Bernard Scott, one of the Dolphins giving chase was 345-pound tackle Paul Soliai, which tickled Coyle.
”I don’t know if he would have caught him, but he sure was trying, and he was really moving,” Coyle said. ”Those guys up front are really playing with effort, toughness and strength, and they’re a big reason we’re playing pretty good.”
Miami has totaled 15 sacks, which is tied for sixth in the NFL. And Coyle’s unit has seven interceptions, which is tied for fifth in the league.
The Dolphins have had the edge in turnovers twice this season – in the two games they won. They totaled three takeaways against Cincinnati, including a clinching interception by Reshad Jones.
The pass defense, which has been prone to breakdowns at times, was solid despite the absence of cornerback Richard Marshall with a back injury. His replacement, Nolan Carroll, was sidelined briefly by a concussion but played well.
”Overall the secondary was better,” Philbin said. ”Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as a unit their overall effectiveness and technique and awareness was as good as it has been.”
Cincinnati converted two of 14 third-down situations. The Dolphins are allowing a 26-percent conversion rate, second-best in the league, which their offense appreciates.
”When you have a defense that keeps putting you on the field,” receiver Brian Hartline said, ”that’s part of the recipe for winning.”