There's a saying you get what you pay for. The Miami Dolphins invested in the NFL's highest paid cornerback duo and Sunday they finally got to see the fruits of what that tandem can do for their defense and the team.
Byron Jones missed much of the past three games with a groin injury, and his return in the Dolphins' 43-17 win against the San Francisco 49ers meant that the team's other top cornerback Xavien Howard finally had his tag-team partner back. Together they delivered a knockout, allowing 35 passing yards on seven combined targets, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
"It feel great having Byron back, man. He helps a lot on the defense," said Howard, who got his third interception in as many games Sunday. "Me and him on the corners outside, we just competing and really just trying to be the best out there right now."
It was a one-game glimpse but Sunday's performance by the Dolphins' tandem showed they have the potential to be just that -- the "best out there." It was the first game Howard and Jones played more than 50% of the defensive snaps together as they each returned from their respective injuries. The Dolphins held the 49ers to 128 passing yards and helped force the 49ers' starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the bench at halftime.
The Dolphins' man-to-man heavy defense is designed to have elite cornerback play force quarterbacks to hold the ball longer and let the pass rush get home. The increased pass rush helps the defensive backs get poor throws headed their way, which leads to more interceptions. Zach Sieler, Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker and Elandon Roberts were among those in the Dolphins' front seven who had their best game so far this season. The Dolphins had a season-high five sacks and three forced turnovers, including two interceptions.
"That's something that can be attributed to the entire defense. I can't explain how important having good pressure on a good quarterback is to a secondary," Jones said. "When you make the quarterback feel uncomfortable back there, he overthrows balls. He underthrows it. That's when plays really develop. On the back end, we have to give the front guys some time to get to the quarterback. We really work in tandem. That's the beautiful part of our defense.
"It's understanding just how good you have to be on a weekly basis in order to show up for every single game or you will get embarrassed. ... It was nice to get a win like that, but now it's on to the Jets."
The Dolphins (2-3) are a much better team with Jones and Howard patrolling the sidelines and the numbers speak for themselves.
Howard, in five games, has allowed nine catches for 151 yards on 19 targets (147 coverage snaps), zero touchdowns, three interceptions and four pass breakups for a 35.1 passer rating, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Jones, in three games, has allowed six catches for 66 yards on 10 targets (51 coverage snaps), zero touchdowns, interceptions or pass breakups and a 79.6 passer rating.
Howard has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks so far this season. That 35.1 passer rating against ranks second among all cornerbacks with at least 50 coverage snaps and he's tied for the league-lead with three interceptions. Howard smirked at the idea of leading the league in interceptions again (he was the NFL's 2018 co-interception leader with seven in 12 games), then noted he's focused on the team and he'll see how it works out at the end of the season. The ballhawk is back sniping passes.
"It's cool to be out there with one of the best. That dude always finds a way to get the ball. He has a natural instinct to get the ball," Jones said of Howard. "Just the communication, just understanding how we play, getting insight from him on what he's seeing on the left side of the field and telling him what I'm seeing on the right side of the field. It was fun. It was definitely fun."
Rookie first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene, the Dolphins' top boundary backup at corner, has struggled replacing Howard or Jones. He has allowed 13 catches for 219 yards on 22 targets (134 coverage snaps), two touchdowns, zero interceptions, one pass breakup and a 123.1 passer rating. It's too early to cast final judgment on Igbinoghene, who the team is still high on and was thrown into very difficult situations, but Miami is clearly better with Howard and Jones on the outside right now.
The Dolphins' defense is having fun again, and it's in large part because of the strong coverage of their top cornerbacks. So far, money well spent.