Miamis young secondary is maturing into one the leagues best
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DAVIE — With three of four starters in only their second seasons, the Dolphins secondary is almost frightfully young by NFL standards. But aside from an inexplicable inability to hold onto interceptions, the group is quickly earning a reputation as one of the league's best.
"I don't think they've scratched the surface yet," defensive backs coach Todd Bowles said. "We still leave some plays on the field we should be making."
Last season, Miami finished 13th against the pass with Vontae Davis and Sean Smith starting as rookies at the corners and veterans Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell at the safeties.
Before this season, Miami released Wilson and inserted Chris Clemons at free safety. Now, Miami ranks sixth in passing defense, allowing just 200.6 yards per game.
The defense has allowed two 300-yard passing games compared to four last year. It has given up 18 plays of 25 yards or more after yielding a league-high 40 in 2009. And it is on pace to give up 18 touchdowns after opponents scored 23 through the air last season.
"This is probably the best talent I've played with," said nickel back Benny Sapp, who two years ago played on a Minnesota team that featured former Pro Bowlers Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper. "As long as the young guys learn from their mistakes - and they're doing that right now - there's no limit to how good we can be."
Many of those mistakes have come in the form of dropped interceptions. The Dolphins have held on to just 10 INTs, which ties them for 23rd in the NFL.
Smith, who played receiver as a freshman at Utah, has one interception this year but has dropped at least six surefire picks. Sunday at the New York Jets, he dropped three passes thrown by Mark Sanchez.
"It's ridiculous," Smith said. "Those are plays you want back. But they're over with and you have to wait for the next one."
As for the unit's improvement, Bowles said much of the credit goes to Clemons, a fifth-round pick out of Clemson last year who stepped into Wilson's role during off-season workouts.
Smith has had the most turbulent season of the defensive backs. After a difficult pre-season in which he lost his starting job to Jason Allen, he reclaimed it in Week 9 at Baltimore and, according to the website ProFootballFocus.com, is allowing opponents to complete only 53.3 percent of passes against him, best on the team and 21st in the league.