|Sunday, September 22
Updated: September 23, 10:55 AM ET
Fletcher blankets receivers in rare start
By Len Pasquarelli
MIAMI -- When he pulled a sweat-stained T-shirt over his head following what was arguably the best performance of Jamar Fletcher's young career here Sunday afternoon, two things were obvious about the Miami Dolphins second-year cornerback.
His upper body now features about 10 pounds more bulk than it did a year ago. It did not, however, include a bull's eye tattoo stenciled there by a New York Jets offense anxious to have its way with him.
With the weight room diligence demonstrated during the offseason by the 2001 first-round draft choice, and former University of Wisconsin standout, the first point wasn't surprising. Given his struggles last weekend, when he surrendered eight of the 11 catches hauled in by Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, even Fletcher figured he would be a marked man in the latest renewal of the Dolphins-Jets long-running divisional feud.
Oh, well, so much for theories.
"They really didn't test me much today and, when they did, I felt like I answered the challenge," said Fletcher, who started at left cornerback in place of the injured Patrick Surtain. "It was a good step forward for me. Maybe people will stop assuming that I'm a weak link or something."
Indeed, in a resounding 30-3 victory that scuttled the Jets' eight-game winning streak in the series, Fletcher and the rest of the Miami secondary earned accolades. The unit, forced to reshuffle in the wake of Surtain's knee injury, held Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde to an anemic 36.2 passer efficiency rating.
Not until the game's penultimate play did the Dolphins secondary permit a completion of over 18 yards.
As the exuberant Dolphins exited the field, wide receiver Orondé Gadsden toted a hand-lettered placard that read: "What jinx? 1-0." If Sunday was any indication, it could be a long while before the Jets regain their compass in this bitterly contested series.
Certainly the Miami ground game, fueled by 151 yards from NFL-leading rusher Ricky Williams, set the tone for the afternoon. Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt presented game balls to the entire offensive line and the reward was deserved, given a dominating outing, one in which Williams had a 53-yard scoring run and Miami averaged a gaudy 6.0 yards per attempt.
Williams is the first player in Miami franchise history to rush for 100 yards in three straight contests and is now on pace for a 2,101-yard season.
Yet it was interceptions on successive series, the first by "dime" safety Shawn Wooden and the second by weakside linebacker Derrick Rodgers, which allowed the Dolphins to take control in the first half. The takeaways accounted for 10 points, including Jay Fiedler's 10-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Randy McMichael, and New York never recovered.
"I think some of the stuff we did with blitzes and coverages," said Dolphins free safety Brock Marion, "left them a little puzzled."
The victory left the Dolphins unbeaten through three weeks and, if Sunday was any indication, this is a complete team, perhaps capable of advancing deep into the playoffs. Pounded for a second straight week, and losers by an aggregate 74-10 count during this ugly stretch of football, the Jets appeared to be a team in full spiral.
Jets coach Herm Edwards confirmed owner Woody Johnson indeed wanted to address his charges after last week's loss to New England, as ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday morning. So the Wood Man must surely have had a verbal reaming on his mind with the latest defeat. But even the heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune might not possess sufficient balm to salve the battered ego of his team.
Then again, even with his limited knowledge of Xs and Os, Johnson might be able to conjure up a better blueprint and call a better game than the New York offensive brain trust did here on Sunday afternoon. As well as the Miami secondary performed in contributed to the Dolphins widest victory margin over the Jets since a 52-14 rout on Sept. 3, 1995, the unit received plenty of help from maligned New York offensive coordinator Paul Hackett.
By unofficial count, the Jets threw only four passes at Fletcher, when he was in man coverage. New York rarely attempted to get vertical on the Dolphins, and the most productive pass play was a 25-yard interference penalty, when Testaverde went deep down the right sideline for Santana Moss. Although it seemed slot receiver Wayne Chrebet was open most of the day, principally matched up with Miami "nickel" safety Trent Gamble, the Jets rarely got the ball to him.
The wily Chrebet, one of the NFL's premier slot receivers, finished with five catches for 64 yards and contributed more than one-third of the Jets' paltry output of 189 yards. But there were long stretches of the game where he and the other New York wideouts were little more than afterthoughts and seemed to be merely going through the motions. The Jets passing game, brilliant at times in the preseason when Hackett turned Testaverde loose, seems to have regressed to the futility of 2001. New York has three offensive touchdowns in three games now.
"Nobody talked much about it during the week but, sure, we all figured that when they saw our secondary they would come after us," said Gamble, who is usually a safety but played a slot corner position much of the time. "But I think we deserve some credit, too, for keeping them bottled up."
Wannstedt acknowledge that defensive coordinator Jim Bates broke out a few schemes that lay fallow in victories over Detroit and Indianapolis. It appeared the Dolphins, a defense that characteristically relies on its front four to generate a pass rush, blitzed Testaverde more than usual. And with Surtain out of the lineup, Miami backed off some of its trademark "press" coverages and gave the Jets more off-man looks.
The latter maneuver certainly aided Fletcher, who did not register a pass defensed according to the official game stats, but who had four tackles and played Moss and Laveranues Coles tight most of the day. Fletcher played a lot of off-man coverages in college and seemed to find a comfort zone in his third regular-season start. Then again, Testaverde and Chad Pennington, who played late in the fourth quarter, never did much to destroy the reverie.
Mixing in some combinations that kept the New York receivers in front of them, the Dolphins defensive backs didn't let anyone sneak deep, and of the Jets' 16 completions, half netted just eight yards or less. The fifth different "nickel" corner the Dolphins have employed since the second half of the '99 season, Fletcher proved to be priceless as a starter. It is a role he won't have for long, as Surtain likely will return to the lineup next week at Kansas City, but Sunday's game definitely restored some of his confidence.
"No, things haven't gone exactly the way I thought that they would," said Fletcher, the 26th prospect chosen overall in the 2001 draft. "But this game gave me a lot of confidence. And I hope it gives people around here a lot of confidence in me, too. If you're going to have a good game, you like to have it against a team like the Jets, right?"
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.