Size doesn’t mean everything in football, but it does mean something. Especially in the passing game.
The final game of my senior season in high school was against our main crosstown rival. Their quarterback that year was Isaiah Stanback, who would go on to play at the University of Washington and in the NFL. Their starting receivers were Ed Roy, older brother of Brandon Roy (who would go on to play in the NBA), and Roydell Smiley, who would go on to play basketball at USC. Ed Roy was 6-foot-6. Smiley was 6-foot-4. And then there was me, standing 5-8, starting at one cornerback spot for my team.
Looking back on it now, I’m actually surprised our coaches let me start the game. Maybe it was just because I was a senior and had at least earned that much. But in predictable fashion, Stanback went after me right away, and on their first drive I lost a jump-ball situation to Smiley that led to a touchdown. We ended up losing the game.
But isn’t it a different story in the NFL?
Any defensive back who has made it to the highest level of the sport has had experience playing against taller receivers, and every DB who has made it to the highest level has had to develop ways to neutralize that height differential.
Going into last Sunday’s Bears-Dolphins game, a lot was made about Miami’s so-called undersized cornerbacks — Cortland Finnegan and Brent Grimes, both listed at 5-10 — having to guard Chicago receivers Brandon Marshall (6-4) and Alshon Jeffrey (6-3).
Unfair matchup, right? The football equivalent of Nate Robinson trying to guard Dwyane Wade one-on-one, right?
Finnegan and Grimes helped hold Marshall and Jeffrey to a combined eight catches for 57 yards in the Dolphins’ 27-14 victory. Marshall was so frustrated after the loss that he was overheard yelling at teammates in the locker room before the media entered, and then in his postgame interviews said this much: “We’ve got to protect the football. We’ve got to execute the game plan. We’ve got to adjust when things don’t go as we saw on film. … We’ve got Alshon Jeffery, (tight end) Martellus Bennett, (running back) Matt Forte. We’ve got a stud offensive line. We’ve got a great, great group of guys. And this is unacceptable. What did we put up, 14 points? Was it 14 points? That’s unacceptable.”
For their part, Miami’s DBs downplayed the underdog role they had been given. From the Sun Sentinel:
“It’s football,” Grimes said. “We’re obviously never going to be the biggest people on the field. But on the same token, we’ve made a lot of plays in this league. I believe that was a little overblown. I mean, they’re good players. They can make plays but we’re good players, too, and we can make plays.”
The Dolphins were surprised so much was made about size entering the game. They have seen similar matchups throughout their career. This week, it felt as if the storyline was mentioned too much.
“It’s overblown because receivers are big in this league,” Grimes said. “That’s just what it is. Every week, you could talk about the size.”
In the end, it was the smaller players coming out looking like giants. Finnegan had a career-high four pass break-ups. It served as a bounce-back game after he struggled last week against the Green Bay Packers.
One month ago, the Dolphins’ defense was struggling and coordinator Kevin Coyle was on the receiving end of criticism inside and outside of the locker room. And just last week, Miami’s secondary was picked apart by Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers during a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter that included a fake-spike play that reminded everybody of Dan Marino.
Things appear to be turning around, though, as Sunday’s win over the Bears was the second time in the last three games that the Dolphins have allowed just 14 points. On Sept. 28, they beat the Raiders 38-14, a game in which Miami had three interceptions. The team had one INT against Chicago.