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Five games into the 2012 season, it is easy to see which unit will determine the Miami Dolphins' fortunes. While its offense is still trying to create an identity, Miami's defense has quietly become one of the best in the NFL.
Miami is giving up 20.6 points per game, twelfth fewest in the NFL, on 343.2 yards per game, 15th fewest in the league. While those numbers might not seem great, other stats paint a clearer picture.
For starters, the Dolphins have given up the fewest rushing yards in the NFL (307 through five games), thanks in no small part to the fact that opponents are averaging a paltry 2.7 yards per rush. The teams with the next fewest yards per carry, Seattle, Minnesota, and Tampa, are giving up 3.2 yards per carry.
And while the Dolphins have given up more passing yards than any other NFL team (281.8 per game), that is due in large part to the fact that opponents have had to throw the ball so much (no defense gives up more pass attempts per game than the Dolphins). Miami is giving up only 7.0 yards per pass attempt, just below the NFL average of 7.2 yards per attempt.
Stopping the run has forced Miami's opponents to be one-dimensional, which suits head coach Joe Philbin.
"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."
It helps that Miami's much-maligned defensive secondary seems to have improved, even without former Pro Bowl CB Vontae Davis, who was traded to Indianapolis in training camp. Miami has intercepted 7 passes through five games, well above their pace of 16 interceptions in 16 games a year ago.
But the one stat that is most telling concerning the Dolphins is their opponents' third-down conversion rate. After holding Cincinnati to just a 2-of-14 success rate on Sunday, the Dolphins are allowing a 26-percent conversion rate, second-best in the league.
"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."
If Miami's offense continues to improve, the Dolphins could be more competitive than anyone outside of South Florida predicted before the season. With their division rivals Buffalo and New York stumbling early on, Miami has a chance to challenge New England atop the AFC East pecking order.