Dolphins’ Duke Riley, Brandon Jones step in, then step up. And the Jones blitz returns

Safety Brandon Jones and linebacker Duke Riley were helpful components in the Dolphins’ defense under previous coordinator Josh Boyer before becoming seldom-used role players under Vic Fangio.

Now, in the wake of injuries to Jevon Holland and Jerome Baker, both resurfaced against Washington and acquitted themselves nicely.

Riley will start in Baker’s absence in the coming weeks, including at home Monday against Tennessee (8:15 p.m., ESPN/CW-39). Jones would start Monday if Holland cannot play because of knee issues; Holland is listed as questionable, and neither he nor Mike McDaniel offered a definitive statement on his status for the Titans game.

Against Washington, Riley tied a team high with eight tackles and was around the ball a lot.

Among players who logged at least 10 defensive snaps in that game, Pro Football Focus rated Riley first and Jones sixth.

Jones missed preseason and was limited in training camp after last October’s ACL injury. The Dolphins envisioned a competition between free agent pickup DeShon Elliott and Jones, who’s a skilled blitzer and had his best season in pass coverage before his October knee injury against Pittsburgh.

But that battle never materialized because Jones was still working back from the knee injury over the summer.

Instead, he ended up backing up Elliott, his buddy and former Texas teammate. What was that like emotionally, losing a starting job (but to a close friend) and barely playing?

“I would say I definitely struggled with it early on,” Jones said. “In my head, I was like, all I needed was an opportunity to show what I can do. Obviously, Vic as a new DC, there’s a trust factor and I wasn’t able to get those reps in training camp and OTAs. So it’s harder.”

Jones understood this couldn’t be a case of “this guy started last year and throw him in, in a whole new system. I kind of understand where [Fangio] came from. Now I’m grateful to get an opportunity. I know it’s not the best way to look at it [because] I’m covering for Jevon being hurt. But now I’ve been more grateful for the little things, making it out of games 100 percent healthy.”

Boyer’s defense, under the direction of Brian Flores, maximized Jones’ unique blitzing skills; he had seven sacks in an 18-game stretch in 2021 and 2022. But Jones said he believes his talents also fit Fangio’s scheme.

“In practice, once you get a feel for it, you truly have a lot of freedom as a safety in this defense,” Jones said. “It’s do your job and do a little bit more. Doing a little more turns into a freestyle aspect where you can pop up, the quarterback doesn’t see you, make picks. It makes it really fun. I feel like I’ve gotten really, really comfortable with the defense.”

In 2021, Jones blitzed the quarterback 93 times, 28 more than any other NFL safety (per PFF), and had five sacks.

His blitz in the first quarter of the Washington game was his first of the season, and he forced an incomplete pass by Sam Howell. Jones has played 206 defensive snaps this season, well below his 646 during his last fully healthy year as a starter (2021).

The blitz “was fun, especially getting that same max pressure look,” Jones said. “I forced him to get the ball out quick. I was a little upset with myself; I’m like, ‘Damn, first blitz, I think I’m going to get a sack.’”

Has Jones considered asking Fangio or new safeties coach Joe Kasper to blitz him more?

“I haven’t gone up to them and said, ‘Hey I feel like I’m pretty good at blitzing, blitz me a little bit.’ Kasper always jokes around with me, like ‘you’re one of the best safeties at blitzing.’ I don’t have any say-so. I would love to, obviously. It’s been a big part of my game. Whatever Vic calls in the future, hopefully there’s a little bit more. But if it’s one a game, I’m cool with one a game.”

Fangio said of Jones: “He’s done well. Played three games and each game has been better than the one before.”

Elliott, a former Lions starter, has had a good season in his first with Miami. Pro Football Focus rates him 18th among 88 qualifying safeties; Holland is first.

Jones, incidentally, said he initially didn’t know that his collision with Baker forced Baker to leave the Washington game with a knee injury.

“I honestly had no clue,” Jones said. “DeShon joked with me, saying ‘how many players are you going to hurt?’ I’m like, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘you hit Baker.’

“I said, ‘No I didn’t,’ and then I watched it. I went for the tackle on the dude and then kicked him in the back. As soon as I saw him get on the plane, I said ‘Bake, I’m so sorry. He said, ‘you’re good, you’re good.’ That’s part of football. You’re going full speed. Stuff like that happens.”

As for Riley, he had played just 83 defensive snaps all season - after logging 368 last season - before Baker’s injury forced him to play 31 on defense against Washington.

“Duke is a consummate team player,” Fangio said. “Always ready to go when called upon. Great guy to have on the team.”

Which of Riley’s skills are well suited to Fangio’s defense?

“Just my ability to play fast, knowing that everybody’s going to do their job,” Riley said. “My speed, my energy and my communication skills.”

Riley likely will play all the defensive snaps as long as Baker is out. That job comes with wearing a “green dot” on the helmet and hearing play-calls from linebackers coach Anthony Campanile.

Fangio makes the calls and conveys them to Campanile, who relays them to the linebacker with the green dot. Fangio said he has always done it that way, instead of speaking directly into the players’ helmets.

“Even when I don’t have the green dot and I get the call, I relay the call like I have it” during practice, Riley said. “So it’s kind of like something that I do naturally. I talk a lot anyway so everybody already knows that’s what I do. I’m a communicator regardless.”

Jones and Elliott will be free agents after this season; Riley has one year remaining at $2.25 million, but that salary isn’t guaranteed.