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Turning the tables on defense

Even the walk comes with attitude included. He steps as if he believes he outshines the shimmering South Florida sun. His shoulders are back, his hips roll, and his stride tells you that you darned well better look at him. If John Wayne ever walked out of a locker room, this was his gait. This is the swagger of Tim McKyer.

These days, it is also the swagger of the Miami Dolphins' defense.

In recent seasons, there have been times when it seemed that Dol-phins defenders walked backward, on their heels, as they hoped desperately that the other team would do something to kill its own drive.

God gave the Dolphins Dan Marino, but he also gave them this defense. It was the Giveth and Taketh Away Rule.

Ah, but these days the defense has muscles. Check the NFL statistics (hint: don't start your search at the bottom as usual), and you'll find the Dolphins wedged between the Giants and Bears, second in the entire National Football League.

Second. This is a team that was 24th in the NFL last year, 26th in each of the three years before that, 23rd in 1985, 19th in 1984. The last time this defense was any good, Marino was working on term papers.

"It's been tough," Dolphins coach Don Shula said. "Even though there were times we felt we were improving, the statistics said we weren't. We realize you don't judge a defense off six games, but things have been better."

Have they ever. Teams are gaining a football field less (from 346.6 yards to 246.5) per game. They're scoring a touchdown and a field goal less (from 23.5 points to 13.8).

"I don't think the world is convinced yet," McKyer said. "But it will be."

First, however, the world has to figure out just who these guys are. For the only thing more amazing than the defensive turnaround has been just how the team has done it.

It is a collection of castoffs and afterthoughts, the biggest collection of the unwanted to make it since thePolice Academy series.

The budding star is defensive end Jeff Cross, who wasn't drafted until the ninth round. Linebacker David Griggs was claimed off the waiver wire, graduated from the developmental squad, and as recently as training camp was also being looked at as a tight end. Linebacker Cliff Odom is a Plan B reject. Cornerback J.B. Brown was a 12th-round draft pick. Nose tackle Alfred Ogelsby had never played the position before this year, but was forced to play when former Pro Bowler Brian Sochia was suspended for steroid use. Linebacker Hugh Green has been in danger of losing his job for years. And cornerback McKyer's yapping per-sonality led to his banishment from the world champion 49ers.

"On this team, there is an attitude that almost everyone has something to prove," said McKyer. "Cross wants to show he should have been a first-round pick. Odom wants to show he should have been protected. J.B. wants to show he shouldn't have lasted until the 12th round. And me, I know I've got a lot to prove. I want to show the world that it doesn't matter what team I play on, I'm still a great cornerback."

It is odd that the Dolphins now find themselves relying on this defense. Marino's quarterback rating continues to slip, and the running game, which started so well, has ground to a halt. Sammie Smith gained 159 yards on 23 carries in the team's opener, then has gained 159 on 63 carries in five games since.

Yet, the Dolphins are 5-1.

And the swagger begins.

Tim McKyer on Jeff Cross: "I've never seen a big, physical athletDOLPHINS 3C

ic specimen as Jeff Cross. I mean, not only is this guy big, but he's nimble, quick, good on his feet. I've seen him out there before practice with Mark Duper one day, and he actually covered Duper up on a bump-and-run. I mean, I was just amazed."

If football players were stocks, it would be wise to invest in Cross. He is tied for the league lead with eight sacks, one year after being the surprise team leader with 10.

Considering that he was a tight end in junior college and an undersized defensive end at Missouri, Cross ranks as one of the league's rags-to-riches stories. "Easily, he's a Pro Bowler," said linebacker John Offerdahl.

Cross, however, says that comparisons to such players as Bruce Smith of Buffalo and Reggie White of Philadelphia are premature.

"Not yet," Cross said. "But in the next year or two, I could be. I could be as good as anybody in the game.

"I just feel like taking charge of our defense personally. When I first came here, I wanted to be one of the guys to turn this thing around. When you talk about Miami's defense, I wanted the first name out of your mouth to be Jeff Cross. I want to be the man on this defense. I want this to be my defense."

Tim McKyer on Hugh Green: "He's playing like a rookie. I mean, he's playing inspired football. A lot of people thought he was done, but you can see he's not."

Before the season, Shula pointed to three players as the keys to a defensive turnaround: defensive end John Bosa, linebacker Eric Kumerow and linebacker Rick Graf, two former No.1s and a No.2 draft pick. All went fizzle.

Bosa was injured, his second major knee injury, and he could be finished. Graf held out and has played sparingly. Kumerow couldn't beat out Green. None of the three has a tackle this season.

Green is an unusual man, he with the shaved head and the vow of silence (he has not spoken to the media in three years). But he has played well.

McKyer on Cliff Odom: "He just punishes linemen. Watch films, and you'll see him stick linemen into the backfield."

You'd think the Colts would have learned. Last year, they let Barry Krauss slip away, and he led the Dolphins in tackles. This year, they let Odom slip away, and he's leading the Dolphins in tackles. Who's next? Duane Bickett?

McKyer on John Offerdahl: "Johnny Quest? The only thing you can say about Offerdahl is that he's Offerdahl. He doesn't have (Mike) Singletary's size, but he has Singletary's heart."

Four years, Offerdahl has played pro football. Four times, he's made the Pro Bowl. But there have been times he has been unhappy, pulled into the mire of losing.

"Now, I'm so happy it's pitiful," he said. "This is fun."

Much of the reason is that Offerdahl isn't working as hard, because the Dolphins' offense has been successful at controlling the ball.

"Sometimes, I walk off the field, and it's like I haven't even played," Offerdahl said. "One game this year (Pittsburgh), I played 22 plays. In the past, I've played in 80-play games. It's like we had to play an extra half-season every year."

McKyer on David Griggs: "People might not know about him now, but they will. I compare him to Cornelius Bennett. He's a hell of a talent. He still makes some mistakes, because he's so new to the position, but he has tremendous athletic talent."

This time last year, Griggs was an unhappy sort-of Dolphin. He was on the team's developmental squad, after being waived by the Saints, but he wasn't crazy about it.

"I think it shows that sometimes NFL scouts don't know talent when they see it," he said. "I could have done the same things I'm doing now if I was given an opportunity last year. Not much has changed.

"It motivated me. You don't really feel like a part of the team. Hardly anyone even knows your name. You're a piece of meat out there. Yeah, I've got something to prove."

McKyer on J.B. Brown: "He's playing so well, he's taking my Pro Bowl votes."

Last year, opposing quarterbacks had a quarterback rating of 85.7 against the Dolphins. This year, that's down to 71.2. And Brown, the guy who was supposed to be the weak link, hasn't been. He has yet to be beaten for a touchdown.

McKyer on Louis Oliver and Jarvis Williams: "He's a great specimen, a David Fulcher type. He just controls the middle. Jarvis has great instincts. He gets a little emotional, but he can play."

There have been opportunities for the defense to fold this year. The Jets took the ball late with a chance to pull out a victory. The Patriots had the ball late with a chance to win. Both times, the defense came up with the plays to win.

"Last year, we might have lost those games," Oliver said. "The biggest difference in this defense isn't the players, it's the attitude. Last year, if we got behind and we weren't playing well, our guys would get their heads down. That's changed."

McKyer on McKyer: "When the Dolphins sent a second-round draft pick for me, that was highway robbery. You can't buy, and you can't trade for, and you can't draft a Prime Time Neon Deion Sanders to come in here and play like a Tim McKyer. That's a fact."

Okay, he has a big mouth. But McKyer has backed it up, too. He's hounded receivers all over the field, and once again he finds himself playing on a winner. Coincidence?

Maybe not. Because in training camp, McKyer ripped into his new teammates.

"When I got here, there really didn't seem to be a team," he said. "It was a bunch of guys doing their own things. They doubted their own abilities. It was "Are we good? "Could we be good? If this happened, would we be good?' People had accepted losing. Now, that attitude has totally turned around."

Maybe it wasn't McKyer's tongue-lashing that fueled the turnaround. Maybe it won't hold up. As defensive coach Tom Olivadotti nervously points out: "Our job isn't done yet. You're only as good as your last play."

Yeah. But, for a change, wasn't that last play pretty good?

McKyer on the future: "I think we could have five, maybe six players in the Pro Bowl. This defense has as much talent as anyone. Just you watch."

BY THE NUMBERS

Category 1989 1990

Points per game 23.5 13.8

First downs per game 21.1 14.2

Yards per game 346.6 246.5

Rushing yards per game 134.6 76.8

Average per rush 4.4 2.9

Passing yards per game 221.4 169.7

Completion percentage 61.4 53.5

Opposing QB rating 85.7 71.9

Sacks per game 2.44 3.67

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