Olivier Vernon Stepping Up His Game

First he soaked in everything he could as a rookie from veteran defensive end Cameron Wake, and now Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon is a solid compliment to the two-time Pro Bowler.

Teacher and pupil were on equal footing two days ago at Sun Life Stadium in Miami’s pivotal 20-16 win over the San Diego Chargers with both coming up with clutch sacks in the fourth quarter. Wake now leads the team with 6.5 on the season but Vernon is right on his heels at 5.5 and recorded at least one in four consecutive games, proving his slow start is a thing of the past.

“He’s been a tremendous part of this defense and this is not a surprise by any means to us,” Wake said. “We’ve seen him do it from the moment he got here so it’s great to see him actually getting some more recognition outside of the locker room. He’s literally a four-down kind of guy and that’s what you want to do when you play this game. He’s not just a specialist. On first down he’s stopping the run, third down he’s rushing the passer, he’s doing special teams and he’s done it all. So I’m glad to have him on the other side for sure.”

San Diego put rookie left tackle D.J. Fluker on Vernon the entire game, figuring his 6-foot-5, 339-pound frame would be too much for the much smaller ex-Hurricane to handle. Vernon is 6-2, 268, so he was giving up three inches in height and 71 pounds in weight.

As it turned out, Vernon pretty much had his way with Fluker and led the Dolphins in tackles with six (five solo), one for loss and two quarterback hits. His sack of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was the turning point of the game as he pushed them out of field with 4:07 remaining, knocking Fluker off balance and to the ground before wrapping up Rivers from behind.

“It’s about angles and he plays with great angles,” said defensive tackle Jared Odrick, who also had a sack in that fourth quarter. “He had Fluker’s weight going one way and then he came back on his inside shoulder and (Fluker’s) foot wasn’t posted into the ground so it slid back. It was really well executed but that’s the thing, he does that all the time in practice and he did a good job doing that.”

The comfort level Vernon has shown on the defensive line has been noticeable, especially considering the fact that he missed half of his junior season at the University of Miami. He settled into the role of defensive end nicely and finished 2012 with 3.5 sacks and 22 tackles (17 solo).

Vernon also made his mark on special teams as a rookie and was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for games played the week of October 25th-29th after he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for a touchdown and blocked a field goal in Miami’s 30-9 win at the New York Jets. His sack of St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford two weeks earlier at home, which was his second of the game, forced the Rams to try a 66-yard field goal that missed in a 17-14 victory, but defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has seen even more improvement.

“He graded out very well,” Coyle said. “Oliver has really stepped up his game. He’s playing very good. That sack that you mentioned was a real big play in the game to get them out of field goal range.”

All three sacks by the defensive line in the fourth quarter were impactful, with Odrick’s early on forcing San Diego punt from its own end zone and set up Miami’s offense with excellent field position. The Dolphins added a field goal on the ensuing drive to make it a four-point game and alter the offensive strategy of the Chargers.

Wake’s came in the final minute and forced San Diego to burn its final timeout on the drive that came up short. But both Wake and Odrick pointed to Vernon’s sack as the biggest one because of the circumstances and how much time was left, with Wake taking pride in the fact that it came from another “hybrid” defensive end. Odrick put it into a broader perspective.

“Sacks like that are the ones that you dream about, being able to really not only affect the game but in a sense end it. That’s an awesome accomplishment for O.V. to just be able to do that in that moment and I’m sure it felt great because it felt great for us to have a D-lineman finish the game like that. O.V. had a helluva game and he’s the type of player that he just keeps getting better.”

This Sunday, Vernon gets to face the big and elusive Cam Newton, quarterback of the Carolina Panthers, which will be another challenge he’s willing to take on.

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