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DAVIE, Fla. – Olivier Vernon isn't on the Pro Bowl ballot, doesn't do a sack dance and expressed surprise Wednesday to be chosen the AFC defensive player of the week.
"I'm not a big accolades guy," Vernon said.
Even so, the Miami Dolphins' second-year defensive end is winning acclaim for making their strength even stronger. The front four is the Dolphins' deepest, most dominant unit, and Vernon's no longer considered a weak link.
He struggled in the first month of the season but has six sacks in the past three games, increasing his team-high total to 10½, which is tied for fifth-best in the NFL. In last week's win over the New York Jets, Vernon had three sacks and 10 tackles, both career highs.
Coming from a player who didn't start as a rookie last year, such success has been unexpected. Or maybe not.
"When you watch him in practice, it's not a surprise to see him having the success that he had, because he has been a demon in the one-on-one pass rush since training camp," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said.
Vernon may benefit from being overlooked. He lines up in the Dolphins' 4-3 scheme opposite two-time Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, and the pass rush of first-round draft pick Dion Jordan also distracts opponents. In addition, tackles Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick provide plenty of push up the middle.
When they chase quarterbacks toward Vernon, he has been ready.
"I'm just capitalizing on opportunities that come my way," he said. "I just try to get better, make plays for this team and be a role player. A lot of guys on this team have contributed a lot, and I'm just trying to add."
Defense has kept the Dolphins (6-6) in the playoff race. They'll go into Sunday's game at Pittsburgh tied for fifth in the NFL with 37 sacks, which puts them on pace to tie the franchise record. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 72.7, which is second-lowest in the league. Miami ranks ninth in points allowed.
Now Miami is preparing for the pass-happy Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 21 touchdowns and 3,375 yards.
"We've got to be sound in our pass-rushing lanes," Vernon said. "As long as we can contain him, it will be a good game for us. But you've still got to finish the tackle, because he's very elusive and can break out of a lot of tackles."
If Vernon has been under the radar in previous games, that won't be the case against the Steelers, who are well aware of his recent performances.
He's playing so well he added a half-sack Wednesday, when the league made a scoring change in last week's game. That increased Vernon's sack total against the Jets to three.
"He's a high-motor guy, a guy who gets after it," Roethlisberger said. "He's somebody who is probably not getting as much attention as he deserves. He's playing at an extremely high level right now, and we're going to have to have eyes and attention on him."
Vernon said much of his improvement has resulted from learning how to study opponents and teammates. He follows the example of the veteran Miami linemen, especially Wake, whom he still considers a mentor.
"I'm learning from the older guys," he said. "I watch film on those guys even in practice to see what they do, and try to get better every day. Being better at watching film and taking notes helps with play recognition — seeing what's coming your way and learning what to expect."
Wake beamed when talking about Vernon's player of the week honor, saying it was good to see his teammate thrive.
"I'm happy not just for him, but for selfish reasons as well," Wake said. "To have different weapons to keep offenses on their heels with guys coming from everywhere, it's going to help your team as a whole."
A third-round draft pick from the University of Miami, Vernon saw significant playing time off the bench as a rookie last year and had 3½ sacks. He's small for an end at 6-2 and 268 pounds, and there was concern at first about his ability to defend the run.
But he wins praise for his professionalism, ranging from his careful eating habits to the consistent effort he puts forth. And he's tough to block one on one.
"He's a slippery guy, and he's very powerful for what you might say is an undersized-type pass rusher," Coyle said. "He's not a big guy. He's not an overly tall guy, yet he plays with great leverage, has great strength and has some wiggle to him. He's just doing a great job right now."
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