With a 24-17 victory at Carolina on Thursday night, the Miami Dolphins climbed back into the AFC playoff race, leveling their record at 5-5 by winning for the third time in four weeks.
It's no coincidence that the month-long streak of solid play corresponds to the fact that the Dolphins have been starting a pair of rookie cornerbacks, first-round choice Vontae Davis and second-rounder Sean Smith, for the past four games.
Smith -- a big, physical, imposing corner from Utah and the 61st player chosen in April -- has been starting all season. Davis, the 25th selection in the first round, moved into the starting lineup roughly a month ago when veteran Will Allen suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee.
The Dolphins chose Davis and Smith with the intent that the two would eventually emerge as their long-term starters at cornerback. No one guessed that "eventually" would come so early in their tenure, but the rookies have responded to the challenge and played well.
"They haven't been overwhelmed by what we've expected from them," Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder said. "They've kept their feet on the ground, done all of the little things you have to do to be good in this league, and handled the pressure of playing big-time snaps at a pressurized position. They're going to be good for a long time."
Working in tandem, Davis and Smith have made a profound difference in the Dolphins' turnaround of the past month. In the first six games of the season, when Miami was 2-4, the Dolphins' secondary surrendered 8.55 yards per attempt and 14.68 yards per completion, along with seven touchdown passes. In the four games Smith and Davis have started together, the secondary has allowed 7.18 yards per attempt and 12.75 yards per completion, with five touchdowns. Those numbers are a little higher than assistant head coach Todd Bowles, who handles the team's secondary, would prefer. But they certainly are a marked improvement over the unit's performance earlier in the season.
Said Smith: "I think we both knew at draft time that, sooner or later, we would be playing together. Maybe it's come sooner than we thought, and we've definitely had some rough spots, but we're doing our share. And every week, we get better at working together."
The Dolphins' young duo is part of an excellent group of rookie cornerbacks around the league. There were 14 corners selected in the first three rounds of the 2009 draft, and nine have been starters or played significant snaps as nickel defenders so far this season. Five of them have started three or more games each. Smith and the less-heralded Derek Cox of Jacksonville, a third-round choice from William and Mary, have started every game for their respective teams.
The cornerback position wasn't viewed as a particularly deep one last spring before the draft, but it has turned out to be very good, especially for the resurgent Dolphins.