Rumble in the Jungle: Grades & Analysis from the Dolphins’ Loss to the Panthers

Tonight the Miami Dolphins took the field for the second time this preseason in Charlotte to take on the Carolina Panthers. While the team did not manage a win in their second contest of 2015, the rave reviews continue to pile up for Ryan Tannehill and the starting defense. Miami looked sharp and in control while the first-team was in, flying out to a 14-0 lead early. The Dolphins would eventually be done-in by their reserves again, but fans have to be positive after another dominant display by the starters. Here are our grades for the Miami Dolphins from their showdown with the Panthers, which reaffirmed what we saw in Chicago: the team looks ready to make noise, as long as they can stay healthy.

Quarterbacks: See Below

Ryan Tannehill: A+

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What more did you want to see? Tannehill was crisp and decisive through his reads, and operated Bill Lazor’s offense with a great deal of effectiveness. Even when pressured, Tannehill knew exactly where his check down was and managed to often evade a sack and produce a positive gain.

This is the second consecutive week in which Ryan Tannehill has moved the Dolphins’ offense effectively down the field, and fans have to be pleased that he is living up to the hype. Sometimes it just takes time, and that appears to be the case for Tannehill, who is finding his rhythm and confidence as a fourth year passer in Bill Lazor’s offense.

Everyone Else: D+

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Matt Moore has been a shell of his former self. He turned the ball over in the first half, and cost the Dolphins in the form of nine Carolina points off field goals. In all honesty, I don’t know that he is worth his salary anymore. Even against the second-team defense for the Panthers, Moore looked unsure of himself.

Matt Moore improved a bit in the third quarter, capping a long drive with a touchdown to Matt Hazel. The most impressive part of that possession was that Moore went 4/4 on third downs. After that, it got very ugly. McLeod Bethel-Thompson went 5/6, but did some with some serious luck. Multiple throws were ill-advised decisions that the receiver managed to help salvage. Then, Josh Freeman came in on what I am going to call the Farewell Tour. Freeman threw an interception to a defensive-lineman on a screen, and the Dolphins fell behind to the Panthers (yeah, you read that correctly). He really looked bad, and his only touchdown was thanks to some nifty work after the catch by Gerell Robinson. Overall a bad night for any quarterback not named Ryan Tannehill.

Running Backs: B+
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Early in the game Lamar Miller and Damien Williams showed that they could become a very effective one-two punch for the Dolphins this season. Miller managed to take a check down for a big gain after he broke Josh Norman’s ankles, sending him into the abyss of players who cannot possibly regain their balance after being shaken off of the foundation of their existence. Damien Williams scored twice, once on a short run, and the next time on a crossing route thrown by Tannehill. Williams did fumble once heading into the end zone, but had Philbin not reviewed it the ball would have been spotted at the one-yard line.

LaMike James continues to inch towards a spot on the 53-man roster as a returner. His main competition is Mike Gillislee, who has looked very average thus far in the preseason (tonight he averaged just 2.3 yards per carry). Essentially James should make the team just as a kick returner. This means keeping four running backs (Miller, Williams, Ajayi, and James).

Wide Receivers: B+

Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and Rishard Matthews all turned in strong performances with the first team. Stills caught a great pass on third down in traffic running a slant, while Landry and Matthews both showed great determination fighting through tackles for extra yardage. It continues to amaze me how much talent the Dolphins have at the receiver position heading into this season.GerellGif

The Dolphins’ group of backup receivers also showed promise tonight. Gerell Robinson was able to score on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (most of which came after the catch). Matt Hazel flashed his abilities in a four catch, 47-yard night, including a touchdown at the end of the long Matt Moore drive. Overall it was a very good night for the Dolphins’ receivers, who continue to make an already difficult roster cut even more challenging, as they all show enough ability to potentially contribute if called upon.

Tight Ends: F- (or worse I don’t even know)
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Jordan Cameron dropped a beautifully thrown ball by Tannehill, which would have been an easy touchdown. Dion Sims allowed a defender to blow by him for a strip-sack of Tannehill. Granted, Sims shouldn’t be blocking a defensive end one-on-one, but nevertheless he allowed the play. The only catches from the group were a no-gainer by Cameron, and two for 11 yards for Tim Semisch. Just an ugly, ugly night.

Offensive Line: C+

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The starters had their moments tonight, but failed to turn in a more consistent performance. As he did last week, Dallas Thomas actually managed to hold his own in the first half (he has shown some serious improvement). Billy Turner had a few ugly plays, but it was the sum of this group’s play that caused problems for the Dolphins.

Jason Fox really cannot help in our efforts to evaluate this group. They need Branden Albert back badly. Ja’Wuan James has showed ability, and Mike Pouncey is a proven entity, but the team needs Albert on the field at the beginning of the season. What we saw tonight was that Tannehill is getting better operating under pressure, and the guard situation is not the complete apocalyptic disaster that some Dolphins’ fans believed it would be. It’s ugly don’t get me wrong. But not a complete disaster. What would be a complete disaster is Branden Albert missing the early portion of the season. That would not sit will with the majority of Dolphins’ fans.

Defensive Line: A-

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This grade isn’t just for Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh; Earl Mitchell and Derrick Shelby had outstanding performances against Carolina. Mitchell was able to penetrate and disrupt a screen pass, and Shelby actually helped prevent a Cam Newton touchdown in the second quarter. With Olivier Vernon out tonight (no reason to play him), Shelby showed that he is going to be a great piece for the Dolphins defense to have in their back pocket, and Earl Mitchell continues to prove that he deserves his place as a starter on this vaunted Miami line. AJ Francis also had a solid evening, with a sack and two TFLs. He might not make the team here, but he should be signed somewhere if he is released.

Linebackers: B

Really perfectly average. The Miami Dolphins starting linebackers really didn’t do anything overly impressive, but managed to avoid any major error. There really isn’t too much to say about this group from tonight’s game. Zach Vigil continued his positive play and was flying to the ball against Carolina. He played for most of the second half. Chris McCain continued his ascent, and looked good rushing the passer. He will have to continue work on his coverage if he wants to become a well-rounded starter.

It’s very hard to evaluate this group without Koa Misi. We truly don’t know what we are going to get in week one. The hope around the team is that Misi plays in next week’s game so that they can gauge where the linebacking group is as a whole. At this point it looks like the starters will be McCain, Misi, and Jelani Jenkins, but it is hard to say without having seen them play side-by-side.

Defensive Backs: B-

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The Dolphins’ starting defensive backs played well tonight. Jamar Taylor had a nice interception of Cam Newton (before leaving the game with a quad injury), and Reshad Jones was all over the field early. Jones gave Dolphins’ fans some peace of mind following the Louis Delmas injury. Michael Thomas and Walt Aikens also played well, but neither emerged as the true front-runner after this game. I have to think it will end up being Thomas due purely to experience, but there is plenty of upside with Aikens. The starting unit’s performance tonight was even more impressive given Brent Grimes’ absence (no injury concern, just no reason to risk it). Now it’s time for Dolphins’ fans to pray that Jamar Taylor’s injury won’t keep him out for long. A player with his history leaving a preseason game has to be a major red flag for Miami.

This unit would have earned an A if not for the performance of the backups. Cedric Thompson allowed an easy touchdown and missed a tackle allowing Joe Webb to convert a two-point conservation in the fourth quarter. The rest of the reserves didn’t look much better, and the Dolphins have to grow even more concerned with their depth at the position after this game.

Special Teams: A-

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The team looked very good both returning and defending punts and kicks. Tony Lippett and Zach Vigil both showed ability as gunners, which Miami desperately needs this season. Last year tackling on special teams gave the Dolphins fits. LaMike James improved this week, and Christion Jones also looked good returning punts and kicks. I think James makes the 53-man roster, but Jones will fall to the wayside due to the depth at receiver.

The kicking competition continued against Carolina as Andrew Franks and Caleb Sturgis rotated in and out of the lineup. Sturgis had the only opportunity to kick a field goal, nailing it from 49-yards out. This was frustrating, and the unit could have earned an A in my book if they had given Franks a shot at a field goal. However the undrafted rookie did impress on kickoffs, sending the ball out of the end zone on multiple attempts. Next week hopefully Franks gets another shot, as the Dolphins really should be coming to the realization that Sturgis is not the answer.

Also Brandon Fields was Brandon Fields. So he played well. Because he is Brandon Fields.

Overall: Starters- A+, Reserves- C
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The Miami Dolphins starters performed well once again, and the team looks to be on track for the regular season. However, dark clouds are forming on the horizon with injuries a huge concern for this year’s team. The reserves have looked awful, and Miami really can’t afford to lose any of their starters heading into the second half of the preseason. Jamar Taylor and Bobby McCain both left the game with seemingly minor injuries, but tests will be done to confirm. Jason Fox went down with a concussion, and will have to undergo further evaluation. The Dolphins’ starters seem to have them on track for another strong year, barring the plague of injuries that befell the team in 2014.

All in all, Dolphins’ fans have to be pleased with tonight’s game. Tannehill has led the team to touchdowns on three of his five drives, and the defense started the night again with multiple three-and-outs. Yes folks, the hype is real, and next week will be a good barometer for how the Miami Dolphins have developed this offseason (the starters play the entire first half and a good portion of the third quarter in the third preseason game). The team seems to be building chemistry, and the coaches are earning the players’ respect. I have said it before, and I will say it again: there is something different about this year’s team.

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