Setting the Benchmark: What We Learned From the Dolphins’ Preseason Debut

While the first preseason game of the year is not an indicator of how a team will perform during the regular season, it is possible to gauge the direction they are moving in and to evaluate individual players. Who is acclimating well to a new system? How do various players fit into new schemes? Who will play what role going forward?

On Friday, we were given some clarity in regards to these questions.

Do not read too much into the first preseason game. Yes, there is always knowledge to be acquired when a team takes to the field with its players in full pads, but you will not learn anything that should change your large-scale perception of a team’s capabilities.

Individual players can be evaluated. Areas that need improvement can be evaluated. Win/loss records cannot.

So without drawing too much from the team’s first exhibition, here are the key observations that I felt were worth noting on Friday night.

Tackling Must Improve:

If you were hoping for a Kiko Alonso showcase on Friday night, you were sorely disappointed. On one drive, Alonso missed three tackles in embarrassing fashions. One allowed Rashad Jennings to pick up a first down and keep a drive alive. Another allowed the Giants their first score.

During the same play that Kiko Alonso allowed a Rashad Jennings, Isa Abdul-Quddus flew by the running back, missing an opportunity for a key tackle.

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The Dolphins’ run defense needs some serious work. While Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and Mario Williams all sat out this game, it does not change the fact that other players were missing tackles. Had the opposing offense been getting 3-5 yards on run plays but were stopped when they reached defenders, I wouldn’t be worried. However, even when defenders reached their marks, they couldn’t finish the job.

The Dolphins’ run defense improved as the game essentially degraded to a college level in the third and fourth quarters, but the starters will need to work on their tackling before they take the field again.

The Offensive Line is Who We Thought They Were: 

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(Bill Kostroun/AP Photo)

Dolphins fans did not expect improvement from Dallas Thomas. They simply expected him on the bench.

Unfortunately the coaching staff appears to be taking the idea of Laremy Tunsil having to earn the starting job very seriously. However, this appears to be a direct contradiction with Xavien Howard’s seemingly definite return to the starting lineup contingent upon his health.

It also directly contradicts the idea that Adam Gase wants Ryan Tannehill to live.

Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas struggled on Friday night. Struggled is a kind word for what transpired. Not only did the guards play poorly, but the tackles also struggled as Ja’Wuan James was pushed off of his mark several times, and Branden Albert showed his age. It was the first game, so I expect improvement from Albert and James. It is even possible to justify leaving Turner in the starting lineup.

After another experience with Dallas Thomas being frequently thrown around and pushed back into Ryan Tannehill, it is impossible to justify trotting him out with the 1s again.

I expect to see a gradual transition begin with Laremy Tunsil slowly taking over the spot. Tunsil looked good in his debut, and should be running with the starters. By Week 3 of the preseason there will be cause for serious concern if Tunsil is not starting.

Bobby and Chris McCain Stand Out: 

The Dolphins have two players with the last name McCain on their roster, and both excelled on Friday.

Bobby McCain is projected to be the Dolphins’ starting nickel cornerback. On Friday he played outside for a large portion of the game, but was still very impressive. On one play McCain read the quarterback and jumped an out route to force an incompletion.

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On his best play, Bobby McCain held outstanding coverage down the field, located the ball, and had the ball-skills to make sure he came down with the interception.

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While some corners struggle with ball skills, it seems that whatever work McCain did over the offseason paid off. He appeared to be polished, poised and confident in his first action. If it holds up next week, it could be cause for optimism about his ability to perform in the starting lineup this season.

Chris McCain is known to be a training camp/practice star. However, last offseason he disappointed heavily during the preseason. He was a healthy scratch during most games in 2015, but it was widely known that he was being asked to do things that stood outside of his abilities.

Now, Chris McCain is being used as a pure defensive end with pass rush responsibilities. Jim Washburn, who is leading the charge with Miami’s front line on defense, has a supremely talented athlete to work with in McCain, and his work on the young project seems to be paying off.

McCain was one of the bright spots for the Dolphins on Friday. Two plays stood out specifically.

First, on the Bobby McCain interception, Chris McCain actually made the play possible.

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His initial get-off speed was enough to put QB Ryan Nassib on alert, causing his internal clock starting ticking earlier than it might have needed to. Instead of taking his time, he lobbed it up towards Bobby McCain, who came down with the pick.

On another play, McCain showed his ability to work in space as a QB-seeking missile.

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Here, Chris McCain is aware enough of his surroundings to perceive that Nassib has room to escape. He understands where open space exists on the play, and when he feels Nassib roll towards that space he is ready to flip outside with him. He tracked down Nassib and stopped him before he could turn the corner for a positive gain.

Bobby and Chris McCain are perfect examples of what you can learn from an opening preseason game. Coaching changes have occurred in the acquisitions of Vance Joseph and Jim Washburn that allow the players specific instruction to help improve their abilities. In both cases we saw demonstrations of improvement in key areas. All we can hope is that they continue to develop throughout the next month, and that their progress holds up against stronger competition.

Rookie Class Finds Itself On Track:

The star of Friday’s game was 6th round pick Jakeem Grant. Grant’s explosiveness on special teams was on display as he made players miss en route to extra yards and improved field position.

Grant also showed his ability as a receiver during this game.

The Dolphins also saw solid performances from Laremy Tunsil, Leonte Carroo and Thomas Duarte. All three players made contributions on offense. Tunsil should be the starting guard in the near future and the starting left tackle in 2017. But we knew that. Carroo’s hands were very impressive as he continued to do what he did in college: winning on contested plays and using his notable physical strength. Thomas Duarte should be able to crack either the final roster or the practice squad based on his ability to produce as a passing weapon at the tight end position. Dion Sims is not a dynamic offensive weapon, and Duarte has a high ceiling to work with.

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Here, Duarte shows his resemblance to Redskins TE Jordan Reed. Duarte’s smaller size (relative to others at the position) affords him additional shiftiness and an enhanced ability to create opportunities through mismatches. Adam Gase has developed two tight ends into strong weapons, having worked with Julius Thomas in Denver and Zach Miller in Chicago. With Duarte’s unique skill set, he could be next.

Brandon Doughty (who one of my friends lovingly refers to as “The Dough Boy”) also played well, demonstrating good poise and ball placement. He seems to be placing himself firmly ahead of Zac Dysert, and working closer each day to securing his place on the roster.

The rookie class’ performance on Friday was very strong, but also leads us back to the question as to whether or not more picks should have been allocated to defense. While we did not see Xavien Howard play, it was evident that the team could have benefitted from a more substantial run stopping presence. When the starters play, we will get a better understanding of how the defensive line is shaping up.

Once that happens, if the defense improves, it will be much easier to simply be happy with a rookie class full of potential impact players on offense. As a whole, Friday night was a win for the first draft class of the Chris Grier/Mike Tannenbaum brain trust.

Embodying a New Coaching Regime:

Adam Gase’s offensive prowess got him the head-coaching job in Miami. On Friday, I went into the game looking to see him use mismatches and route concepts like he did in Denver and Chicago to help improve a Dolphins offense that was rudimentary at best over the last three seasons.

On a Jakeem Grant play we mentioned above, the play call and design did just that.

RouteConcept

The play above also highlights something that the new coaching staff will take advantage of what the previous group did not: route concepts. Jakeem Grant’s out route is opened up by the outside receiver’s go route, which draws the cornerback away.

Without the go route designed to clear out a defender and open a lane for the slot receiver running the out, the play ends up being a crapshoot. The following play from last season shows what happens when the offense uses an out route without other routes in the area thrown in to help divert coverage.

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On this play, Bill Lazor and Ryan Tannehill simply have to hope that the receiver doesn’t jump the route. There is little room to gain separation, and no margin for error based on the lack of help provided to spring the receiver open.

Now, Tannehill also has the ability to audible. If he saw that the defense was going to be sitting in zone, he could have called out of the play and into another option that took advantage of that coverage. Under the previous regime, the QB would have been a sitting duck, with his primary option already taken away by coverage.

When reporters asked Ryan Tannehill what he spoke with Peyton Manning about last week in Miami, Tannehill was quick to reveal the subject of his instruction from one of the greatest to ever play the game. “Route concepts.” These combinations of patterns are a key to any dynamic offense, and on Friday we finally got a glimpse of what the team could do if they employ these tactics.

In Week 3 of the preseason, if the offensive line improves, fans should be very excited to see what Ryan Tannehill and the offense can do. The possibilities are much greater in the intuitive system that Adam Gase is attempting to implement in Miami.

The Skinny:

All we can hope to see in Week 2 of the preseason are improvements in key areas and continued growth for young players.

Currently, the rookie class appears to be on track to live up to lofty expectations in their first NFL seasons. However, they have to continue to trend upwards rather than staying the same. The previous coaching staff did not push young players enough, relying on low-ceiling, high floor veterans. This group will not feel the same ease of role as rookies. Adam Gase will look to continue growing the rookie class for a substantial, and important, role in 2016. It will be crucial to watch them build on their strong start next week.

The areas of dire concern must be cleaned up as well. A true starting offensive line group must be found within the roster. My fleeting suspicion is that Dallas Thomas will start again at guard in Week 2, which would not worry me. If he is still coming out with the first group in Week 3, fans can smash the panic button.

If the run defense and offensive line improve, the Dolphins’ growth will be noticeable. After the first preseason game, the results seem clear: the roster is filled with talent, but will continue to be held back by issues at the line of scrimmage.

Hopefully, Adam Gase and his staff can find a solution in the next three weeks that allows the team to reach their fullest potential. If they can’t, the improvement of other players and the notable strides taken by rookies could end up being all for naught if the same road blocks continue to hinder the Dolphins’ path to success.


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