Trending Up: Best and Worst Performers from Miami’s ‘Dress Rehearsal’
After a shaky start to exhibition season, the Miami Dolphins seemed to take a big step forward in this essential dress rehearsal. The starting offense moved the chains consistently and there were notable bright spots on a defense that still faces a lot of questions. Let’s take a look at a few of the team’s best and worst performers.
Boy, can this man still play. The Dolphins’ coaching staff opted to employ their veteran pass rusher solely in passing situations against Atlanta, but his impact was still obvious. While he didn’t notch a sack, he did push the tackle into the chest of Matt Ryan on an early play, forcing him to leave the pocket and disrupting the timing of the offense. He continued his strong play throughout the first half, looking notably explosive off the edge. He forced Ryan to get rid of the ball early on multiple occasions, specifically on speed rushes around the tackles.
While it is likely that Wake is called upon at least a little more often in the regular season than he was tonight, it makes a ton of sense to limit him exclusively to passing downs and situations. Although Wake looked like a well-oiled machine tonight, Gase is going to want to keep the veteran fresh for the duration of 2016 and ensure that he stays healthy. The defensive line is a different group when Wake is on the field, and it would be a blessing to see him on the field for every down; but for right now, the team will benefit greatly by rotating him in where he can make the biggest impact.
Arian Foster:Another veteran ready to play a huge role for Miami, Arian Foster, couldn’t have had a better performance tonight as he vies for the starting spot. He looked smooth, reliable and, most importantly, healthy tonight.
All of Foster’s trademarks were on display; in particular, cutbacks, patience, and receiving out of the backfield. On his touchdown run, he made scoring look as effortless as ever. He took the handoff up the middle, quickly identified a crease to the outside, and made a final cutback to avoid a would-be tackler at the goal line. Additionally, he tallied 2 catches for 20 yards, once again displaying his receiving prowess and acting as the safety blanket for Tannehill.
There’s simply no denying that the former Texan has everything Gase looks for in a running back. Gase went into this third preseason game saying that he wanted to get “a long look” at Foster, and he must have seen all he needed to in this performance. In an offense with a lot of young players, I expect Gase to rely heavily on Foster not only as a consistent contributor, but also as a reliable and comforting veteran presence. Foster has to be seen as a big winner in this week of exhibition season.
Attention continues to go toward second year wide receiver DeVante Parker as a potential break out candidate, yet it is Kenny Stills that is showing off the better understanding of the offense and a superb connection with Ryan Tannehill. Formerly known almost exclusively as a deep threat, Stills has seemed to drastically expand his route tree, and Tannehill looked his way early and often against the Falcons.Gase seems dead set on making life easier for his quarterback by utilizing a series of short to intermediate routes. While he will have to let Tannehill’s arm loose at times to keep defenses honest, he seems perfectly content with playing it safe at the moment. The comeback routes that have become so common in Gase’s playbook are suited extremely nicely for Stills’ skillset, as opposing cornerbacks have no choice but to respect his abilities downfield. With the timing between Stills and Tannehill becoming more impressive with seemingly every snap, the former New Orleans Saint is quickly becoming one of, if not the number one option in this offense. Look for the hype surrounding Stills to continue to grow well into the regular season.
With the way the linebacker group has performed so far this preseason, the steady play of Koa Misi is a definite bright spot. Misi was a force against the run, allowing Reshad Jones (who intercepted a pass tonight) to settle into a role as a hybrid safety/coverage linebacker. Misi held his own in coverage as well; a welcomed sign considering Miami’s struggles against tight ends last season.
Julius Warmsely looked like anything but a player that was fighting for a roster spot in this game. He was an absolute menace in the backfield, stuffing runs consistently and tallying a sack in the second half against Atlanta’s backups. He seems like a lock to make the roster at this point, and could even grab a spot in the rotation.
Ryan Tannehill:For the second straight week, Ryan Tannehill has impressed. Although it took him a little time to get into a rhythm, the end result was a beautiful thing to watch. Tannehill seems firmly in control of the offense for the first time in his career. He looks comfortable with Gase’s play calling, could be seen discussing plays with Gase and the receivers on multiple occasions, and displayed fantastic timing with Stills, as I mentioned earlier. He also showed pocket presence and mobility, traits that can only help a quarterback looking to establish himself among the league’s club of reliable and dynamic passers.
On one particular play in the first half, Stills ran a simple crossing route across the middle of the field. While he was open, there were still two defenders in his vicinity, and it didn’t seem to faze Tannehill at all. He zipped the ball to Stills with impressive velocity, showing off his arm strength and mechanics while delivering a perfect throw into Still’s chest. Tannehill executed the two-minute drill nicely on that drive, although it ultimately ended in a missed field goal.
Tannehill opted to get the ball out short to Jarvis Landry and his running backs often as well, intent to pick up yards on every play and keep the chains moving. It is impossible to say what Tannehill’s ceiling may end up being, but the way he spread the ball around and led this team today is a sign that he is undoubtedly improving under Gase’s tutelage.
It shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that when the offensive line plays well, so does Tannehill. Quarterbacks need time in the pocket to consistently beat NFL defenses, and tonight the linemen gave Tannehill plenty. The improvement from Week 2 to the all-important Week 3 should be considered a huge positive at this point in exhibition season. Even Jermon Bushrod, who struggled against the Cowboys, stepped up to the plate and proved that he is capable of providing much needed depth to this position group.
Rookie Laremy Tunsil took another step forward tonight in the race to start at guard. His athleticism at the position is phenomenal. He is definitely strong, but his best attribute is his feet. As a natural offensive tackle, he is quick off the line and has no problem sticking with inside pass rushers. He still has a lot to pick up, but he seems unbelievably comfortable for just learning the position.
First time center Anthony Steen looked good as well with Mike Pouncey sidelined with a hip injury. There was a botched snap early on, but he recovered nicely and provided solid protection up the middle for Tannehill. With Pouncey’s status for Week 1 of the regular season in doubt, Steen may be the team’s starter. Despite the loss of Pouncey being a hard pill to swallow, Steen’s play tonight suggested that he should at least be up to the task as his replacement.
The best performer along the offensive line tonight, however, was Ja’Wuan James. After a slow start to the preseason, James looked like he was in midseason form. He completely shut down explosive pass rusher Vic Beasley in the first half, allowing virtually no pressure from that side of the line. If James and Brandon Albert can keep up a high level of play on the outside, Tannehill’s life will be a heck of a lot easier.
Jordan CameronWhen Jordan Cameron broke onto the scene as a Cleveland Brown, he seemed to be the next “big thing” at tight end. However, since injuries shortened his season in 2014, and he signed with Miami, Cameron has been a shell of the player that wowed the league just a few seasons ago. There were hopes that Gase could save him from a third straight disappointing year, but with his performance in this dress rehearsal, it is clear that those hopes were misguided.
Cameron doesn’t look nearly as explosive as he once did and has been terribly inconsistent throughout the offseason. In this game, he accumulated a measly one catch for six yards on four targets. He dropped two balls, including one for what should have been an easy touchdown. Tight ends are, above all else, supposed to act as additional blockers and safety valves for their quarterback. Cameron has always been an average blocker, and it now seems nearly impossible for Tannehill and Gase to rely on him in any capacity, especially not on third downs or in the red zone. At this point, Arian Foster and Jarvis Landry seem like the de-facto security blankets in this offense due to Cameron’s stunning inability to make plays.
While Julius Warmsely shined tonight, Jordan Phillips was once again nothing special. He hasn’t been the player Miami expected when they spent a second round pick on him just a short time ago. He made no notable plays and was called for an encroachment penalty. While he didn’t necessarily play poorly, his performance was extremely disappointing considering the expectations surrounding him.
This one is obvious: when you are in a kicking competition, you can’t miss kicks. Franks missed a field goal and he missed it badly. He couldn’t have inspired much confidence in Gase in the most important game of the preseason.
Jay Ajayi:Similarly, Jay Ajayi failed to distinguish himself against Atlanta. While Foster made various big plays, Ajayi seemingly made none; he averaged under two yards a carry. Although he made an impact through the air, Foster has and, I presume, will continue to look like the starter heading into the regular season. This isn’t to say Ajayi won’t have a role, and Foster obviously has substantial injury concerns, but Ajayi didn’t perform like a difference maker on Thursday night.
Other than the end zone INT by Reshad Jones, this is going to be yet another performance to forget for Miami’s secondary. Byron Maxwell was merely “okay” and Bobby McCain played like a depth player; Tony Lippett, meanwhile, was bad. Lippett has some athletic upside and had a golden opportunity to win a starting job when rookie Xavien Howard went down. However, that opportunity has largely been wasted.
Lippett looked silly on one play in particular, getting horribly fooled by a shimmy on a go route. Not only did he allow the completion, but he also was called for a penalty as he laid hands on the receiver in a foolish attempt to stick with him as he blew by. While this was by far his worst play, the rest of his performance was still hard to watch.
Due to Lippett’s undeniable inconsistency and overall struggles, Howard should stake claim to the starting corner spot across from Maxwell soon after he is healthy and gets some game reps.
Dolphins fans should be optimistic after this performance. Tannehill and Gase seem as ready as ever to lead this team to success, but the question remains as to whether the defense will improve with them. The offense is in sync, and the defense looked as good as it has all of exhibition season. With the emergence of Stills, the improvement of the offensive line, and the relatively few weak performers against the Falcons, Miami stepped up when it needed to on Thursday night.