Former Dolphins’ head coach Tony Sparano used to say the importance of special teams was often lost in hidden yards. Current coach Joe Philbin made noise when he put first round pick Dion Jordan on the kickoff team in practice.
For years, the Dolphins have placed a premium on special teams, including drafting their current kicker in the fifth round. On Saturday, the third phase of the game let Miami down, as two punt return turnovers let directly to 10 Tampa Bay points in the first half.
“It’s very frustrating,” coach Joe Philbin said at halftime. “We had a good week of preparation, including special teams. It’s disappointing that we would give the ball away twice.”
On Miami’s first punt return attempt, returner Marcus Thigpen never even had a chance to field the ball. As Thigpen called for a fair catch, cornerback Nolan Carroll was blocked backward and the ball hit him in the arms, allowing the Buccaneers to recover the punt.
Given a second chance by the miscue, Tampa Bay scored easily. After a pass interference penalty on Brent Grimes, the Buccaneers punched the ball in the endzone using two runs inside the 10-yard line.
“It’s tough just because we harp on these things all week,” Thigpen said. “We need to work harder.”
Thigpen shared the blame with Carroll for the first turnover. The second one was mostly on Thigpen.
Thigpen fielded the punt cleanly, but poorly protected the ball while cutting back, and fumbled after a relatively weak slap at his arms. To add insult to injury, the turnover came after Tampa was forced to re-punt after a penalty. The Dolphins maintained possession the first time.
Thigpen, who returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns last season, mildly redeemed himself with a 38-yard return late in the first half, which set up Miami’s first touchdown drive.
“You really can’t redeem a fumble,” Thigpen said. “I just got to get better. That can’t happen. It’s unacceptable for myself.”
It’s unclear if Miami has another returner they are willing to use who will be on the roster for the first regular season game.
Starting receiver Brian Hartline could potentially return kicks, but is seemingly too valuable for special teams. Cornerback De’Andre Presley has returned during the preseason, but he is far from guaranteed a spot in the defensive backfield.
Other special teams units fared much better, and gave a glimpse into who might be safe on the 53-man roster.
In particular, the kickoff return unit featured a few players who may be on the bubble.
Fullback Jovorskie Lane remained the lead blocker on returns, lining up just ahead of Thigpen. Lane is currently embroiled in a battle with Evan Rodriguez for a job in the Dolphins’ backfield. Lane also came back onto the field in the red zone to block for a run play.
“Special teams is just as important as offensive plays,” Lane said. “You got to go out there and give it all you got. I feel like I’m doing what I’ve always done, block, catch and play football.”
However, it’s also possible the Dolphins choose not to keep any fullbacks on the roster.
Wide receiver Rishard Matthews also started on the opening kickoff. Matthews missed part of training camp with an injury, and he’s fighting for receiver spot with Chad Bumphis, Marvin McNutt and Keenan Davis.
Matthews already seems to have a leg up as a receiver, spelling Hartline at times during the game, and his special teams work gives him added value.
Others on the kickoff team included backup linebackers Josh Kaddu, Johnathan Freeny, Austin Spitler and rookie Jelani Jenkins. The linebackers have struggled on defense so far in the preseason, but special teams play could save them from being churned before the start of the regular season.