Of all the red flags to emerge from Friday night’s clunker, this might be the most sobering for the Dolphins: their preseason is more than half over, and they seem to be getting worse, not better.
The defense can’t make a stop, the offensive line struggles to protect, and Miami’s wide receivers — a group referred to by general manager Jeff Ireland as a bunch of “fours, fives and sixes” on Hard Knocks — scare no one.
And in three short weeks, the games will count, beginning with a trip to Houston to face perhaps the most dangerous team in the AFC.
“The one thing we’re not doing right now is panicking,” said cornerback Sean Smith, the victim of a questionable pass-interference call Friday night that negated an interception.
“We’re definitely not starting the way we thought we [would], but there are plenty of practices to be done.”
Depends on your definition of plenty. The Dolphins — who came out flat in each of their first two preseason games — return to work Sunday, only five days before they have to play yet another dangerous NFC South team (this time Atlanta).
They’ll get in three hard-hitting days of practice this week, and then probably two more the following before closing the preseason at Dallas. That’s just five more training camp-style workdays before their focus turns from fundamentals to game planning.
Here’s what is left on the to-do list before then:
• Settle on a starting quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (total preseason stats: 25 of 44, 267 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions) has outplayed Matt Moore (12 of 27, 136, 0 and 1) in both games. With the injured David Garrard still weeks from a return, Tannehill appears to have the inside track on starting Week 1.
• Shore up the right side of the offensive line: Rookie Jonathan Martin struggled against the Panthers, who sacked Tannehill three times and hit him plenty more. The Dolphins have no depth at tackle, and so they are likely to stick with Martin and hope he develops.
• Manufacture a pass rush: The starting defense, playing without Cameron Wake and two other pieces of its front seven, didn’t sack the Panthers’ quarterbacks once. In the two first halves the team has played (the equivalent of one full game), the defense has been gashed for 481 yards and four touchdowns.
• Run the football — or at least try: Through Friday night’s games, the Dolphins ranked second to last league-wide in rushing offense, averaging just 40 yards per game. Sure, they aren’t particularly efficient, mustering just 3 yards per carry, but Miami’s running backs have not been given a chance to get into a rhythm. The Dolphins ran the ball just 12 times against the Panthers.
• Get open and make the catch: The Dolphins’ most productive receivers Friday night were a bunch of guys who might not make the team. Rishard Matthews, Jeff Fuller and Chris Hogan combined for 11 of the team’s 29 catches in Charlotte, N.C. Roberto Wallace, starting in the Dolphins’ first game since the release of Chad Johnson, caught just one of the six passes thrown his way.
• Figure out the breakdowns on the back end: With all kinds of time to throw, Cam Newton shredded Miami’s secondary, finding players who were running wide open. If Vontae Davis wasn’t put on alert before, he should be now. The former starter wasn’t even the team’s top corner off the bench when the game ended Friday, replaced by Nolan Carroll at the nickel spot. Davis said he was not injured Friday night, indicating the move was performance based.
“It just wasn’t a clean operation, and that’s a poor reflection on me and we’ve got to do a better job,” a deflated Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said in the bowels of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium after the most recent loss.
Moore, who said Friday night the Dolphins should be concerned about how they have played, added: “I think guys understand we have to get better fast and make plays when they’re there.”