August 25, 2012

Miami Dolphins defense provides fans with reasons for optimism

Is this how it’s going to be?

Is this how it’s going to be?

Was this dress-rehearsal preseason outing the Dolphins put on display at Sun Life Stadium on Friday night a preview of the season?

If that is the case, we’re in for a looooooong season. If that’s what the Dolphins look like after they spend a week preparing for an opponent, then this team is already on the clock.

The hope within the Dolphins organization is that this game was a storm that will pass into memory just like the showers that drenched the teams in the fourth quarter. But if it doesn’t turn out that way, the Miami coaching staff and personnel department will have to take a graduate course in accentuating the positives this year, because although this team seems headed for trouble, there are some signs some players are getting better.

The Dolphins defense, for example, showed improvement in this game.

Yes, the offense is a troubling work in progress. The next time a Miami receiver not named Davone Bess makes a play against an opposing starting defense will be the first time that happens this preseason.

The Dolphins had six dropped passes against the Falcons, with Anthony Fasano accounting for three. There was a fumble. And no one got in the end zone, which is only terrible because the NFL is a points league and the Dolphins don’t resemble anything like a high-scoring team.

But the defense played well.

Really well.

The same starting defense that coach Joe Philbin complained hadn’t stopped anyone in the previous two exhibition games actually did good work against Atlanta. And that’s saying something.

The Falcons, you must understand, have designs on playing in the Super Bowl this season. They have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Ryan. Receiver Julio Jones is a beast, exactly the dynamic, big, fast receiver the Dolphins lack. And Michael Turner is about as easy to tackle as a bowling ball rolling downhill.

And yet the Miami defense kept all of them out of the end zone this night.

The Falcons were No. 10 in total offense last season. They finished with 402 points, which was No. 7 in the NFL.

And yet the Dolphins’ starting defense held them to three field goals.

The Dolphins defense gave fans something to feel good about for things done that will show up among the raw statistics and also things that won’t show on the stat sheet.

There was considerable pressure on Ryan when he wanted to pass.

The secondary had its troubling moment — a 49-yard pass from Ryan to Jones that was caught as if a punt between two Miami defenders — but defensive backs competed on practically every play. No one ran uncovered. It wasn’t an easy night for Jones or Roddy White.

The Dolphins starters limited Atlanta to two third-down conversions in seven attempts. So a unit that was missing starters Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and key backup Tony McDaniel still made more plays on the money than the Falcons.

Most satisfying is that Miami defenders showed vast improvement from the past couple of weeks.

“They kept a good offense out of the end zone,” Philbin said. “They put some pressure on the quarterback, which we haven’t seen. Had a couple of sacks. We did a relatively good job on third down. We gave up that one big play, but overall it was a good performance.”

It was a building-block performance.

It also was a game that threatens to foreshadow what we’re about to see this season.

The Dolphins are a team with a rookie quarterback and a simply unimpressive, uninspiring receiver corps. Unless Reggie Bush rushes for 2,000 yards and adds another 1,000 yards receiving, this offense has the look of a unit that will score a ton of field goals.

Dan Carpenter might lead the league in 50-yard field-goal attempts.

And so staying competitive will fall to the defense.

The Dolphins will need defensive end Cameron Wake to live up to his new contract. (He had a sack and his finest game of the preseason against Atlanta.)

The Dolphins will need Vontae Davis to overcome the malaise that has haunted him in the preseason. Miami needs this guy to become a playmaker. He had a 60-some-yard interception return for a touchdown. That’s the good news.

But with many things involving Davis lately, there’s the bad news. The touchdown was nullified by a pass-interference penalty — on Davis himself.

Miami needs Davis to rise from his funk as much as it needs a pass-catcher to have some sort of epiphany and actually help rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Miami needs other playmakers to step center stage, and they need it to happen by the Sept. 9 regular-season opener. Will that happen?

Well, at least the defense took significant strides this night.

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