There’s a story floating around Dolphins camp this week only in whispers, perhaps out of deference to their hosts, or perhaps because it’s so hard to believe.
The story goes like this: After one practice against the Dolphins’ fearsome defensive front, Carolina coach Ron Rivera and his staff were forced to call an audible.
The Panthers’ line was overmatched Wednesday, and the pounding made it virtually impossible for the rest of their offense to operate a hurry-up offense.
And so, the host team (quietly) asked the Dolphins to ramp down the intensity in a two-minute drill Thursday, according to a source with direct knowledge of the situation.
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The story makes sense, based on how the practices went. On Wednesday, the Panthers could do little through the air; a day later, they found gaps in the secondary.
The Dolphins, as an organization, want no part of this story. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin clearly has respect for Rivera, and conversations between the two men will probably stay between them.
A Panthers source, meanwhile, told the Charlotte Observer both defenses throttled down the pass rush in the two-minute drill but added that the change was mutually agreed upon.
Of course, there’s no way either side takes it easy Saturday night. It’ll be full-speed ahead for Ndamukong Suh, Cam Wake, Earl Mitchell and Olivier Vernon when the teams cap their week together in preseason game No. 2.
“We were resetting the line of scrimmage in their backfield in a handful of plays,” Suh said Thursday. “I’m excited about it.”
He should be. As should Dolphins front-office executives Mike Tannenbaum and Dennis Hickey.
They have allocated more than a fifth of the Dolphins’ 2015 salary cap (and roughly a third of their 2016) to the defensive line.
That big investment has forced the organization to go cheap and young most everywhere else on the defense, with Brent Grimes, Reshad Jones and Koa Misi the exceptions.
So far, the formula has worked. The first-team defense forced a three-and-out against the Bears last week in its only full series on the field; we’ll likely see more from the starters Saturday.
Expectations for this defense have been high since the first day of spring weight lifting. After this week’s joint practices in Spartanburg, South Carolina, they’re somehow even higher.
“I talk to [the team] about sometimes when you’re at football practice, you should be able to close your eyes and hear a good practice,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “I thought these couple of days it kind of sounded like football, and when you feel that way about your team, I think it’s a positive sign.”
Physicality will not be a problem. Having that physicality end with the whistle might be.
The Dolphins and Panthers had a vague familiarity of each other when the week began.
When the week ends with Saturday night’s exhibition game, they’ll be like in-laws cramped in the same house for a day too long.
Philbin and Rivera did a good job keeping the peace in Spartanburg, but any lingering hostility from small slights or late hits could bleed into the game.
It will be interesting to see how Michael Oher and Olivier Vernon interact, assuming both play. They traded blows during the lone fight at Wofford on Wednesday; the next day, Vernon sat out most of practice with an unspecified medical issue.
If Vernon is sidelined, he will have plenty of company. Misi hasn’t practiced in weeks with a calf injury. Greg Jennings is iffy with an elbow issue. Brice McCain sat out the end of Thursday’s practice, and it’s unclear why. Branden Albert has made incremental progress from ACL surgery, but his return is at least another week off.
And neither DeVante Parker nor Don Jones, each recently activated from the physically unable to perform list, is ready to return.
Of course, Louis Delmas won’t play; he’s out for the year after tearing his ACL Wednesday. Walt Aikens is expected to start and could potentially win the job going forward if he plays well.
But the top priority for the Dolphins entering the week was to figure out their guard situation. If they haven’t already, they probably will Saturday.
Free agent Evan Mathis is expected to sign with a team any day, so the Dolphins need to make a decision soon: Stick with Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas, or pay Mathis to solidify what most see as the roster’s weakest link.
“I think guys are getting better, I really do,” Philbin said. “Dallas was doing some good things. Billy was doing some good things in the one-on-ones. Sam Brenner did some good things. And again, they didn’t win every single one, but I could see progress with these guys.”