Dolphins coaches had a pointed message for Jason Fox this week: “Stay ready.”
Although that’s the marching order for every backup, it carries extra weight because of the Dolphins’ tenuous situation at offensive tackle.
The Dolphins signed Fox in the spring for just this scenario — when injury or performance scrambles their best-laid plans.
But when Branden Albert went down with a season-ending knee injury, it was Dallas Thomas, not Fox, who slid into the starting lineup. Fox has been on the field for just 16 offensive snaps all year, and wasn’t even active in seven of the Dolphins’ first 10 games.
“Everybody wants to play, but I’m here for the team,” Fox said. “Whatever role they want me to play to help the team, that’s what I’ll do.”
He probably will start out on the bench Sunday. Early indications are Thomas will again be the team’s right tackle in Denver.
But the hook might not be too far off. Thomas must play substantially better than he has when he faces the Broncos’ fearsome pass rush Sunday.
Denver’s Von Miller and Demarcus Ware have combined for 19 sacks, 19 quarterback hits and 53 hurries this season. Those numbers are better than even the Dolphins’ standout defensive ends, Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, who have tallied 14, 19 and 47, respectively.
And when Thomas has faced elite defenders this year, he has struggled.
His showing against Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy in the preseason — when Thomas allowed a strip-sack, a quarterback hit, a hurry and committed two penalties — cost him a starting job.
And in his first career start at right tackle last Thursday, Thomas had no answer for Buffalo’s Mario Williams.
In 67 snaps, Thomas surrendered 2 1/2 sacks, a hit and four hurries, receiving the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any Dolphins lineman all season.
By way of comparison, Fox allowed one sack, one quarterback hit and two hurries — in all of 2013.
“Every week, we decide what linemen go to the game,” coach Joe Philbin said. “Typically, if you study us, we bring seven guys. So far, the guys that we’ve given the playing time are the ones we think give us the best chance to win. It’s really not an indictment of [Fox]. It’s just where we feel we are.”
For now, at least.
With Albert’s injury, Fox is suddenly the old guy at the tackle position — even though he’s just 26.
Rookie Ja’Wuan James started the season’s first eight games at right tackle and was a rock, but has been shaky since moving to the left side. He has allowed nine quarterback hurries in the past two weeks.
Yet it’s hard to envision a scenario — short of injury — in which James is anything but the Dolphins’ starting left tackle for the rest of the season. If at some point the Dolphins do make a move, it would likely be a one-for-one switch: Fox in and Thomas out.
Fox has gotten some snaps with the first team in practice this week, but nothing beyond the normal rotation. That suggests the Dolphins will go with Thomas on Sunday — at least to start.
“The first thing I would tell Dallas is to have some confidence because there are a whole bunch of great clips on video,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “He was not perfect and we know that Mario came out with some production, but I think Dallas should have some confidence. When I watch the tape, I see him, especially in the run game, blocking more confidently all of the time.”
Lazor added that his offensive line was in for “a heck of a challenge with these pass rushers. I’ve had the chance to coach against them all before and there is no easy answer.”
Having Daryn Colledge back should help.
The veteran left guard, who has missed the past three games with a back injury, is on track to play Sunday.
“I expect to just be in the mix,” Colledge said. “I expect to go out there and try to compete.”
▪ Cornerback Cortland Finnegan (ankle) is in danger of missing his second consecutive game. He hasn’t practiced the past two days. Jamar Taylor would start in his place.
▪ Backup linebacker Jonathan Freeny has been ruled out of Sunday’s game. He injured his hamstring against the Bills.
▪ Ryan Tannehill has a lingering injury to his throwing shoulder and was held out of a part of practice Wednesday, but there’s no expectation that he will miss the Broncos game.
▪ Six other Dolphins were limited in their participation Wednesday: Colledge; TE Charles Clay (knee); WR Jarvis Landry (shoulder); G Mike Pouncey (hip); LB Kelvin Sheppard (hip/groin); and WR Mike Wallace (calf).
▪ According to makeNFLplayoffs.com, the Dolphins have a 19.4 percent chance of winning the AFC East and a 42 percent chance of making the playoffs.