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Miami Dolphins offensive line regroups after string of setbacks

First guard Eric Steinbach hung them up. Now Artis Hicks is down and out.

Almost enough to make a superstitious Dolphins offensive lineman believe the position is cursed.

“Knock on wood, man,” cracked Richie Incognito, who (if the fates allow) will start at left guard Sunday in Houston. “Shoot.”

The Dolphins better invest heavily in four-leaf clovers and horseshoes for Incognito and John Jerry. If either gets hurt, things will get really hairy for the offensive line.

The guard position was supposed to be one of the team’s deepest entering camp. But with Steinbach (knee injury) and Hicks (neck) both gone, the talent pool has grown shallow.

Just how thin are they?

Consider this: Jerry went from nearly eating himself off the team to becoming the Dolphins’ expected opening day starter.

Jerry, the third-year guard from Mississippi, tipped the scales at 360 pounds when training camp began, drawing the ire of his coaches. Hard Knocks featured his struggles with weight, showing a hellish practice in which Jerry took most every snap, losing his lunch along the way.

“I think that’s when the light came on for me, honestly,” Jerry said Wednesday. “That kind of showed the coaches are not going to take the foot off the pedal with me.

“I didn’t take it as a negative thing,” he added. “I took it as a positive thing. And I think it just kept me going forward.”

Jerry has since dropped more than 20 pounds and says he’s fit enough to handle 65 snaps a game during the next 17 weeks. The Dolphins just hope he can survive Sunday in Houston, where the Texans will be waiting with one of the league’s most dangerous defenses.

When a team loses two key players from its front seven — including the former No. 1 overall pick – you would expect the team to take a step back.

But the Texans, who lost Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans to free agency, could be even better, thanks to the franchise’s strong draft.

With Williams now in Buffalo, the Texans expect J.J. Watt to replace his pass rush. Watt has shown he has the ability, tallying 3 1/2 sacks in two playoff games last year.

Houston ranked second in total defense in 2011 (allowing just 285.7 yards per game), and the Texans’ 44 sacks were sixth-most in the league.

Also, inside linebacker Bradie James swaps in for Ryan. In doing so, James reunites with former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, now the Texans’ defensive coordinator.

Watt, Brian Cushing — last year’s team MVP — and nose tackle Shaun Cody missed significant chunks of the exhibition season because of injury, but all practiced Wednesday and are expected to play.

“They have a lot of talent, especially their pass-rushers,” said Dolphins right tackle Jonathan Martin, a rookie making his NFL debut. “Their front five, because they kind of play five down [linemen], are all so talented. It’s going to be a lot of one-on-one matchups, so we have to be ready to go.”

They need to play better than last year — and this preseason. According to Pro Football Focus, none of the Dolphins’ projected starters on the line ranked in the top 20 of their respective position in 2011.

Martin and Hicks struggled with pass protection at times on the right side this summer, and the Dolphins surrendered eight sacks in four exhibition games.

Now Hicks is gone, and neither Jerry (ankle) nor left tackle Jake Long (knee) is completely healthy. Both missed parts of practice Wednesday, and in Jerry’s case, it’s not even clear who replaced him.

Jerry is the lone right guard on the team’s latest depth chart, and Will Yeatman is Long’s primary backup. Nate Garner has the ability to play either position, if needed .

“I’d love to say [Hicks] is the last guy that goes to [injured reserve], but as you know, it’s a tough game,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We’ve got some guys, we’ve got some options. It’s going to be a great challenge on Sunday.”

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