Jay Cutler to DeVante Parker is going to cover up a lot of Dolphins flaws this year.
(They did just that on Thursday, connecting for 72 yards on a jump ball to jump-start a sluggish Dolphins offense.)
But will they be enough to mask a Dolphins defense that wasn’t just lost against the Eagles Thursday night, but exposed the entire week?
It’s hard to say which moment was the most troublesome in preseason game No. 3 — a 38-31 loss to the Eagles:
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▪ Was it when Reshad Jones hollered at Byron Maxwell after a miscommunication between the two defensive backs led to a wide open touchdown pass on Philadelphia’s first drive?
▪ Was it the 166 yards of offense the first-string defense surrendered in the first quarter — at a tidy 8.7 yards per snap?
▪ Perhaps it was deer-in-headlights look from Bobby McCain in the red zone, when Carson Wentz froze the Dolphins nickel corner and threw his second touchdown pass in four possessions.
▪ No, it had to have been when Matt McGloin, Philadelphia’s third-string quarterback, directed a six-play, 53-yard touchdown drive midway through the first half.
Here’s why this was meaningful:
The Dolphins’ starting defense was still on the field. Yes, Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Reshad Jones, Byron Maxwell and the rest of the names you know were carved up by a guy who might not be on an NFL roster in nine days.
Miami’s starting defense was on the field for a full half Thursday.
In those two quarters, the Eagles scored 28 points (which, in fairness, included a pick-six by Mychal Kendricks off Matt Moore).
They converted both of their red-zone tries.
They churned out 14 first downs.
They gained 263 yards, all but 60 of which came through the air.
And they made Maxwell look like the Maxwell of 2015, and not the player from a year ago.
The Eagles traded Maxwell — who just a few weeks ago called himself the best corner in football — and linebacker Kiko Alonso to Miami during the 2016 offseason.
They did so because Maxwell didn’t come close to living up to the six-year, $63 million contract he signed with Philadelphia in 2015.
And so no team in football, aside from maybe the Seahawks, knows Maxwell as well as the Eagles, and acted like it this week in practice.
He might as well had a target on his back. Maxwell surrendered three touchdown passes on Monday alone.
But he had company. In all, Wentz completed 75 percent of his passes for 9 touchdowns and no interceptions in the teams’ joint practices Monday and Tuesday, according to NJ.com.
On Thursday, he didn’t seem to be on the same page with his teammates. Jones appeared to not appreciate that Maxwell peeled off into the flat instead of staying with Torrey Smith on Wentz’s first touchdown pass, a 50-yarder in which Smith got behind everyone.
“We had a bust and they scored a touchdown,” Adam Gase said at halftime. “We kind of mis-executed on some things and we’ve just got to tighten it up.”
But Jones had his issues too, missing tackles in both the run and passing game.
And here’s the crazy part: It might have been a lot worse if Philadelphia hadn’t turned the ball over three times. Wentz and McGloin each threw interceptions; the former to Jordan Phillips and the latter to Timmons. The Eagles either had touchdowns or turnovers on all but three of their nine first-half possessions.
If not for Cutler, Parker, Jay Ajayi, Kenny Stills, and Julius Thomas, the first half would have been a drubbing.
The Dolphins are a big-play team in 2016, and might be again in 2017.
Parker got it going when he leaped over Ronald Darby for a Cutler jump-ball, and then raced down to the Philadelphia 2 for a 72-yard gain.
That set up Ajayi’s first of two rushing touchdowns; Ajayi also gained 53 yards on nine carries.
Cutler finished 5 of 8 for 105 yards and a touchdown, a 1-yarder to Thomas. And his stat line doesn’t include a 42-yard pass interference call on Darby, who mugged Stills on a deep ball.
Cutler wasn’t perfect, however. He lost a fumble on a sack, and nearly lost another under pressure.
Still, he wasn’t the problem Thursday.
And he might have to be the solution if Miami’s defense doesn’t improve fast.