Defense, special teams and efficient, mistake-free offense can win games in the NFL.
But when the opponent is the stagnant Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two out of three will probably do the trick.
Despite two first-half turnovers in the kicking game, the Dolphins’ starters completely manhandled the Buccaneers on Saturday night.
Because they play 60 minutes in the preseason and not 30, the Dolphins didn’t actually win the game. Tampa Bay did, 17-16, but that’s on the backups, who coughed up a late lead.
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When guys who will actually be on the Dolphins’ roster come Sept. 8 were on the field, the Dolphins were in complete command.
In his cleanest half of the preseason, Ryan Tannehill competed 17 of 27 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown — a 4-yard strike to Brandon Gibson. And he had at least one — and arguably another — touchdown dropped by his receivers.
Most importantly, Tannehill didn’t throw an interception for the fourth consecutive game. He hasn’t been intercepted in 56 preseason passes.
Plus, he directed a two-minute scoring drive, capped by his touchdown to Gibson with 10 seconds left in the first half. It was the final pass he would throw on the night.
“It was good to get that two-minute drive,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We haven’t had one with the first group all preseason and luckily we got it in the end zone.”
Meanwhile, Miami’s defense, in its final real test of the preseason, looked great. It held the Buccaneers to 63 first-half yards.
When he wasn’t getting sacked, Josh Freeman was skipping passes to his receivers. Through its first 18 snaps, the Buccaneers managed just 12 yards.
Miami brought pressure from all angles. The Dolphins sacked Freeman three times and rattled him to the degree that he simply let the ball slip from his fingers, untouched — a fumble that Derrick Shelby recovered.
Tampa Bay only scored in the first half because Miami kept giving the ball away. The first two punts resulted in Dolphins turnovers, creating short fields. (The Dolphins would also fumble late, with Jonas Gray the culprit.)
Early on, the Dolphins offense had its own execution issues. Despite marching 76 yards on 17 plays in the first quarter — and having two separate goal-to-go opportunities — the Dolphins couldn’t get the ball in the end zone.
A drive that should have resulted in a touchdown ended with a 22-yard Caleb Sturgis field goal.
“We have to be able, when we get a first-and-goal inside the 10-yard line, to punch it in and get a touchdown,” Philbin said.
Added Tannehill: “I think we did some good things. We moved the ball well. We didn’t finish when we got into the red zone.”
For the game, the Dolphins starting offense managed just two third-down conversions on seven tries.
And despite outgaining the Buccaneers nearly three-to-one in the first half, the Dolphins led just 13-10 because of two touchdowns that weren’t but should have been.
Gibson had two drops in the first half, including a sure touchdown that hit him square in the gut. Charles Clay, starting because Dustin Keller is on injured reserve, had another would-be score hit him square in the hands, only to have it knocked away.
Getting it right
Finally, the Dolphins put it together on the first-team offense’s final drive. Tannehill directed a seven-play, 48-yard journey that took just 1 minute 19 seconds. And he capped it with a third-down throw to Gibson in which the slot wideout made weak-side linebacker Lavonte David look foolish.
Gibson got a free release off the line, made a move and found a window for Tannehill, who made the perfect throw. Gibson led the starting offense with five catches for 43 yards. Brian Hartline added four receptions for 40 yards, and Mike Wallace had three catches for 31 yards.
The running game? That was another story.
Lamar Miller’s numbers — 35 yards on eight carries — were respectable but need context. He had 20 yards on his first attempt.
Daniel Thomas, meanwhile, was mostly invisible. In his last real opportunity to wrestle the starting job from Miller, he needed seven rushes to get 3 yards.
“It wasn’t our best game running the ball,” Tannehill conceded.