Miami Dolphins

Daniel Thomas’ injury will test Miami Dolphins’ depth at running back

Just how precarious is the Miami Dolphins’ depth situation at running back now that Daniel Thomas is hurt?

They are just one twisted ankle in practice or unexpected illness away from having to go with a group of backs that has just three combined career carries.

And they all belong to Marcus Thigpen, a scat-back and kick returner. As for Mike Gillislee? He has never stepped foot on the field during a regular-season NFL game.

So yeah, the Dolphins better keep Lamar Miller out of harm’s way for the foreseeable future.ᅠ

“With Daniel Thomas out of the picture, certainly Gillislee has to step up, Thigpen has to step up, certainly Miller as well,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said Monday. “They’ll have to be ready for that challenge, it’s certainly a challenge.”

The team started dealing with that reality in earnest Tuesday, the Dolphins’ first practice day since Thomas injured his ankle Sunday against the Panthers.

Though the injury appeared serious — Thomas left the locker room in a walking boot and on crutches — the Dolphins chose not to place him on injured reserve. By inference, that means they hope to have him back at some point over the next five weeks.

But there’s no chance he will play Sunday in New York, where the Dolphins’ ragged running game will face its biggest challenge to date.

Miami owns the seventh-worst ground game in football (averaging 85.4 yards per game). The Jets, meanwhile, have the league’s best run defense (allowing 72.6) and also lead the NFL in yards allowed per carry (2.9).

“They have great linebackers,” Gillislee said, adding that it’ll be a big test in his NFL debut.

The rookie out of Florida has been active just one time this year, but didn’t get into the game.

That’s why, even though Dolphins coaches told him he’ll play a significant role this week, Gillislee said he won’t believe it until he actually puts the pads on Sunday.

“It was hard,” Gillislee said of being a spectator for the season’s first 11 games. “I’ve never been through this before, even when I was a freshman back in college. I just believe in God and I knew that one day I’d get the opportunity. I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Thigpen, meanwhile, has played every game of his two seasons in the NFL.ᅠ

However, he has been a kick returner and a situational offensive player, seeing more action split out wide than in the backfield.

At 5-foot-10, and 190 pounds, he’s not going to move the pile, but instead said he does his best work in space. Even at the University of Indiana, Thigpen said, he never had more than 16 or 17 carries in a game.

“I’m definitely ready,” Thigpen said. “I've been waiting for this opportunity the whole year. It’s finally presented itself for me. I’ve just got to go out and take advantage of it.”

Still, if something would happen to Miller — who leads the team with 475 yards on 114 carries — Gillislee would probably become the featured back.

The Dolphins thought highly enough of him last spring to draft Gillislee in the fifth round, despite already having Miller and Thomas in the fold.

And even though he hasn’t been able to crack the backfield for one of the worst rushing attacks in football, Gillislee is more than capable, Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said Tuesday.

Philbin added: “We’re allowed 46 guys that we can dress for a game, and we decide as a staff, ‘How many DBs are we taking? How many linemen? How many ends?’ Sometimes it’s not necessarily a function of what the player does. It’s what we feel gives us the best chance to win.”

Having a steady push from the offensive line would be a good start. Philbin said defensive penetration was the biggest reason the Dolphins struggled to run the ball against the Panthers.ᅠ

Just one example: When Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly dropped Miller nine yards behind the line of scrimmage on a carry Sunday.

On that front, the Dolphins did get a bit of good news Tuesday: center Mike Pouncey appears ready to return after missing two games due to illness.

“I haven’t been out there, but I feel great,” Pouncey said. “My intention is to go out there [Sunday] and play the whole game.”

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