Much has changed about Miami’s offensive line in the wake of a dismal season in which the Dolphins allowed a franchise-record and league-high 58 sacks and embarrassed themselves with a bullying scandal.
The unit has a new coach — John Benton — and five new starters who will suit up Sunday against New England, as center Mike Pouncey continues his recovery from hip surgery.
But this has not changed: The Dolphins’ first three opponents, the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs, possess potent pass rushes.
The Patriots, who visit Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, ranked fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks last season and had 10 in two games against the Dolphins, including 2 1/2 Chandler Jones.
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The Bills, who play host to the Dolphins on Sept. 14, ranked second behind Carolina in sacks last season with 57 and had nine sacks in the two games against Miami, including a key Mario Williams sack that forced a fumble and set up the Bills’ winning touchdown in their October meeting.
The Chiefs, who visit Sept. 21, ranked sixth in the NFL with 47 sacks.
All of that is cause for some concern, even though the Dolphins’ pass protection in preseason was generally good, aside from missteps by Dallas Thomas and a few other backups.
Benton, who drew praise for his work as the Houston Texans offensive line coach the past eight seasons, said he’s “fairly optimistic” that his group will hold up in pass protection against formidable defensive lines.
“We’re doing some good things in protection as a group,” Benton said. “I think we’ll hold up well. I think we’ve got very good matchups on the edge with both tackles, and we can grind it out inside. We’ve got five NFL-caliber players.”
As for run blocking, the Dolphins were poor in their first two exhibition games but excellent in rushing for 200 yards against Dallas in the third. So what does Benton expect?
“Potentially, we can be very good [at run blocking],” he said. “We’re a work in progress. Putting five new guys together, there is so much feel. That should develop fairly quickly. That’s one of the biggest question marks in my mind.”
Benton feels very good about his tackles. Left tackle Brandon Albert — who was a Pro Bowler for Kansas City last season and signed a five-year, $47 million deal with the Dolphins — “has proven himself to be a top level NFL player and he has not dropped off a bit. He’s one of our better guys up front in terms of the run game.”
What’s more, Benton said rookie starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James has exceeded his expectations.
“Very optimistic about Ja’Wuan,” he said. “I really feel good about him. I’m surprised mentally how much more mature he is and ready for this level than I would have expected.”
He said James is “further ahead” as a pass blocker. His run blocking is not a “deficiency but it’s not where it can get to potentially,” Benton said.
Neither Albert (77 snaps) nor James (133) allowed a sack or quarterback hurry in preseason. Against New England, Albert often will be matched against Jones (11.5 sacks last season) and James against Rob Ninkovich (eight sacks).
More questions surround the interior of the line.
Center Samson Satele, signed Aug. 2 to fill in for Pouncey, has been “maybe even a little better than expected coming in,” Benton said. He will have his hands full with Vince Wilfork on Sunday.
Asked about the chances Pouncey returns by the end of September — Miami’s fourth game is Sept. 28 against Oakland — Benton said, “Optimistically, there’s a chance that could happen. I don’t feel confident enough to say there’s any plan in the works.”
As for left guard, Benton likes Daryn Colledge, who signed June 30 after starting every game the past six seasons (four with Green Bay, the past two with Arizona).
“Daryn’s done a nice job for us,” he said. “Very intelligent player and he uses a lot of that in his game.”
It was surprising that Shelley Smith — the starter at right guard — played behind Thomas for two weeks earlier in camp, and Benton, laughing, admits: “Shelley was perplexed by that, too.”
He explained that happened because the staff liked what Thomas was doing early in camp. Thomas lost the job after being dominated by Tampa Bay All-Pro Gerald McCoy.
“Shelley does a real good job getting to the second level, cutting guys off,” Benton said. “Real quick feet.”
Even though the five starters haven’t played together very long, Colledge said: “Everyone is feeling good about how we’ve meshed. Other than Ja’Wuan, everyone has been [an NFL] starter. Brandon is a very good player. Samson has been a starter. Shelley and I know how to play.”
Dolphins starting linebacker Philip Wheeler was ruled out for Sunday’s game with a thumb injury. Jason Trusnik is his likely replacement. The Dolphins previously announced that center Mike Pouncey (hip), defensive end Terrence Fede (knee) and linebacker Jordan Tripp (chest) would be out.
Guard Billy Turner (foot) is doubtful. Linebacker Koa Misi (shoulder), cornerback Jamar Taylor (hip), linebacker Chris McCain (hip) and safety Walt Aikens (hand) are probable.
New England listed quarterback Tom Brady (calf) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee) as questionable, but both have said they will play. Defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Chris Jones are out with ankle injuries.