Stop us if you’ve heard this before:
The Dolphins’ starting defense Thursday was too permissive in coverage (particularly zone), struggled to get off blocks, could not get pressure on the quarterback and continues to have issues with quarterbacks who can move.
But there was good news: With Cameron Wake and Reshad Jones getting the night off, the first-string’ defense’s two best players might have been its youngest.
Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jerome Baker both flashed, making the Dolphins’ best three defensive plays of the quarter.
That’s based on film study of an admittedly tiny sample size: the first quarter of Miami’s preseason opener against Tampa Bay.
In two series, Matt Burke’s defense surrendered 87 yards — including 55 through the air — and a touchdown on 14 plays. The Buccaneers gained seven first downs and had just one negative play in the first 15 minutes.
“It’s hard for me to tell from just watching,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said late Thursday, when asked to evaluate the first-string defense. “When we watch the tape, it will be easier.”
The tape confirms what the stat sheet suggested: The Dolphins’ pass rush was largely neutralized (just one sack and two quarterback hits on the night, and none by a starter) and that Ryan Fitzpatrick used that time to pick apart a secondary that played without Jones.
Fitzpatrick went after the Dolphins’ best corner right away, completing passes of 18 and 14 yards in Xavien Howard’s coverage area on the Bucs’ first two plays. And on both of those passes, the Buccaneers receiver was open. (Caveat: Based on the TV broadcast, the Dolphins appeared to be in zone for at least one of those plays, so it’s tough to say who exactly was to blame.)
Five plays later, the Buccaneers were in the end zone, and the Dolphins’ defense offered little resistance along the way.
Davon Godchaux jumped offsides to give Tampa five free yards. Stephone Anthony missed a tackle that led to a nine-yard run by Peyton Barber. And then Anthony was blocked completely out of the play in Barber’s four-yard touchdown run, creating a big cutback lane that led to a relatively easy touchdown run on third-and-3.
The Bucs needed just 3:07 and six plays to travel the 57 yards to the end zone.
The Dolphins’ second defensive series was better, but only thanks to a couple of great individual plays by a couple of promising rookies.
Baker, who saw action with the starters at weakside linebacker and in the sub package, had the first-string defense’s only tackle for loss, shooting through to drop Barber in the backfield on a dump-off pass.
On the next play, Fitzpatrick showed the speed and range that made him such a coveted prospect out of Alabama.
Howard was on Chris Godwin along the left sideline, but came up to cover the flat. That created space downfield, and Ryan Fitzpatrick noticed. His throw was on target, and Godwin would have had a big gain had Minkah Fitzpatrick not raced to break up the pass with a big hit.
That set up third-and-13, and the Dolphins’ defense got its first stop of the night, forcing a punt.
“It was good. I went out there, tried to do my job as best as I could,” Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “Play fast, get to the ball, and that was it.”
Added Baker: “You’ve just got to focus on the little things. The little things, if you add them up, become big things. ... For me, I didn’t have to take my foot off the gas. Just keep going. I hadn’t hit anyone since college. That’s a long time.”
▪ Anthony has had a stranglehold on a starting outside linebacker job since the start of OTAs, but Thursday could cause Burke to reconsider his depth chart. Baker was the better player that night, finishing with five tackles. Anthony, meanwhile, got lost in the wash in the run game.
▪ The Dolphins have struggled with mobile quarterbacks since Gase took over in 2016, and Thursday was more of the same. While Ryan Fitzpatrick will never be confused with Russell Wilson, he can move, gaining 11 yards on two carries.
▪ It was a special night for Raekwon McMillan, who missed his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL in last year’s preseason opener.
“I was feeling thankful that I have the chance to play this sport again because in rehab, you just don’t when it’s going to come and it seemed like a long time but it’s here and back fast again,” McMillan said.