This ain’t the New England Patriots defense.
And Thursday night sure wasn’t the Super Bowl.
Brian Flores’ first game as Dolphins coach — and first game, period, since he outsmarted Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay in Super Bowl 53 — was a reminder of just how far his new team is from greatness, even after a 34-27 preseason victory against the Atlanta Falcons.
A list of the biggest issues on a night that got better for Flores’ group as it went along:
▪ Instead of All-Pro Stephon Gilmore locking down an entire side of the field, Nik Needham could hardly stay in the same zip code as the Falcons’ backup receivers.
▪ Instead of gap discipline and sure tackling, a Matt Schaub bubble screen went for 37 yards.
▪ Rather than mistake-free play, drive-extending penalties.
▪ Instead of pressure on the quarterback, endless time for Atlanta in the pocket. (Schaub actually had seven seconds to survey the field on one drop-back.)
It wasn’t good.
Now, before we go much further, some much needed perspective:
It’s very, very early.
And the starting 11 we saw at Hard Rock Stadium on Thursday night will not be the 11 we see on Sept. 8 against the Ravens.
Safety Reshad Jones didn’t play. Neither did linebackers Kiko Alonso or Raekwon McMillan.
And Needham — a rookie free agent out of UTEP — was only in the lineup because Eric Rowe (unspecified injury) was out.
But Schaub, who has been in the league since Needham was in grade school, cut the young defender no slack.
Schaub targeted Needham no fewer than four times on Atlanta’s opening drive, and either completed the pass or drew a penalty flag each time.
In Needham’s defense, Schaub wasn’t about to test Xavien Howard on the other side of the field. And he was asked to cover far longer than anyone can reasonably expect.
The Dolphins are going to need to create pressure with scheme this year. We thought we knew that going into the game. We definitely know it coming out of it.
Miami’s pass rush was invisible, besides a Nate Orchard half-yard sack. Tank Carradine flashed for a down or two, but nothing from Charles Harris. And nothing up the middle (although rookie Christian Wilkins was solid in the run game).
As a result, Schaub completed 12 of 19 passes for 172 yards, and the Dolphins surrendered 5.9 yards per play in the first half. A good chunk of those came on a screen pass to Kenjon Barner, who broke failed tackles by Minkah Fitzpatrick and Orchard before Harris chased him down at the 1.
“Overall, we need to do a better job with our fundamentals, technique,” Flores said. “I think the effort’s really good, but we’ve got to tackle better, we’ve got to block them up a little better and have better overall communication.”
Translation: Not good.
But also not all bad. Far from.
Reasons for optimism:
▪ Rookie receiver Preston Williams continued his star turn with 97 yards on four catches, including 36 on a one-hander from Josh Rosen.
▪ Kalen Ballage and Mark Walton both had goal-line touchdown runs, providing a punch on short yardage that’s been missing.
As for Rosen, he hung in there despite awful pass protection, completing 13 of 20 passes for 191 yards. The competition with Ryan Fitzpatrick, who barely played Thursday, goes on for at least another week.
Rosen was excellent — except for one inexcusable pass.
He threw into double coverage in the middle of the field, and former Miami Hurricanes linebacker Jermaine Grace jumped the route for the interception.
It was nearly a touchdown. Instead, the defense held in its best series of the night (other than perhaps when Dewayne Hendrix sacked Matt Simms on fourth down in the fourth quarter).
“That’s a great situation for us to go through,” Flores said. “Have a little adversity and we kind of pick each other up.”
Expect plenty more adversity in the five months to come.
That’s inevitable. The team simply isn’t built to compete right now.
But not even New England was built in a day.
“We’re a young team,” defensive tackle Davon Godchaux said. “We’re a young defense, so we can be scary. We can be as good as we want to. The sky’s the limit.”