Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins make up ground in Knowshon Moreno’s debut

Knowshon Moreno was worth the wait. So was this ground game. Start there.

If you want what was new and positive Saturday night in the Dolphins’ first home game of the preseason, it was that Miami had a excellent running attack (finally) and that Moreno — the gift finally unwrapped — led the way in his first game action for the team.

Not everything was about the offense was positive in the 25-20 victory over Dallas. It was one of those nights that at times made you wonder not how much better Ryan Tannehill will be this season, but whether he is even the best quarterback on his own roster. But we’ll get to that stuff in a moment. We’d been waiting a long time for Moreno and for the signs of a productive ground game, so that’s worth savoring a bit first.

Miami running the ball in the first two exhibitions was an oxymoron. It was Miami not running the ball. Trying, but failing. Moreno did not play at all while mending a sore knee, and in his absence the Fins ran 47 times for 98 yards, barely two yards per carry. The line was not opening holes and the backs were not breaking tackles or creating much on their own. The ground game seemed more like quicksand than quick.

That changed quickly Saturday.

Moreno, on his first carry as a Dolphin, bounced off right tackle for 19 yards as the crowd roared. He found holes you didn’t think were there, busted through initial defenders and finished his abbreviated night’s work with 64 yards on 10 carries. The first-team totaled 113 and 5.1 yards per carry against the Cowboys’ first-team defense. All told Miami rushed for an even 200 yards and averaged 5.7, including a 53-yard run by the fabulously named Orleans Darkwa, the rookie from Tulane.

I don’t care how bad the Dallas defense is or that it’s only August.

Those numbers are impressive. Those numbers will work. Those numbers or anything close will make Tannehill’s job and life much easier, and give coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense a chance to work here at least as a reasonable facsimile of what it was in Philadelphia last season.

That offense made an NFL rushing leader of the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy.

Moreno and Lamar Miller are not as gifted but together can be a productive tandem if Saturday was any sort of decent gauge.

Yes, the Cowboys defense is really sad. But it still was an impressive night and winning debut for Moreno, the former Denver Bronco who is Miami’s biggest offseason free-agent addition to the offense along with left tackle Branden Albert.

“Yeah he ran the ball well,” coach Joe Philbin said of Moreno, which, for the taciturn Philbin, amounts to effervescence. “We had really good production, good balance.”

Miami piled up almost 500 yards of offense in all.

In fact, just about everything was going right except Tannehill.

Tannehill had his poorest game of the three exhibitions so far, starting 7 for 8 but ending up only 13 for 21, including a regrettable interception thrown into coverage. His spotty play in 2 1/2 quarters’ work seemed all the worse when backup Matt Moore entered and quickly led a go-ahead scoring drive on the wing of his 54-yard completion to rookie Damien Williams, and later tossed a 27-yard scoring pass. Moore led all three of the team’s touchdown drives.

It bears noting that he was facing Dallas’ defensive backups, but it also reminds us that Tannehill has an unusual added burden as he enters his crucial third season as a starter. He must not only master a new offense behind a new line, and master opposing defenses — he must also keep proving he is superior to Moore, who keeps proving he is among the NFL’s better No. 2s.

Between leading TD drives Moore also happened to throw a pick-six interception Saturday, which might have served to shut up the lunatic fringe of Dolfans ready to chant Moore’s name and call for an immediate QB change. (If such a lunatic fringe is not yet active, you know it’s out there laying dormant, biding time).

A ground game like Saturday’s will hugely help Tannehill, even if it didn’t seem to Saturday.

Installing a whole new offense and an all-new offensive line takes time.

It isn’t done right away. It’s work-in-progress stuff, and will be as the regular season starts — ready or not — on Sept. 7.

For now, it was a good sign Saturday that the line, so awful last season, gave up only one sack while shepherding that solid running game.

It also was encouraging that Tannehill hooked up six times (on eight attempts) with receiver Mike Wallace for 67 yards, with a long of 21. But still lacking between them is a deep threat that would cause an opposing defensive coordinator or cornerback much anxiety.

Tannehill overthrew Wallace by five yards on their only attempted deep ball Saturday.

Lazor and his QB must — must — find a way to take advantage of Wallace’s speed and consistently connect on deep routes.

The evolving offense also must find a way to increasingly spotlight young tight end Charles Clay, who I think has a chance to be a dynamic offensive force.

Saturday was about the strides of the ground game, though, and about the debut of Knowshon Moreno.

A year ago in Denver he was one of only six NFL backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards and also catch at least 50 passes. He also is an exceptional blocker.

That was the Moreno who impressively introduced himself to Miami fans on Saturday night.

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