New Look O-Line Answers The Bell

Posted Nov 18, 2013

Front five delivers in the run and pass game minus Pouncey.

When rookie Sam Brenner awoke Sunday morning, having already been promoted from the practice squad the night before, he had no idea that he’d be starting at left guard for the Miami Dolphins.

And veteran lineman Nate Garner had no idea he’d be starting at center.

Such was the predicament the Dolphins found themselves in hours before they were to host the San Diego Chargers at Sun Life Stadium – down three starters on the offensive line in a pivotal game in terms of playoff implications. But nobody blinked, not the wide-eyed Brenner nor the stoic Garner, and in the end they played a key role in Miami’s 20-16 victory that evened its record at 5-5, spearheading a ground game that averaged 5.5 yards per carry and found the end zone once while doing a yeoman’s job in protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

“It was pretty amazing and it was just a great experience to do it against my hometown team,” said Brenner, who grew up a Chargers fan in Oceanside just outside of San Diego. “And to do it with the guys on this team was amazing. I love the guys on this team and it was just a great opportunity for me to come contribute and help get a ‘W.’

Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is in his 13th season and was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings out of the University of Miami, so he took the opposite route to the NFL than Brenner, who was a four-year starter at Utah and signed with Miami as an undrafted free agent. There they stood, side by side for the opening drive with the 6-foot-8, 352-pound McKinnie towering over the 6-2, 310-pound Brenner.

By the time the game ended, Brenner had proven himself just like all of his teammates felt he would after they had watched him work in practice. Still, what McKinnie experienced up front on Sunday was definitely a new experience for him.

“This is the first time I’ve actually seen where you have three starters who are gone and you have to move people around,” McKinnie said. “I had Nate at guard next to me last week and then last night I find out he’s playing center and I have a rookie next to me and we’ve never taken a snap together. But the communication was good and that’s why we were able to be successful.”

Brenner actually had been getting a lot of work at both center and guard leading up to the game against San Diego, which is one of the reasons he was thrown into the starting lineup ahead of veteran guard Danny Watkins and rookie guard/tackle Dallas Thomas. He even filled in at center briefly in the second quarter when Garner had to come off the field to fix an equipment issue with his shoe.

But Garner had the bigger shoes to fill, with Pouncey having started all 41 games he’s played in since being taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Garner already owned a reputation for being the most versatile lineman and capable of playing all five positions, but he never started a game at center before Sunday.

“I just needed to make sure every everyone was on the same page,” Garner said. “It was just about getting out there and making the calls, being efficient and getting the table set. That’s what I’m here for and that’s why they keep me around.”

Tannehill certainly appreciates having Garner around and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman also credited him for being able to make the adjustment look so easy, especially considering the fact that Pouncey is the only center he has taken snaps from in his NFL career. But the second-year quarterback had plenty of confidence in Garner.

“Nate stepped in. He’s a versatile guy,” Tannehill said. “”He’s a guy who can play any spot on the offensive line. He’s always rolling through in practice getting a snap at every position. For him to really have no days of practice and step in and be on point with all of his calls and run checks, he did a great job.”

As for what he expected to get out of Brenner, Tannehill didn’t waver.

“I had a lot of confidence in Sam really coming in. I could see it in his face before the game,” he added. “He’s excited to play. He’s excited to have an opportunity. You have to give a lot of credit to (Coach Jim) Turner getting his guys to play in midst of a lot of stuff going on, then losing Pouncey to an illness. Just being able to get those guys to go and those guys going in there and taking care of business is a testament to the confidence and ability of that room.”

Veteran right tackle Tyson Clabo was on the opposite side of center from Brenner and he made it clear how highly he thinks of Pouncey as an elite center in the league. So he was quick to point out how difficult it is to fill in for Pouncey and praised Garner for the job he did in calling the protections and run assignments.

Clabo really put into perspective what it was that Brenner accomplished on Sunday considering where he came from.

“It’s unbelievable what that guy did,” said Clabo, who made the Pro Bowl in 2010 with the Atlanta Falcons. “It just speaks volumes about his work ethic because it’s a cliché almost when you talk about guys who aren’t playing on the practice squad who try to prepare like they’re going to play. And coaches are always like, ‘You’re one play away from being on the roster. You’re one play away from moving up or you’re one play away from being in the game.’ And when you’re young you really don’t believe it, but Sam really prepares like that and it paid off for him.”

Sherman has been watching Brenner since training camp and has noticed a lot of improvement, especially in snapping the ball from center and also learning the responsibilities of guard. There is still some room for improvement, which Brenner will be the first to admit, but Sunday’s game was a step in the right direction.

“I thought he pulled around on some of our power plays and did a nice job,” Sherman said. “He got beat on a pass protection one time but overall I thought for someone who came in on Sunday morning and was told he was going to start, I think he did pretty well.”

As did the rest of the new-look offensive line.

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