Another important step is in front of us. The Dolphins will play their second preseason game of the summer Friday night in Tampa, still searching for answers on so many fronts, only now with a heightened sense of urgency that has everything to do with a rapidly approaching regular season.
The second and third preseason games are arguably the most telling of the summer. This is when the starters get the most action, when individual competitions reach another level and when, in general, things begin coming together.
Like blocking and tackling.
You can break down the preseason opening victory over Atlanta all sorts of ways, but if you're searching for the areas that need the most attention, the areas that caused the greatest concern, you've got to start with blocking and tackling.
The offensive line had issues blocking; the defense and special teams had issues tackling. It was clear to the naked eye and it was painfully clear to the coaching staff when they broke apart the tape.
"We won't have a shot, we won't give ourselves a chance if we don't do a better job there," said Head Coach Brian Flores, talking specifically about the tackling, though he could have been referring to the blocking as well.
Regarding the blocking in general and the offensive line in particular, Flores added "That's an area we need some improvement."
This isn't unexpected with a team this young playing its first preseason game nor is it unexpected when you consider the overall lack of live tackling, by league rule, in training camp practices. But we need to see a difference Friday night against the Bucs. The Dolphins must establish a level of proficiency in the most basic areas of football. An offensive tackle can't let a pass rusher breeze by him. A cornerback can't miss a tackle that results in a touchdown.
We've seen this team devote so much time to the basics during training camp. But it's the games that matter and while preseason games don't count in the won-loss column, they do serve as an indicator of problems that need solving. Right now, blocking and tackling is at the top of that list.
What else should we be focusing on Friday night? A quick rundown of the first five things that come to mind:
- QB vs. QB: We still don't know who will be taking the first offensive snap on Sept. 8th against Baltimore, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Rosen. We could have a better indication after Friday night's game. Both are expected to play. Fitzpatrick played just one quarter in the opener while Rosen played two-plus quarters. Will that be reversed against the Bucs? It's truthfully hard to get a read on what Flores is thinking. Fitzpatrick gets most of the first team reps in practice, though Rosen has had his share. They are being judged and scrutinized in everything they do, even how they interact with teammates. Something's got to give here and probably soon. My opinion all along is that a final decision will be made following the third preseason game, next Thursday at home against Jacksonville.
- Did somebody say pass rush? The Dolphins had four sacks in the preseason opener against Atlanta and that was certainly encouraging considering this may have been the biggest unknown, and the area with the least experience, heading into camp. A couple of undrafted rookies in particular – Jonathan Ledbetter and Dewayne Hendrix – combined for three of those four sacks and I'm certain we'll see a lot more of both players against the Bucs. "What it boils down to," said Flores, "is whether they can do those things consistently." Veterans Tank Carradine and former No. 1 pick Charles Harris have been lining up with the first team much of the summer, but there are no guarantees, certainly not with this new coaching staff. Play well and you'll play more. That's got to be the mindset.
- The growth of two rookie guards: It's been a couple of weeks since No. 3 pick Michael Dieter and undrafted rookie Shaq Calhoun began taking regular snaps with the first team, Dieter at left guard, Calhoun at right guard. If they remain there for the season opener, it'll mark the first time in team history two rookie guards started week one. Neither player is a finished product or anywhere close to it. Both have stumbled some with this increased responsibility and both remind us almost daily they are still rookies. But both have also shown an ability to learn and adjust, and a maturity that belies their young age. Flores is being patient with both, perhaps because he can clearly see the upside. That patience, though, could certainly use an encouraging performance against an awfully good Bucs' defensive line.
- Solutions at cornerback: Eric Rowe returned to practice this week and spent much of his time as the starting corner opposite Xavien Howard. Rowe is familiar to the coaching staff because of his time with the Patriots. But nothing is certain. Jomal Wiltz also remains firmly in the picture as does Cornell Armstrong, Jalen Davis and Nik Needham, among others. With so many five and six defensive back alignments – even a seven DB alignment -- the Dolphins need several of these players to step up, but clearly the coveted prize is the starting spot across from Howard. We expect some clarity, hopefully soon.
- Another Preston Williams sighting? The story of the early summer keeps getting better and better. Williams worked some with the first team this week at practice against the Bucs and continued to show how special he could be. But with an undrafted rookie like Williams, you've got to keep the pedal pressed to the floor and that almost necessitates another strong showing against the Bucs. Still, what we've seen so far is an enormously talented player comfortable in this spotlight and determined to vault his way up the depth chart. Let's see how far he can go.