By: Jason Sarney
Re-watching Saturday’s Miami Dolphins preseason game against the Chicago Bears, there was hope, concern, and worry all within the 13-20 loss. Without beating around the bush, let’s get to the hope right off the bat. The first team defense in the 1st half was outstanding despite missing Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jaelan Phillips.
Not having their top two cornerbacks and arguably their top two pass rushers, Miami’s first unit was still able to hold the Bears to only 79 net yards in the first half. They also did not allow a 1st down by the Bears until under :30 to go in the 2nd quarter.
In terms of the word hope, the definition of it is the performance and progression of undrafted 3rd-year free agent cornerback, Nik Needham. Needham, who is listed behind Xavien Howard on the depth chart in the CB 1 role, got his hands on two passes which is his specialty. He also had multiple tackles including one that lead to a Shaquem Griffin ball swipe and forced fumble. Chicago recovered.
It is clear that Needham is a versatile cornerback in which Brian Flores craves. We all saw it this weekend and during training camp that Needham excels the most in is his natural boundary corner position. As mentioned numerous times last year, he adjusted to a new job in his slot corner roll and did so admirably, minus one week which happened to have been many people’s last impressions of him. It was Week 17’s sloppy performance against Buffalo, which was bad. Not sugar coating it...
That just fuels Needham’s fire. In fact, I can tell you factually that even after the game Saturday, he was not 100% pleased with his performance because he is massively self-scrutinizing. Don't tell him he played flawless, as he watches film religiously and is always looking to correct, well, flaws.
Moving on but staying in the secondary, second-year cornerback, Noah Igbinoghene had his ups and downs like any young player adjusting to the NFL, mixed with adjusting to a position. The freak athlete transition to cornerback while at Auburn and only played a handful of games at the position. Against the Bears, on a 2nd quarter 3rd and long, he had a perfectly timed pass break-up on a long throw towards the sidelines.
In a split second he raised his hand and slightly redirected the ball causing a 4th down. Don’t get me wrong, there were negatives to his performance as well, and he has been a roller-coaster type of player in his early career so far. But there is hope there.
Moving on to the less silver-lined aspects of this piece, the concern is with the short yardage and goal line rushing attack which leads to the worry and that is the offensive line's run-blocking component. While pass-blocking for Tua Tagovailoa quite well in the 1st half, the first unit minus rookie Liam Eichenberg who was a scratch, gave Tua enough time in a clean pocket to make some excellent throws while moving the offense down the field.
While Malcolm Brown started the game off and had 9 carries in the 1st half, he only amassed 8 yards for a 0.9 yards per carry effort. This including missed opportunities inside the 5-yard line to score a touchdown. This is looking like horrible déjà vu from the Jordan Howard miss from last season. Miles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed played very well, and rookie Gerrid Doaks was solid in his effort and nearly had a highlight reel play, but a review called it back after his shin/knee grazed the grass.
After this performance it would not shock me to have the one-year contract and Brown on thin ice at the moment, and Doaks to get a major work-load spike against the Falcons later in the week.
Second year UDFA, Ahmed took his role as backup RB seriously, and spelled the runners for six carries in which he compiled 40 yards, a 6.7 average per carry. Ahmed, a major bright spot this weekend, added a gorgeous 23-yard TD reception on a wheel-route out of the backfield. Ahmed had a pair of catches for 31 yards including that score. Kudos to Jacoby Brissett for a nice pass for the lone Miami touchdown of the day.
The major worry now, is the continuity of the offensive of line. For example, when just a few yards were needed to move the chains or to put 6 points on the board, there was struggle. It is terrific to have Jason Sanders hit 50-yard field goals, but to have him needed from 25 or 30 yards just proves that the offense can’t push the ball into the end zone, and the onus on that is truly on the five offensive linemen and of course, the running backs.
The migraine-inducing worry is the task of finding the top -5 offensive linemen to start the season off. Starting at the center spot, where we saw Michael Dieter lead the way in Chicago, then he was subbed out for Matt Skura who got time with the other top-four at the moment. Jesse Davis, Solomon Kinley, Robert Hunt and Austin Jackson are the names penciled into the potential “top-5 guys” that Brian Flores has mentioned will start, along with one of those centers and presumably, rookie Eichenberg. There are 7 or 8 candidates for who could be in that “top-5 conversation Week 1.”
While not ready to push the panic button just yet, the next week of practice as well as the second preseason game against Atlanta, will be extremely important. Reasons being, that this could be the de facto dress rehearsal, due to the elimination of the 4th preseason game and addition of the 17th regular season game.
Regardless of which of the next two preseason games will act as that new dress rehearsal, every single offensive lineman is on notice, as there is no safety net within this front office. If there isn’t production or a solid progression and outlook, this Dolphins regime will cut bait in some way, if not demote.
Speaking of solid progression, let's Talk Tua. I didn’t mind that interception terribly, versus the body of his 1st half work. He looked poised in the pocket, had fine mechanics in his drops, and made the right reads. He placed the ball where it needed to be, and at times his targets made some outstanding catches in tough spots, especially a few tight end receptions.
Tua finished his day 8-11 for 99 yards. The pick came in the worst spot, the Bears red zone. It was a late-ish timed throw following what looked like split-second hesitations, and in fairness to Tua, Adam Shaheen was sitting and waiting for the ball a few feet deep in the endzone. Perhaps he could have made a better play on it. The turnover was on Tua more, but Shaheen isn’t fully innocent there. This is correctable, and nothing to worry about.
The play of the day was his dime pass to Mike Gesicki for 50-yards after number 88 pulled a lovely spin-move at the sidelines and headed further upfield for another dozen yards or so. Gesicki has all the talent to be one of the league's next premier tight end targets. He is a wide-receiver labeled TE.
While there is plenty of hope after preseason game 1, there is still a component of that worry and some concern. I’m not fully concerned about the offensive line just yet. Just, it’s started to worry me more. Let’s hope it all comes together before Week 1 in New England in a month’s time.