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Ground attack leads Dolphins over Panthers

Every year when the preseason comes around, I always make it a point not to overreact regardless of what happens.  It's important not to get too excited over good performances and not to panic too much over poor performances.  With that said, though, it's hard not to get a least a little excited after watching the Dolphins' first-team offense and defense basically man-handle a very good Panthers team.  And that's just what the Dolphins did - they completely out-played the Panthers' starters, even if the score didn't really show it.  But in the preseason, it's more about the performance itself rather than the result.

There's no doubt that top story from Saturday's win over the Panthers was how physically dominant the Dolphins were up front in the trenches.  The offensive line, a unit that struggled to open up holes in the preseason opener against Jacksonville, repeatedly created running lanes for Miami's backs to run through.

Donald Thomas had a very strong game getting the start at right guard.  He looked as strong and powerful as ever and always made sure to finish his blocks.  Jake Grove and Justin Smiley bounced back with solid games as well.  But it's important to note that the Panthers' defensive line is nowhere near as talented as Jacksonville's.  But either way, it's great to see the big guys up front pushing around the opposition.  We rarely saw that last season.

Even more impressive than the offensive line, in my opinion, was the play of Miami's starting front seven.  They were active all night and swarmed the ball carrier every play.  Outside of one run, the unit limited one of the league's best running backs, DeAngelo Williams, to just 15 yards rushing on 7 carries.  And on that one long TD run, Williams had to break three or four tackles and should have been dropped for no gain.  I'm sure Tony Sparano will chew out those players who missed the tackle on that play when the team gathers for film review - including Jason Ferguson, Yeremiah Bell, Akin Ayodele, and Gibril Wilson, who all had shots at him.

One thing I wanted to highlight, too, was Jason Taylor's ability to set the edge against the run and force the runner to turn back inside.  That's something the strong side outside linebacker has to be able to do - and is something Matt Roth was very good at last year.  But many, including myself, questioned JT's ability to man the strong side because we weren't sure if he could set the edge.  But that worry got eased a little bit on Saturday night.

The second-team defense also played well against the run - and backup NT Paul Soliai was a major reason why.  Upon watching the game for a second time, I really noticed how improved Soliai seems.  He looks lighter on his feet and stronger than ever.  He rarely ever got pushed back at the line of scrimmage and even took up two blockers on more than one occasion.  Maybe Soliai is a long-term solution at nose tackle after all.

The bottom line of Saturday's game, though, is simple.  The Dolphins ran the ball (5 yards per carry) and stopped the run (3.8 ypc against and 5 tackles for loss).  That's how you win football games, both in the preseason and regular season.

Less than a week after struggling against the Jaguars in his professional debut, Vontae Davis had an opportunity to start Saturday's game thanks to Sean Smith's illness.  He definitely looked more comfortable out there.  He made plays defending the run and showed the ability to close on the receiver quickly.  But Davis wasn't tested much in coverage.  There were only two times that I noticed Vontae being thrown at.  One was on a slant that was completed for a gain of 7 or 8 yards.  Davis had good coverage but couldn't make a play on the ball.

But the other time Davis was targeted was on a pass into the corner of the endzone.  The ball fell incomplete because the quarterback was under immense pressure.  But while Davis had good coverage, he didn't even attempt to turn around and look for the ball.  If that pass isn't severely under-thrown, you can make a case that Vontae gets called for pass interference.  He didn't try to locate the ball at all, instead face-guarding the intended receiver.

Other than a handful of plays, though, it was impossible to see how Davis performed because of the camera angle of the broadcast.  But I did notice that the Dolphins were using a lot of man coverage, especially early on in the game.  And the fact that Davis was rarely thrown at leads me to believe he was solid in coverage for most of the night.

Chad Pennington was his classic self.  He was accurate with his passes and made the plays that needed to be made.  And his stat line would even be better if Davone Bess didn't drop an absolutely beautiful throw to from CP that would have went for a gain of 20+ yards.  All in all, a typical Pennington performance - which did include an underthrow to Patrick Cobbs that, if thrown long enough, results in a touchdown.  But you can't have everything.

As for Chad Henne, some Dolphin fans seem to think he played brilliantly on Saturday night.  But I guess they were watching a different game than I was.  I saw a botched snap, another fumble, and three poorly thrown balls.  I also noticed that he is still locking onto his receiver - though he didn't do that as much as he did last week.  Did Henne look better than the first game?  Yes.  But I'm still waiting to see Henne do something in a game that warrants all the attention most Dolphin fans want to give him.

Various thoughts from Saturday's game:

  • I know we were all rooting for Chris Williams to make the team.  But he's just not ready to handle all of Miami's returns.  He's definitely a practice squad candidate, though.
  • It seems like the Lex Hilliard bandwagon is getting fired up now.  And there is a lot to like about the young back.  But is there enough to like to keep him on the 53-man roster as a 4th back?  He certainly is big, powerful, and explosive through the hole.  Maybe if he can play special teams, he'll find a way onto the roster.
  • Ronnie Brown looked to be in mid-season form last night.  He was decisive and quick to hit the hole.  He put a nifty little move on the safety, too, on his TD reception.
  • The Dolphins were able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback all game long.  That's two games in a row with semi-consistent pressure on the opposing QB.  A sign of things to come?  Hopefully.
  • I was very underwhelmed by the performance of the team's safeties.  Why did Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell allow Carolina's tight ends to get open so easily?  Those two guys need to play better in coverage.  Otherwise Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark, and Antonio Gates are going to have big games in weeks one through three.
  • Updating the kicker competition.  Dan Carpenter nailed his 41 yard FG attempt.  Connor Barth made his 21 yard attempt.  Each also had three kickoffs.  Carpenter averaged 68 yards per kickoff, with one kick being fielded six yards deep into the endzone.  Barth averaged just 62 yards and his best kick was fielded at the three yard line.  Winner on Saturday night?  DC$
  • I love Brandon Fields and his booming punts.  But they don't have nearly the impact if you allow 50+ yard punt returns.  The Dolphins got to get that cleaned up.
  • Another dropped pass for Anthony Armstrong.  I get the feeling his bubble is bursting.
  • The Dolphins are emphasizing 3rd down efficiency this year.  And even though it's the preseason, it's great to see the Dolphins convert 42% of their 3rd downs while holding their opponent to just 18%.