Following their unimpressive win over the Buccaneers on Thursday, the Dolphins got back to work this weekend. This final week of practice that culminates with their preseason finale on Thursday against New Orleans will impact which "bubble players" make the cut and round out the bottom of Miami's 53-man roster. And then, in less than two weeks, the Dolphins will heat to Atlanta to begin theor division title defense in 2009.
Here are some talking points to start the week:
THE BATTLE FOR FINAL STARTING SPOT
With Tony Sparano confirming that, barring anything drastic, Donald Thomas will be the team's starting right guard, there's really only one starting job that remains vacant. That open spot is, of course, wide receiver. We know Ted Ginn will be one of the starters. But who will join him on September 13 in Atlanta?
Brian Hartline has gotten the start the past two preseason games and instantly became a fan favorite following his solid performance on Thursday night against Tampa, hauling in 3 passes for 79 yards, including the longest play of the preseason for the Dolphins - a 54 yard reception from Chad Pennington. Hartline also ran worked with the starting offense this weekend at practice, at least as far as the media could tell from their limited access to practice.
Does that mean it's now Hartline's job to lose? Maybe. But I don't think we can discount Davone Bess or Greg Camarillo just yet. Make no mistake about it, though. Tony Sparano wants a playmaker to start on the other side of Ginn:
"Teddy has got the long speed and all those things, so you think that's where your home run is. But we have to get more chunks [of yards] on offense. I'm looking for a guy that can gobble up yards out there opposite [Ginn]. We need a guy who can make some bigger plays on the other side."
That's an interesting comment from Tony. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I get the feeling that Sparano noticed last year that opposing teams could shade towards Ginn's side of the field to prevent the big play out of Teddy because the Dolphins lacked a play-making wide receiver on the other side. Of course, the camera angles presented during broadcasts of last season's games make it impossible for us to see if that was indeed the case.
Regardless, Hartline has been the biggest playmaker this preseason. He leads the team in receiving yards and yards per reception. And truth be told, if playmaking ability is the top criteria in Sparano's mind, then Hartline might just be the guy for the job. Davone Bess, as much as I love him, is more of a possession receiver and an ideal slot receiver - which is why I haven't been a big fan of starting him opposite of Ginn. I was a fan of starting Greg Camarillo, but something just doesn't seem right with Greg. Even on his long catch and run last week, while I was impressed with his ability to plant and turn on his knee, he does seem to be slower than I remember. Of course, an ACL tear will do that. I'm not blaming him - I just don't think he's close to 100% yet in terms of his pre-injury physical ability. The knee may feel fine, but he just doesn't look like the same Camarillo we saw making plays week in and week out in 2008.
So while I'm not ready to declare myself on the "Brian Hartline bandwagon" - the same one that seems to be growing by the day - I do think the starting job is his to lose. He's got the hands, size, play-making ability, and strength to be a solid compliment to Ted Ginn.
DESPITE PERCEIVED STRUGGLES, DON'T WORRY ABOUT DEFENSE YET
Yes I know, I was one of the first ones to talk about how poorly the defense played last week - particularly the secondary. Tampa had open receivers all over the field on Thursday night. Luckily for the Dolphins, Byron Leftwich was erratic throwing the ball all night. But Channing Crowder makes a good point in an article about Miami's safeties:
"We came out and had the same game plan the first two weeks. Tampa Bay got hold of those two and schemed against it. It helps us to see how people attack those coverages. Now we come back this week and work on the weaknesses in that one and get everything on the same even keel."
This leads me to believe that the Dolphins didn't institute a gameplan for the game against the Bucs. They may have watched a little film - but they didn't let what they saw on film dictate their preparation. I think back to when Sparano said after the second preseason game that they ran some of last year's 'Wildcat' stuff to see what new ways teams have decided to defend it. Perhaps this was a similar situation.
Regardless, one thing you have to be impressed with is the defense's "bend but don't break" mentality they've displayed this preseason. The starting defense has allowed just 16 points in about 4 and a half quarters of action during the preseason. The lone TD they allowed -a DeAngelo Williams 25 yard run - should have never happened if not for some shabby tackling. And opposing offenses are yet to score a TD on the first-team defense inside the redzone (0/2 thus far).
What's my point? Don't hit the panic button just yet. I know the Dolphins face a tough schedule, especially right out of the gate against some good offenses. But I'll at least give them one regular season performance before I panic like some others have.
PENNINGTON DECLARED "READY"
Love him or hate him, Chad Pennington is this team's starting quarterback. And Tony Sparano has declared Pennington "regular-season ready." He also had this to say about his starting QB:
"The throw he made the other night, I bet you none of you guys would have bet on that. Pretty good throw he made in the game the other night. Probably a lot of oohs and aahs."
Meanwhile, despite being ready for the season, Pennington is still working hard. Here are his thoughts on his own performance against Tampa after reviewing the tape:
"I feel pretty good. I feel like I've been about a foot off with some of my passes. The deep ball has gotten consistent. I feel really good with that. After watching the Tampa game, I'm about four passes away and they're all six inches to a foot off from [me] being 13 for 16 and feeling really good about it."
So what did CP do to improve his timing with his receivers? Following practice on Sunday, Pennington kept his receivers on the practice field for an extra 15 minutes of work to get their timing down so that he's not six inches to a foot off on a throw here and there.
To work on this in a game, it's also expected that Pennington will see a series or two in the finale despite how most teams rest their starters. In fact, expect a number of first-teamers to get work in the finale against New Orleans - especially the offensive line. They still need to gel. Last year, the starting OL played the entire first half of the preseason finale. While I don't know if that will be the case on Thursday, I do think at least a quarter of action should be expected from that unit.