When I saw that the Dolphins were coming into my neck of the woods to practice with the Carolina Panthers, I had to jump on that opportunity. For fans, like me, who live away from Miami, I have to follow the reports from writers and other fans on Twitter. This was my chance to get a look at the team up close in a practice setting. There was plenty to take away from this experience, both as a fan and for evaluation purposes. Here's what I saw.
DOLPHINS FANS COME OUT IN FORCE
There were as many or more Dolphins fans at these practices as Panthers fans. I arrived in Spartanburg S.C. around 6:30 AM as I had no idea where to park or how bad traffic was going to be. While at a stop light, the car beside me blows their horn. I look over and a guy in a Dolphins hat is trying to get my attention. Nothing more than recognition of another fan, but that's what it was like down there. When I arrived at Gibbs Stadium at Wofford College, all the cars around me had Dolphins stickers or flags or whatever. When I parked an got out of the car, I saw nothing but Dolphins jerseys and shirts. Inside the practice facility, there was plenty of aqua and orange around. Miami has taken a lot of flak recently for not selling out Sun Life Stadium and lots of empty seats. But make no mistake: the Dolphins are still a national team and the showing in Carolina shows that.
The obvious big take away from this event was the injury situation to Louis Delmas and Kelvin Benjamin. I was unable to see the Delmas injury due to being obscured by the Dolphins bench, but the Benjamin injury happened right in front of where I was standing. It was a one on one drill against Reshad Jones. Benjamin is attempting to run an out to the sideline. He plants his leg and the injury occurs. Both injuries will have a factor on each team, though I feel Benjamin will be a far greater loss as he was set to be a huge factor in the Panthers offense. It was good to see players and fans of both teams show support for both players. No one wants to see something like this, especially not in practice.
DEFENSIVE LINE DOMINANT
Reports from Dolphins camp has been that Billy Turner has been struggling daily. It's easy to dismiss that as "well, he's having to play Suh." After watching Suh in person, that's not making an excuse for Turner. The Panthers O-line had trouble with Suh every time they faced him. He's consistently disruptive. For a man that large, he has an uncanny ability to "make himself skinny" at the line of scrimmage. He doesn't just have to rely on brute strength to wreak havoc, but also has the ability to present a small target for blockers. I didn't see him get blocked one on one and he was creating problems on double teams. The highlight play for day one: Suh creates pressure on Newton, who attempts to throw a checkdown. Only Cameron Wake jumps up to bat the ball down, catches it, and strolls in the end zone for a touchdown. The first play of day two: Suh gets into the backfield and makes a would-be tackle on the running back just after the running back got the handoff.
But it wasn't just Suh doing work. The defensive line was very tough to run on. While it's difficult to really gauge running plays because they don't tackle, it was rare that the running backs got much past the line of scrimmage if at all. The most successful rushing plays I saw the Panthers run were outside stretch plays. Teams will catch onto that and if Miami's linebackers can pursue and make tackles, the run defense will be very good.
The DL was also getting plenty of pressure on Newton. Shelby had a would-be sack on day one and Wake was doing Wake things. Olivier Vernon got into a fight on the first day and didn't participate on the second day. But Terrence Fede was the next man up and he was able to push the pocket and make the QBs antsy. All in all, this defensive line should be one of, if not the best lines in the NFL this season.
JAMAR TAYLOR HAD A STRONG PERFORMANCE
Taylor was solid most of the time. He got beat on a deep route by Ted Ginn on the second day that would have been a touchdown. Aside from that however, he was strong. He is a physical player and was often used in press coverage to jam the receiver. He had such a good jam of Ginn on one play on the first day, the ball was overthrown by ten yards. He disrupted the route wonderfully. He was tested quite a bit on the first day and he was usually in tight coverage. He had several pass break-ups and I don't recall him getting any penalties. In off coverage, he was pretty quick to "click and close" on the receiver and make the tackle. If I was giving him a grade for these practices, it would be a solid B+. Every DB got beaten at least once and he was no exception. The biggest complaint I would have is that he doesn't seem to make a play for the ball that often. Though none of the DBs really did when in primary coverage.
LINEBACKERS STRUGGLE IN COVERAGE
Kelvin Sheppard took first team reps at middle linebacker with Misi sidelined and was the other linebacker in nickel with Jenkins with Tripp sidelined. While the linebackers were quick to the ball in run defense, they had issues in coverage. In zone, they played decent; they kept plays in front of them and made would-be tackles. In man coverage, all but Jenkins really had tough moments. Sheppard, McCain, and Paysinger were hit or miss in coverage. The rest of the depth struggled. The good news is that Tripp was not wearing a walking boot and walked fine. He'll probably miss the rest of the preseason and possibly a few games to start the season. But I would bet that he will be used as a coverage linebacker quite a bit this season.
BRANDEN ALBERT STRUTS
Albert got some light work in same-team drills, but was held out of most other stuff. There have been conflicting reports about Albert being more gimpy than the team was telling because of the way he walks. Some reports have been that Albert walks fine while others say he has a bad limp. My impression? Albert walks with a strut. I saw him walking around a couple of times and his gait appeared to me as more of a lumbering strut than a limp favoring an injury. My guess is that playing shape and the mental factor are the biggest obstacles to him returning to the field. From what I saw, I didn't consider his walk to be featuring a worrisome limp.
MATTHEWS IS EARNING PLAYING TIME
The Panthers offense got the benefit of the near field, meaning Tannehill and the Dolphins offense was on the far field. My vantage point on the first day made it tougher to see the offense, but I got to watch some reps on the second day. Matthews was continuing to make plays. He scored a couple of touchdowns in red zone action, including a tough catch that was close and the official signaled touchdown, causing the large Dolphins crowd on that part of the field to erupt into cheers. He almost had a deep reception from Tannehill. The ball was well thrown and Matthews leapt over the DB, but the DB simply made a better play. Those around me were debating on whether or not Matthews could have made a better attempt. In any case, Matthews has become a go-to player for Tannehill and is making plays for him. He also got some work in gunner drills.
I'm not very familiar with Spartanburg and Wofford College, so it wasn't surprising that I spent some time looking for a parking spot. It was actually easy to find, but I didn't know that at first. I went down one street and realized I needed to be on another street. I turned around and made it back to the stop light. As I approached the light, I noticed a jogger coming towards me... it was Dennis Hickey. So of course, I rolled down my window and spoke to him. It was a short lived experience as the light changed and he had his earbuds in. The first part of my practice experience was encountering the Dolphins GM out jogging the streets of Spartanburg. How cool was that?
This was a fun experience. I've never been that close to the Dolphins before and that was fun. I discovered a new found respect for the ability of the reporters to watch these practices and tweet about it. It's not easy to watch the play and then tweet about it, especially with the sun in your face, and do it quickly enough to catch the next play. But it was absolutely worth it and now, I'll share some pictures I took of various players and other Dolphins people.
Run on this... I dare you!
Your starting cornerbacks.
Olivier Vernon and Ndamukong Suh.
Cameron Wake taking a breather.
Ryan Tannehill warming up.
OL and TEs warming up.
A portion of the crowd on day one. LOTS of Dolphins fans.
Ndamukong Suh, Ja'Wuan James, and Branden Albert heading to the field on day two.
Ryan Tannehill heading to the field.
Chris McCain heading to the field after signing an autograph.
Lamar Miller signing an autograph. (Yes, I was that close. Fan friendly set-up at Wofford. Kudos to them.)
Mike Tannenbaum heading to the practice field. And the best for last...
Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera and some dude who used to play quarterback or something.