That is the offensive line the Miami Dolphins envisioned before the 2016 regular season began, one they believed would finally solve the blocking issues that have plagued the team for years. Unfortunately for the team, that offensive line has been elusive this year, with Pouncey missing the first four games with a hip fracture and Albert and Tunsil both missing last week’s game with ankle injuries, along with an illness for Albert. Without the five starters, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been continually harassed and sacked while running backs Jay Ajayi, Arian Foster, Damien Williams, and Kenyan Drake have struggled to find space. It has not been an easy start to the season.
In Week 6, at home against a potential Super Bowl contender in the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami finally was able to put their five starting offensive linemen on the field. And, they responded.
“We wanted to [make] a statement today,” Albert said after the game. “We don’t want to get overconfident, but we are healthy – all five of us. I wanted to see what we can do, and I think we did a good job. We can play ball. We can play physical.”
They put together a game in which Tannehill was barely touched and never sacked, while Ajayi ran for 204 yards.
“[The] guys up front did a heck of a job all day – first and foremost, running the football,” Tannehill said about the offensive line’s level of play on Sunday. “They pounded the guys up front and created running lanes. Jay [Ajayi] ran hard, [the running] backs ran hard, just falling forward, getting those tough yards. In the pass game, they kept me clean. I was able to go one-two in my progressions, and when you’re able to do that, you can actually throw the football and make a few plays. (It was) huge having those starters back in the lineup for us and the whole front just played really well today.”
Before Sunday, Tannehill had been sacked 17 times, second most in the NFL. The most rushing yards any single running back hard in a game this season was Ajayi’s 42 yards in Week 5. As a team, the Dolphins surpassed 70-yard rushing just once this season, picking up 115 yards against the Cleveland Browns, prior to Sunday’s 222 yards.
“We had all our guys for the first time,” Albert added. “It was good. (We) had our Pro Bowl center (Mike Pouncey), our Pro Bowl right guard (Jermon Bushrod). I was the left (tackle), Pro Bowl left tackle. We had our two young guys playing right (tackle) and left guard, so it was good today, man. It was a good feeling.”
“It was great,” Pouncey said. “It was the first time all five of us were on the field together at the same time this year, and it looked really good. This is something our football team can build off of. This offensive line has been taking a lot of heat the first four or five games of the season and it feels good for it to finally pay off, all the hard work.”
According to Pro Football Focus, two of the top five offensive grades belonged to Albert (77.2) and Tunsil (76.1); the other three top offensive grades were also Dolphins players, with wide receiver Jarvis Landry (85.3), Tannehill (82.4), and tight end MarQueis Gray (80.9) topping the list. Of the offensive line, PFF did not see greatness in the line’s run blocking, but did point out the group’s pass-blocking success on Sunday, writing, “The Miami offensive line struggled as run-blockers but performed very well in pass protection, not allowing any sacks and giving up just five total pressures all game.”
Pouncey and Albert were the only two of the offensive linemen to actually play every snap of the game this week, with various players having to rotate out at times. That did not change the team’s level of play, however, as players like Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik rotated into the contest.
“It’s huge,” Tannehill said of his confidence in seeing his five starting linemen in the huddle for the first time this year. “It’s huge. Just having our starting line in the game is huge. The ability obviously, to protect, to push in the run game, obviously changes the whole game for us. The confidence I had stepping into that huddle was huge. We had a couple of guys go down at times in the game and had Urbik and Steen come in there at different times, and ‘Bush’ [Jermon Bushrod) move out to tackle. So, [they] still got shuffled a little bit, but they had kind of set the tempo, the tone for the game early in the game and so when we had those other guys step in, they did a good job too.”
The Dolphins will now look to carry the momentum into next week’s AFC East contest against the Buffalo Bills. If the offensive line can continue to play like they did on Sunday, the Dolphins could find themselves climbing back into Playoff contention.