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  Dolphins Off to a Solid Start
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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It was far from midseason form. It was sloppy, somewhat ugly even, but also totally expected from a team that had just seven practices.

Yes the start of the Miami Dolphins 2011 preseason was all that. But it was also fairly encouraging. Actually, all things considered, it was a solid start.

I know; the starters looked pretty bad against their Atlanta counterparts. It didn’t help that coach Tony Sparano was resting three of his best offensive players (RB Reggie Bush, LT Jake Long, and WR Brandon Marshall), as well as a few notable defenders. So remember that when Falcons QB Matt Ryan is tossing a TD pass against the likes of Nate Ness and Tyrone Culver.

In mid-August, it’s also important to remember that the sum of the parts cannot be judged yet. Rather, it’s the individual performances that matter now, together with the expectation that the whole gets better as the regular season approaches.

So what stood out for me? Mostly it was the abundance of talented young players, big and small. I especially liked the young talent at the offensive and defensive skill positions.

Undrafted Phillip Livas, a 5-7, 175lb. competitor, returned a punt 75 yards for a TD. This electric kick returner is going to be a difference maker right away; his score provided the winning points in Miami’s come from behind 28-23 win.

Big Roberto Wallace, 6-4 and 225lbs, whose game has come light years since his rookie season, racked up 60 yards on 3 catches, including a TD.

Rookie seventh round CB Jimmy Wilson, who has overcome great personal adversity, was a one man demolition machine (five tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and several defended passes). And first round rookie center Mike Pouncey got his feet wet from the start, always a good thing for your top pick. He was “really solid the entire evening”, according to Sparano.

Two 2010 draftees who had no chance to make a contribution last season due to injuries also flashed. It was encouraging to see that neither DE Jared Odrick nor MLB AJ Edds appeared to have any ongoing physical issues. Odrick was very active and Edds was all over the place with a team-leading seven tackles (six solo) and a sack, showing why the Dolphins were comfortable in letting Channing Crowder go. Edds and Odrick will further solidify a potentially dominant D.

So that was the good news…new pieces that provide a badly needed infusion of talent. But there is still a lot of work to be done in order for the Dolphins to have a shot at beating the New England Patriots at SunLife Stadium on September 12. So keep an especially close eye on three key areas on the team: the offensive line, quarterback, and special teams. This is where the team’s fortunes lie this season.

The offensive line will feature three new positional starters while a fourth, All-Pro Jake Long, will have to come up to speed quickly with a planned short preseason of work. Clearly, Sparano learned a hard lesson last year when he needlessly gave Long extended minutes and got him hurt in the final preseason game. It was Sparano’s single biggest act of incompetence in his tenure as Dolphins coach. He seems determined not to repeat it.

But continuity is essential for good OL play and the Dolphins don’t have it yet. Against the Falcons, the collective members of the generated less than 50 yards rushing by the RBs versus a weak Falcons run defense.

Again, it’s early and Long did not play. The worry is that, in years past, these struggles didn’t seem go away. Will they this time?

At QB, the issue of inconsistent play continues to hang like a pall over this franchise. Against Atlanta, Chad Henne tossed two picks almost immediately and reserve Matt Moore a third later on. One can only imagine the reaction from the faithful had this happened at home.

Sparano was quick and correct to absolve Henne of his two, pointing out that the first was due to a drop by TE Anthony Fasano and the other on by WR running the wrong route. Fair enough. Henne did hit Brian Hartline with a pretty 50 yard TD pass, a throw that he has struggled to complete in the past. So for now let’s continue to look for signs that 2011 will be better for Henne.

Meanwhile, watch out for Moore. Against the Falcons he was accurate, creative, and threw two nice TDs. He is going to push Henne, which is good and necessary. But is either man the long term answer these Dolphins need? Probably not, but “average” might be acceptable this year. I think Sparano would gladly take Moore’s numbers (11 of 18, 123 yards, 2 TDs 1 INT over two quarters of work) just about every week.

Finally, pay attention to the special teams. The improved depth on the roster has to be a difference maker. The Dolphins already have two good kickers and, with Livas, Bush, and rookie Clyde Gates, they have a chance to be very dangerous on returns. Unfortunately the Falcons didn’t give the coverage teams much of a look as their returners were mostly ordered to fair catch Brandon Fields’ punts.

Overall, we saw progress last night, a solid first preseason effort. But it continues to be a race against time for these Dolphins. They’re a team in transition dealing with a shortened offseason, with so much to do to fully implement their new offense and be ready to face a settled and mature Patriots team.

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