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  Dolphins Don't Measure Up Yet
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

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Nick Saban viewed Thursday’s season opener in Pittsburgh against the defending Super Bowl Champions as something of measuring stick.


''It gives us an opportunity to see where we are right away”, Saban said.


Saban got his answer, though it was not the one he’d hoped for. After 3½ quarters of evenly matched football, Pittsburgh made the big plays champions make to win close games, overcoming the Dolphins 28-17.


Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team and move on. As for the Dolphin Super Bowl chatter, premature and ridiculous as it now seems, perhaps a more realistic perspective will now prevail.



This is not meant as a negative; the effort against the Super Bowl champs, on the road, showed just how far these Dolphins have come since their 4-12 train wreck in 2004.


But this opener also exposed their weaknesses and re-confirmed the journey that remains. No, the Dolphins aren’t close…but they are getting there.


What separated the Dolphins from the Steelers? Primarily, two things:


First, the Dolphin offensive line struggled mightily to establish any semblance of a running game.


Elite teams find ways to accomplish this, even against the better defenses in the league. Pittsburgh’s offensive line, clearly a strength they enjoy, worked effectively enough against Miami’s talented defensive front to manage a hard-earned 143 yards on 38 carries (3.8 yard average). In contrast, the Dolphins squeezed out a paltry 38 yards on 18 carries (2.1 yard average).


Try as they might, the Dolphin line had a tough time getting the black shirts blocked. Talent imbalance? Mental errors?


Probably a bit of both.


In the end, when teams become offensively one-dimensional, as the Dolphins did, bad things usually happen; Pittsburgh was able to bring heavy blitz pressure and leverage their talented secondary to force Miami’s miscues at the end of the game.


As for RB Ronnie Brown, he gave good effort but there was simply nowhere for him to go. And, yes, had Ricky Williams played last night he’d have fared the same.


Do credit the Dolphins for trying to keep the Steeler D honest. In the end, there was one play call that offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey may like a mulligan on: the ugly outside run attempt on 3rd and 2 with 7:07 to play that the quick perimeter of the Steeler D crushed for a 2 yard loss. Had the Dolphins converted that first down, the outcome of this game might have been different.


Second, the Dolphin secondary is not a ready for primetime group, allowing a journeyman back-up quarterback (Charlie Batch) to complete over 200 yards of passes with 3 touchdowns. The killer was an 87 yard catch and run for a TD by TE Heath Miller; the 256lb player took advantage of a badly busted three deep zone coverage assignment (probably SS Travares Tillman who appeared to have bitten on a short hook route).


All three TD passes were in the area of the Dolphin SS. Tillman appeared to have been late over the top on the first scoring pass to Nate Washington and may have had at least partial responsibility for Hines Ward when he moved across the back of the end zone for his 7 yard TD score.


Of the six penalties committed by the Dolphins, half of them were credited to defensive backs with a blatant no-call saving the Dolphins’ bacon on a third down play. Pittsburgh’s secondary, on the other hand, stayed penalty-free the entire game.


It would be a mistake to waive off the penalty imbalance to home field advantage or other such silly nonsense. The Steeler DBs are simply better at their trade than their Dolphin peers.


It would also be a mistake to blame Travis Daniels’ absence. While Daniels is a good young player, he is not Sam Madison or Patrick Surtain (i.e. a difference-maker).


When Saban does his yelling this morning, most of it will be directed at his secondary. They have to do better.


Meanwhile, Saban should be encouraged by the many positives that did come out of the loss, if such things are possible.


Among them:


The Dolphin WRs played well. Against the Steelers they basically kept the team in the game. Wes Welker, in particular, has become a real problem for opposing defenses and is a challenge to corral on kick returns. Is there anything that Welker cannot do?


Despite the two late picks, Culpepper’s play was encouraging. In his most extensive action yet, he was able to do things passing and running that his recent predecessors couldn’t. Credit Culpepper with handling the withering blitz pressure and finding open receivers in the middle third of the field, this without the benefit of any real run support. While late interceptions were gamekillers, he should improve.


Though the defensive front seven allowed RB Willie Parker to gain 115 yards on 29 carries, they did not allow him to decide the game. If we erase the one long gain he had (32 yards), he averaged just 3 yards a whack. They also sacked Batch 3 times and were able to force him to move around quite a bit to avoid pressure. That’s pretty good stuff versus perhaps the best offensive line in the game.


The Dolphin kickers did a good job of controlling field position. Punter Donnie Jones pinned the Steelers inside their 20 on three occasions while two of Olindo Mare’s four kickoffs went into the endzone. Mare also made good on his lone FG attempt, from 26 yards.


In closing, this loss is not the end of the world. The Dolphins drew a tough opening match and, for the most part, acquitted themselves well. Perhaps these two teams will meet again in the postseason.


Next up is a key divisional game at home against the Buffalo Bills, one the Dolphins should win.



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