September 11, 2014

Phillip Wheeler set to play Sunday after all

First the good news for Miami Dolphins fans: Linebacker Phillip Wheeler is expected to be available for the Dolphins on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, after all.

Wheeler, who missed the season-opener while nursing a thumb injury, has been limited in practice this week because of that injury but the team has been encouraged by his improvement day to day.

The chances of Wheeler being available are apparently so good the Dolphins are debating whether to list him as probable.

Wheeler's availability improved dramatically because a bulbous cast that covered his entire right hand that he's been wearing was switched to a more manageable cast that exposes the tips of his fingers and allows him to grab potential ball carriers.

So Wheeler could find himself in the lineup.

Great, right. And the bad news?

I reported on Thursday morning that Wheeler was out for the game, per a source. I doubled back with that source Thursday evening and was told, "Things change. I guess I was wrong."

No.

I was wrong. Apologies.   

Koa Misi will not play, as I reported earlier. Dannell Ellerbe is on injured reserve and cannot play. So the Dolphins will have only one of their starting linebackers available on Sunday. How much Wheeler plays remains a question.

Joe Philbin has improved Miami Dolphins coaching staff

Joe Philbin has not won in Buffalo as the Dolphins head coach.

He lost in Buffalo in 2012 -- final score 19-14 -- and he lost in Buffalo last season -- with that one going down in the media guide as a 19-0 score.

So why do I bring up this sour fact while you're still shopping for hotels in Phoenix for Super Bowl 49, following last week's season-opening win over New England?

To say this: The Dolphins go to Buffalo again this weekend. And while the same head coach is leading this Miami team, it is already clear it is a different type of coaching staff.

This one?

Better. Upgraded.

The view from multiple angles is that when Philbin relented (because he didn't want to) and fired friend, mentor and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and then replaced him with Bill Lazor, the Dolphins head coach did himself and the franchise a service.

In getting Lazor, Philbin picked a rising commodity in the coaching ranks. Multiple NFL people have told me Lazor will be a head coach candidate within three-to-five years assuming his work continues its current trajectory. He is demanding. He is "real," with players as quarterback Ryan Tannehill said Wednesday. And he's got a good scheme that has pulled plays from his multiple experiences and stops both in the NFL and college.

“He’s been great. He wants to be great. He wants to score a lot of points," Tannehill said. "He wants me to play well and that’s what I want. It’s been good to have him push me along and teach me the ins and outs of the offense and expect to play well. That’s what I like."

Dolphins offensive linemen also have a growing kinship not just with offensive line assistant John Benton but his offensive line assistant Jack Bicknell Jr.

This is not meant as a putdown but it is a fact: The Dolphins' offensive line coach the last two years had never coached in the NFL before coming to Miami with Philbin in 2012. Jim Turner was a career college coach.

This year the Dolphins offensive linemen get coached by men with a combined 15 NFL seasons of experience. Benton has been coaching NFL players 10 years in St. Louis and Houston; Bicknell Jr. has made stops with the Giants, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, the last two as the lead OL coach.

So aside from the fact GM Dennis Hickey upgraded the tackles a great deal and addressed the interior line well enough to hold the proverbial fort until Mike Pouncey returns, these two guys have indeed brought the talent -- all new to each other -- together very quickly.

I'm not saying they are going to be the Great Wall of China. But the Patriots did show multiple fronts against the Miami line on Sunday and the adjustments got made. There were some technical issues, but it was the first game out.

Then there's the linebackers coach.

George Edwards, who as the linebacker coach last year, had tons of experience. He'd coached with the Redskins, Cowboys, Browns, and was even the Bills defensive coordinator in 2010-11.

But something wasn't translating. Something didn't click last year with the LBs. And it may have been predictable based on what I was told in 2012.

"We got guys in the room underperforming and I think he's one of them," one linebacker told me of Edwards in 2012.

Alrightie then.

New linebacker coach Mark Duffner is equally experienced, having spent time with Jacksonville and Green Bay and Cincinnati. I don't know him from Adam, honestly, but I hear around the league he is very well respected as hard-working, loyal and capable assistant. He pushes players. He teaches well, I'm told.

The proof seems to be that when the Dolphins had zero starting linebackers in the game on Sunday, the reserves played well.

I'm not saying the reserves didn't make any miscues. But the results are the results.

So what does all this mean?

I'm not saying the Dolphins are beating the Bills or going undefeated or you should get back to that call booking the Phoenix hotel room.

I'm saying Joe Philbin has improved the group of coaches supporting him. That already is apparent.

Source: Misi, Wheeler out for Buffalo

The Miami Dolphins will be without all three of their starting linebackers on Sunday when they play the Buffalo Bills, as Koa Misi, nursing an ankle injury, and Phillip Wheeler, still nursing a thumb injury, will join Dannell Ellerbe, who is out for the year, on the sideline.

A source familiar with the status of the players told The Herald Thursday morning that Wheeler and Misi could return to the lineup as soon as the Sept. 21 game against Kansas City.

The only issue with that is the Dolphins play the Bills before then. The Bills rushed for 193 yards in a victory over Chicago last week and that makes them the NFL's No. 3-ranked rushing team. 

The Dolphins will have to slow Buffalo's rushing stampede with a linebacker corps that consists entirely of reserve players.

Jason Trusnik is expected to play in place of Misi at middle linebacker.

Jelani Jenkins and Jonathan Freeny are expected to man the outside linebacker spots.

There is also a chance the Dolphins could integrate recently acquired Kelvin Sheppard into the mix. At the very least, the former Bills and Colts linebacker is expected to be active for the game and probably play on special teams only six days after joining the team.

The Dolphins linebacker corps is something of a M.A.S.H unit right now.

Rookie Jordan Tripp (chest) has already been ruled out by the team. Fellow rookie Chris McCain, who had a blocked punt and a sack in his NFL debut, has missed the past two days of practice dealing with an illness and a hip injury.

McCain is expected to be available on Sunday, however, barring some sort of physical setback.

[BLOG NOTE: Today is Sept. 11. I want to take a moment to honor and memorialize the passing of those who died during the terrorist attacks of 9-11-2001. On a personal note, I also wish to memorialize the passing of my mom on 9-11-2009. Love you, Mami.] 

September 10, 2014

Senate Committee Chair Rockefeller looking to investigate NFL

U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), the chairman of the senate committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, is trying to mobilize members of the committee in an effort to conduct congressional hearings on the domestic violence issue as it pertains to the NFL.

A source close to the situation told The Herald that Rockefeller's work to find traction for such hearings among his members is well known within senate offices since it began in earnest Wednesday.

The NFL enjoys wide ranging anti-trust law exemptions and benefits from the government and thus Rockefeller sees holding the league accountable on a wide range of issues as well within his purview.

Rockefeller is known within Washington's Beltway as not a big fan of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell has come under fire for his handling of the domestic violence incident involving Ray Rice and his then-fiancee inside an Atlantic City elevator in February.

The NFL suspended Rice for two games after the incident -- which was seen by most as mild rebuke. Although Rice was not convicted after entering a pre-trial diversion program, Goodell admitted to owners in a letter he got the punishment for the Baltimore running back wrong.

How wrong is now at issue as TMZ.com recently released a video of the incident in the elevator which is graphic and shocking. The video shows Rice knocking out the woman he has since married -- Janay Palmer -- with one punch and then dragging her out of the elevator when the doors opened.

Goodell has maintained neither he nor anyone else at the NFL saw the video before it was released this week. when the video was released, the NFL then suspended Rice indefinitely. The Batlimore Ravens concurrently released Rice.

But the Associated Press, citing an unnamed law enforcement source, reported Wednesday that a copy of the video was turned over to the NFL months ago and an NFL representative acknowledged its receipt through a voicemail which the source played for the news organization.

The NFLresponded it had "no knowledge of this," and has promised to further investigate the matter.

But Rockefeller is now asking members of his committee to become involved as well. Rockefeller, 76, is retiring after this year so opening hearings that would hold the NFL's proverbial feet to the fire is not to be considered a ploy to earn votes, the source told The Herald.

But, the source allowed, perhaps Rockefeller is looking for one final opportunity to make Goodell uncomfortable. 

If Rockefeller finds traction for conducting NFL hearings among his members, an announcement could come within days.

Wallace: Miami Dolphins could have scored 50

The Dolphins are still basking, at least a litte bit, in the afterglow of their 33-20 victory over New England in the regular-season opener and part of that is recognizing what went right and what went wrong.

And although plenty went wrong enough on offense that needs correcting, that fact also speaks to this truth:

"Honestly, it's not bragging or boasting but but I honestly feel like we could have scored at least 50 points," Wallace said Wednesday.

Wait, Wallace thinks the Dolphins could have hung 50 on the New England Patriots? On defensive guru Bill Belichick?

Well, you might think so too also after hearing Wallace go through the litany of mistakes the Dolphins made to stop themselves.

"I had a fumble early in the game, Lamar [Miller] had a fumble, we had a double move that should have been a touchdown, we had an interception when I ran a post that should have been a touchdown, we had a throw to Clay (which he dropped) that should have been a touchdown, we missed wide open ones," Wallace said. "That's already 21 more points so we could have had 50."

Actually, Wallace seemingly forgot a throw to Dion Sims that should have been a touchdown which he dropped. So that's four more points as the Dolphins settled for a field goal.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor on Monday and quarterback Ryan Tannehill Wednesday talked about leaving points on the field.

The Dolphins have apparently been adding those points up. Yes, had they made all the plays, they might have eclipsed 50 last Sunday. 

 

Miami Dolphins missing key players in practice

The Miami Dolphins are practicing today but the defense is working a lot of backups because starters Randy Starks and Koa Misi missed practice to add to the absence of linebacker Dannell Ellerbe who is on injured reserve.

The Dolphins defense in practice today is without players that combined for 453 tackles, including 26 for loss in 2013. This according to math genius of The Herald's Adam Beasley.

Starks is wearing a boot on his left foot. He was working with trainers to rehab whatever injury he is suffering. Misi, who missed three quarters last week with an ankle sprain, was in a cast on his left ankle. A cast is not an boot. It suggests a more serious injury.

The Miami linebacker corps is decimated with two starters  -- Ellerbe and Misi -- either definitely out or trending that way. Even Phillip Wheeler who is practicing at least on a limited basis is still lessened because he is still wearing the cast on his right hand, wrist and thumb that he wore last week to attend to his fractured thumb.

Wheeler was unable to play with his injury last week.

Obviously, if the Dolphins must resort to backups, the candidates are Jason Trusnik handling the chores in the middle for Misi and Jelani Jenkins handling the Ellerbe position at weakside outside linebacker as he did last weekend against New England.

There's obviously is a chance the Dolphins can integrate newly acquired Kelvin Sheppard into the lineup or use Jonathan Freeny if Wheeler cannot go against the Bills.

So the LB corps would be something akin to Trusnik, Jenkins and Sheppard or Freeny if the starters are out -- which is a very real possibility.

The Starks injury is worrisome because he is a starting caliber player. And although the Dolphins have Earl Mitchell and Jared Odrick, the run stopping defense becomes a concern if Starks cannot play, compounding the loss of practically the entire linebacker corps.

Interestingly, Starks practiced on Tuesday. So this injury happened since then.

We're not done. 

The Dolphins are limited in backups they have working in practice. Linebacker Jordan Tripp (chest) is still not practicing and hasn't worked since the preseason finale. Linebacker Chris McCain (hip, illness) was not at practice today for the second consecutive day.

We're not done, folks.

Offensive lineman Billy Turner is still in a boot and did not work during the portion of practice open to the media.

Center Mike Pouncey been running but still has not been cleared to practice. He will not play against the Bills.

Rookie Terrence Fede, who has not practiced in three weeks because of a knee injury, also is not practicing and will not play against Buffalo. His loss, not a major problem in the opener because most everyone was healthy, starts to become more pronounced with Starks in a boot and other defenders hurt.

Miami Dolphins believe Bills have best D front

We know what the Bills did to the Dolphins last season.

(Quickie lesson in recall: Teams played twice, Bills won both despite starting a third-string QB who is not even in the NFL right now because their defense, particularly their defensive front, dominated the Dolphins offensive line.)

Well, that memory I suppose is the basis of a theory that is circulating the Dolphins locker room that is coming from coaches: The Bill have the best defensive front seven the Dolphins will see this year.

“We just game-planned him a little bit today," right tackle Ja'Wuan James was saying. "They were saying this is probably going to be the best line we are going to face all year, so we just have to prepare, prepare like we just did for (the Patriots) game and help the team to get better."

Let's pause here to consider the idea of the Bills being the best defensive line the Dolphins face this year.

The Dolphins will play the Jets. They have a fine defensive front -- with Wilkerson, Richardson, Harris and them.

The Dolphins will play Baltimore. They have a fine defensive front -- Suggs, Ngata, Canty, Smith

The Dolphins will play Denver. They have a fine defensive front, particularly at linebacker with DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller and Danny Trevathan.

The Dolphins will play Detroit. They have a fine deensive front -- Suh, Fairley, Levy, Tulluch.

And I haven't even mentioned the Bears and Packers who will bring challenges with players named Jared Allen, Lance Briggs, Lamarr Houston,  Julius Peppers and  Clay Matthews.

Also, the Bills got good but not great results against Chicago last Sunday. The Bills held the Bears to 86 rushing yards and are the No. 11 run defense now. Well, the Dolphins, led by AFC defensive player of the week Cameron Wake, held New England to 89 rush yards and are No. 12 in the league against the run.

So are the Bills dominant so far?

Regardless, the Miami Dolphins see the Buffalo Bills as probably their biggest challenge of the year up front.

And you know what?

They are probably correct.

The Bills suffered a serious blow to their defensive front when they lost linebacker Kiko Alonso in the offseason. But, frankly, they still intimidate.

Mario Williams is a $100-million-plus defensive end and no one in Buffalo is saying he's overpaid. Kyle Williams is a good veteran and Marcell Dareus, despite off field problems, is a rising player. Brandon Spikes is not a three-down linebacker in my estimation but he is outstanding against the run. Keith Rivers is solid at strongside linebacker, and the depth of the unit is solid so they simply keep coming.

It will be a challenge for a Dolphins offensive line that played very, very well against the Patriots. If they can play well against the defensive front they see as probably the best they face all season, the Dolphins may have something here.

September 09, 2014

Miami Dolphins reserve LBs great, or were starters not?

During the offseason, Jason Trusnik visited with coach Joe Philbin and during their chat the Miami Dolphins player wanted the head coach to get the idea that he wasn't just about playing special teams.

"Playing defensive football is important to him," Philbin said. "He felt he could make a valuable contribution. I thought Sunday was a great example of that."

It was an example brought about by necessity. The Dolphins needed Trusnik to start at the strongside linebacker because Philip Wheeler was out with a thumb injury. But when Dannell Ellerbe went down and Koa Misi went down, suddenly Trusnik was the senior member of Miami's linebacker corps.

This week? No different because even if Wheeler and Misi return (questionable at best for the moment) Ellerbe is out for the year. Jelani Jenkins is available but it seems obvious Trusnik will be the guy -- a certainty if the Dolphins are again two linebackers down.

Trusnik says he's ready. 

“I mean everything that happens in the game, we’re in front of them so we’re going to get the same type of blocks and we’re going to have to deal with the same type of stuff regardless of who’s behind us," Trusnik said. "So I guess in a way, we feel like we’re going to have to step it up just because we’re going to be the guys on the field who probably have been a part of, I guess knowing the defense a little bit longer than some of the guys that are coming in to fill the roles.

"But you know we’ve got plenty of guys at the linebacker spot who can play, who can fly around and make plays. Jason Trusnik is a guy who’s very important to our team and vital to our team as you can see now he’s filling in, but he’s one of our special teams captains. He’s our special team captain and I think he’s the type of guy that’s going to be able to come in and have a seamless transition.”

This needs to be said: It is great that Trusnik and Jenkins and to a lesser degree rookie Chris McCain, who is mostly a pass rusher at this point, played so well on Sunday.

There was virtually no drop in performance from the starters to the backups.

But I think everyone recognizes one possible reason for that is that Miami's reserves were prepared. And another possible reason is that Miami's starters are, well, just so-so.

Both Trusnik and Jenkins graded out with plus-grades for the game on Sunday. Misi and Ellerbe, meanwhile, already had minus grades in the 17 and 18 snaps respectively they took against the Patriots.

So if the arc of what had alread happened is to be believed, the Dolphins upgraded when they went with their reserves.

Nonetheless, I don't want to be the guy raining on these guys' parade so let's just say the reserves such as Trusnik and Jenkins and Jonathan Freeny played worthy of being recognized.

The question is assuming Misi and Wheeler cannot play against the Bills and Jenkins and Trusnik play well, what happens when the starters return?

I believe Misi starts. Coaches love him.

Wheeler? Not too sure.

McCain, by the way, is still not ready to start. He is slowed by a hip injury that kept him out of practice Tuesday and some last week. And he's still learning the defense and all the assignments. Think of him as a pass-rusher.

 

A PFF look at the Dolphins victory over the Pats

As I did last season, every Tuesday I will share with you the review of the previous Sunday's game (no idea what will happen Monday night) via my friends at ProFootballFocus.com.

The Dolphins dispatched the Patriots 33-20 on Sunday. So most of these grades should be pretty good.

By the way, I recommend a PFF subscription.

Consider: 

Offensive summary

Lamar Miller drew the “start,” but was out-snapped by Knowshon Moreno 48-27.

The breakdown of #3 receiver snaps was as follows: Brandon Gibson had 36, Jarvis Landry had 31, Rishard Matthews had 8.

Brandon Albert and Samson Satele came up with two of the bigger performances by any tackle or center in the league in Week One, especially in run-blocking. Albert had a +4.0 grade playing left tackle. Satele, signed in August to fill in for Mike Pouncey had a +3.2 grade.

If Satele continues to perform like this, it gives the Dolphins space to make sure Pouncey is fully ready and fully in football shape to come back from his hip surgery rehab. Maybe they give him two weeks of practice instead of just one.

Second TE Dion Sims is looking at mostly a blocking role; he was asked to block on 24 of his 39 snaps. Understandbly, by the way. He dropped a potential TD pass.

Passing

When pressured, Ryan Tannehill was an only 2-for-10 with 12 yards, with an interception, and a sack taken.

Tannehill’s struggles with the intermediate and deep accuracy continued, going 3-for-11 on throws of 10-yards or more down the field.

As I wrote Monday, OC Bill Lazor wants Tannehill to get better fast.

Rushing

Knowshon Moreno tallied 72 (of his 134) yards after contact and he caused six missed tackles during his breakout afternoon. Moreno is an AFC Player of the Week candidate for sure.

The Dolphins had the most success running right behind their center Samson Satele, recording 73 yards on 12 carries when running up the middle.

Lamar Miller didn’t force any missed tackles, but still had 21 yards after contact of his 59 total on the ground.

Receiving

Mike Wallace was moved around plenty and saw targets against five different Patriot defenders -- Revis (5), Alfonzo Dennard (2), Jerrod Mayo (2), Jamie Collins (1), and Dont'a Hightower (1). Think about this: Mayo, Collins and Hightower are linebackers so Bill Lazor found a way to get WR on LB matchups for Wallace four times during the game.

Moreno had a great day running the ball but didn’t have a single target in the passing game.

Defense

Cameron Wake lapped the rest of the 4-3 DEs this week with a +6.7 grade (the next highest was +3.2), registering two sacks, two hits, and two hurries in the opener. He played well, folks.

Jason Trusnik (66 snaps) and Jelani Jenkins (59 snaps) were the primary nickel linebackers when Koa Misi and Dannell Ellerbe were forced from the game.

Earl Mitchell (+4.1) was a standout performer from the interior line, logging three hurries in the pass rush and three stops in the run game.

Opponents' passing

Tom Brady’s accuracy over 10 yards was also shaky. He was 4-of-22 on passes of 10-plus yards down the field.

When blitzed, Brady was 9-16 for 134 yards. Meanwhile, when not blitzed, Brady went 20-40 for 115 yards and took three sacks.

Coverage

Will Davis was targeted a team-high 12 times, but allowed just three catches. Here’s who he was targeted with, and their catches in parenthesis: Brandon Lafell five targets (0), Kenbrell Thompkins three targets (0), Julian Edelman three targets (2), and Shane Vereen one target (1).

The Dolphins allowed just four catches on 11 Rob Gronkowski targets, with Jelani Jenkins (4 targets, 1 catch) and Brent Grimes (3 targets, 1 catch which was a TD) doing the best work on him.

Safeties Jimmy Wilson and Louis Delmas combined to allow eight catches on 10 targets, but those eight catches went for just 75 yards.

September 08, 2014

Lazor to Tannehill: Get better fast

The Dolphins blew out the Patriots on Sunday (did that really happen?) but in listening to Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor discuss the performance of quarterback Ryan Tannehill you get the feeling the coach wasn't too pleased with the player.

Lazor today was asked about Tannehill during his weekly press conference. That's nothing out of the ordinary as the offensive coordinator was asked about half a dozen offensive players.

But Lazor held the most critical comments about all of them for Tannehill.

“My number one feeling is that we better get better fast, particularly in the passing game," Lazor said. "I feel like there were a lot of plays that we should have made and didn’t make. Some might have been the throw or the decision. Some were the drop. I think a lot of them were easy to see if you were watching the game on TV and so I don’t think that’s a surprise.

"I think we are going to have to be better to win tighter games. We are going to have to be more productive in the passing game when the plays are there. They were there and we didn’t make them. It’s going to be a real clear message that we’ve got to get better."

Tannehill has got to get better alright. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 178 yards with 2 TDs and I INT. His quarterback rating was 79.9.

But as Lazor referenced and you saw on television if you watched, Tannehill threw multiple passes behind receivers -- some were caught while others were not. And he missed Mike Wallace on two passes that would have been touchdowns but were overthrown.

He had another pass to Wallace that would have forced the open receiver to come down with both feet in bounds for the score to happen. Wallace didn't do it. I put that one on Wallace moreso than Tannehill. But even that pass could have been better.

Ellerbe to injured reserve, Dolphins sign Sheppard

Dannell Ellerbe's hip injury was serious. That's the reason the team will place him on the injured reserve list, coach Joe Philbin announced today.

To replace Ellerbe, who will not be eligble to return this season, the team is signing free agent linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.

Sheppard played with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 and Buffalo Bills in 2012.

“Well, Dannell is a heck of a player and we were excited about the prospects of him moving back to the Will position and playing as effectively as he could," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "But that’s part of the game and we move on and, like every team in the league does when you have injuries, you have to have people step up, fill in and we’ll do that and we’ll move forward."

The Dolphins now have to decide on a replacement for Ellerbe in the lineup as Sheppard may not be that immediately. The candidates are Jason Trusnik and Jelani Jenkins.

“I can’t say enough about those guys and the job that Coach (Mark) Duffner and Coach (David) Corrao did to get those guys ready," Coyle said. "Those guys stepped in. Trus (Jason Trusnik), he was out there calling the defense, he was playing on special teams, he did it all and did a great job. Jelani, you noticed him because they were trying to throw the ball to the tight end, they tried to pick him on the wheel route and get the back down the sideline. Jelani, not only did he cover but he made a really good adjustment getting over the top of a potential rub route. It’s a play that we work a lot when we get prepared to play these guys because they’re very effective with it, but he did a great job. Jonathan Freeny had some quality snaps as well, so it was great to see that. You’re going to have to have your backup players step up when the time comes and they certainly did that. I was really impressed with the entire group. The defensive line, the pass rush was relentless."

Although Chris McCain played well Sunday and made two impact plays -- a punt block and a sack of Tom Brady -- he is not ready to contribute completely on defense as more than a pass rusher. That is his current role on defense.

“He’s a work in progress," Coyl,e said of McCain. "He’s getting better every week. We’re preparing him to play. He prepared to play both defensive end and linebacker last week and he’ll do the same this week. It’s pretty amazing to be in your first NFL game as an undrafted free agent and first snap block a punt and then come on later on one of his first rushes in the game he gets a sack of Tom Brady. I think he’ll remember that game for a long time."

The Dolphins have two other injured linebackers in Koa Misi (ankle) and Philip Wheeler (thumb). Neither is dealing with a season-ending injury situation.

Different? Dolphins have more dogs on the roster

Something was different on Sunday.

Sure there are the factoids that tell you it was different. The Dolphins snapped a Patriots 61-game win streak in games when they forced three or more turnovers. The Dolphins turned the ball over three times and won anyway.

And the Dolphins are in first place, tied with the Jets and Buffalo. The Patriots are in last place and it marks the first time that Tom Brady is in sole possession of last place in the AFC East. Ever.

But beyond that and, as I write in my column in today's Miami Herald, on this day the Dolphins played like a different team than we've been used to.

This team played with emotion, confidence, and a physical approach that was downright inspiring. It inspired the fans. It inspired the players who felt it.

“Everybody was feeding off the energy," linebacker Chris McCain told me as he compared the moment while also recounting the trials he's been through in that he was out of football for nearly eight months and Sunday's game was his first in nearly a year after he was kicked off the team at the University of California last year.

"I was getting energy from a lot of people. Going back, I don’t even like to think about it now because I’m here. And I’m done dropping my tears about it. The people know who they are who doubted me. They see where I am and see where we are. Nobody would have thought Miami in the first game in this division would beat New England. We showed them. We got 15 more games to finish up strong. I believe we can do it."

McCain is an inspiring story. Although I am not fully certain why he was kicked off the Cal football team, I'm sure it wasn't because he was on the straight and narrow. But something has apparently clicked (so far) for this kid.

“I’ve been blessed," he said. "It’s been plenty of chances I could have been down and out or just being the average person out on the street but God kept his wings around me, kept his hands on me and he got me here. It’s all on God. This is all God.

"The most overwhelming part is being on this stage. Being on this stage and being able to play with the Dolphins. Just being here is big. Just being able to put on a uniform.

“It is mind blowing. A lot of people told me I couldn’t be here. But going through the whole draft process, Miami was calling me, showing their interest a lot. They believed in me. I’m glad I’m here. I love to be here. This staff is about winning and taking care of their players. It’s real mind blowing just going through what I went through. Some guys would have quit and gave up. But just the grind and the edge to keep eating and staying hungry for this and hoping some day getting here, and to do is …”

Mind blowing.

I like this kid's story although I only have an incomplete version. I'm sure it will get better. He had a sack and a blocked punt in his first NFL game.

Welcome to the NFL, rookie.

McCain is the personification of what happened on Sunday. He really wasn't supposed to be here, according to, well, him. Jelani Jenkins wasn't supposed to be in the game. Jonathan Freeny wasn't supposed to be in the game.

But with the entire starting linebacker corps -- Koa Misi, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler out -- it was up to the reserves to step up. By the way, Misi walked out of the locker room in a walking boot. Ellerbe could hardly walk as he left with some sort of hip injury. He actually had trouble putting one foot in front of the other and he was wearing some sort of wrapping around his hips.

Yet with the backups, the Dolphins held New England to 67 total yards in the second half. This while the Dolphins were amassing 222 yards. That is how a 20-10 deficit turned into a 33-20 win.

By the way, the offense showed up bigtime. Read how that went.

Afterward, someone who works for the team was agreeing with me that we should not draw bold conclusions and make season-lasting proclamations about the Dolphins based off one game. Coach Joe Philbin will Tuesday (players are off Monday) tell his players that it is a new week and a new challenge and the New England game is behind them and forgotten. It is only one game.

But this much is certain: This team has more fight in it.

It has more dog in it, as they used to say in my old 'hood.

Louis Delmas? Dog.

Cortland Finnegan? Dog.

McCain? Puppy. But a dog nonetheless.

Knowshon Moreno? Dog. He's a strange cat, as I wrote in my column. But he's also a dog.

Daryn Colledge? Dog.

I'm not saying that means the Dolphins roll through the schedule. I. Am. Not. Predicting. That.

But it will be a lot harder for a roster with this kind of passion to play a game like it played in Buffalo or against the Jets at home to end last year. In that regard, well done Dennis Hickey.

Already that is an undeniable upgrade.

Hey, did I tell you to read my column?

 

 

September 07, 2014

Dolphins beat Patriots, 33-20 to take opener

The Patriots had won 10 consecutive season-openers ... before today.

End of streak.

The Dolphins, behind a ferocious defense led by Cameron Wake and impressive run game led by Knowshon Moreno, beat the Patriots 33-20 at Sun Life Stadium.

The Dolphins are atop the AFC East today.

The Patriots are in last place.

Yes, yes, I know it is only one game. But as one game goes, this was pretty impressive.

The Dolphins erased a 20-13 halftime deficit by scoring 20 unanswered second half points. Yes, the Patriots wilted but it didn't seem all about the weather.

The Miami defense sacked Tom Brady four times and had him getting hit so often that he actually started throwing early or spots where there were no receivers, or inaccurately. He seemed rattled at times. Wake finished with two sacks.

Moreno, signed in the offseason, put toughness behind the Miami running game, gaining 134 yards on 24 carries. Lamar Miller rushed for 59 yards on 11 carries for good measure. Remember who told you Moreno was the lead back?

The amazing thing is the Dolphins beat up the Patriots even as they had three turnovers. Think about that. Three turnovers and still they won going away.

Dolphins LB corps relying on reserves

The Dolphins started this game without Phillip Wheeler.

But after the first quarter they had lost both Koa Misi (ankle) and Dannell Ellerbe (hip) were both out of the game due to injuries. Both were reported as being questionable to return.

[Update: Misi will not return to the game, according to the Dolphins.]

That put Jason Trusnik in the game. That put Chris McCain in the game. That put Jelani Jenkins in the game.

Not great.

On the other hand, McCain blocked a punt three minutes into his first NFL game. So maybe getting him in the game isn't so bad.

Live blog here: Patriots at Dolphins

Welcome to the 2014 season.

So what's happening today? Let's start with this: I expect to see the Dolphins employ the 3-4 defense today. I've been hinting at it all week and today there is confirmation. The Dolphins will shift in and out of their 4-3 today.

So the team will show the Patriots multiple fronts on defense. Cam Wake and Olivier Vernon at OLB. Jared Odrick and Randy Starks at DE. Earl Mitchell at NT in the 3-4, at defensive tackle in the 4-3.

I like that.

In the nickel package, I expect Will Davis to get more playing time than Jamar Taylor, although both are expected to play.

We know that Phillip Wheeler is out today. Jason Trusnik will play in his place in the 4-3. We'll see what happens when the team shifts to the 3-4.

The inactives today:

OL Jason Fox, LB Jordan Tripp, LB Phillip Wheeler, OL Billy Turner, DL Terrence Fede, C Mike Pouncey and DT Bruce Gaston.

We'll have a live blog today as we do every game day. Check it out below:

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Live Blog Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots: Sept. 7, 2014
 

A season to decide the franchise's direction

The 2014 NFL season kicks off for the Dolphins at 1 p.m. today. My column in the Miami Herald today says this will be a defining season for the Dolphins no matter what happens.

I have no way of telling you exactly what is going to happen today or this season. But I do know that whatever happens will shape the future of this franchise for years, unlike other seasons that are used for building or revamping or whatever.

Part of my column makes reference to all the good things that can happen to the players and coaches if the Dolphins are a winner in 2014. And part of my column tells you there are bad things that can happen if the Dolphins are a loser. One of those latter things is the roster gets a significant reconstruction.

Indeed, if the Dolphins don't win, it is possible up to a dozen players who are starters now get jettisoned by next season.

Who? I didn't have the space to tell you in the column. I have space here:

If the Dolphins don't win, and somehow the passing game is to blame, it is plausible Mike Wallace goes. The Dolphins would have to accept $9.6 million in dead money for either trading him or cutting him, but they'd actually create $2.5 million in cap space.

If the run defense doesn't improve, if his coverage doesn't improve, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe could be jettisoned. It would result in a $5.6 million cap savings in 2015, not to mention $7.8 million in 2016 and $7.2 million in 2017.

Phillip Wheeler is in that same boat. He didn't perform exceedingly well last year. He's not playing today due to a thumb injury. But if he doesn't step up and play well this year, he's a candidate for the pink slip. Cutting him next year is a cap neutral move.

By the way, a source told me this week the Dolphins are letting it be known that their future at linebacker is Chris McCain and Jordan Tripp. The team is quite pleased with both rookies and expects good things from them.

The replacement for Brandon Gibson is already on the roster. His name is Jarvis Landry. If Gibson continues to reach toward being 100 percent healthy and picks up where he left off last year, he's safe beyond this year. If not ... well, his replacement is on the roster.

DT-DE Jared Odrick is in the final year of his contract, RB Knowshon Moreno is on a one-year deal, and CB Cortland Finnegan and DT-DE Randy Starks can be cut before next season and the team can gain significant cap savings as a result.

The point is this team is not committed to a bunch of its so-called stars beyond this year. Just as it is not committed to its coaching staff.

This season's results will determine whether the staff and roster deserve to be kept together beyond this year or deserve to be rebuilt. It could go either way, in my opinion.

We begin to find out today.

There will be a live blog today. Check back before kickoff to join in. 

 

September 06, 2014

Jones, Jordan suspensions could be lifted under new drug policy

Representatives for safety Reshad Jones and defensive end Dion Jordan -- both serving suspensions under the current NFL performancing enhancing substance policy -- are monitoring the progress of an eventual agreement on a new policy because that new agreement could end both players' suspension immediately, The Miami Herald has learned.

The NFL and the NFL Players Association have been negotiating the terms of a new policy covering performance enhancing drugs. ProFootballTalk.com today reported a new policy could be moments away from being agreed to and announced.

That new policy could end the suspensions for both Dolphins defensive players because NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has said the union is seeking to reverse suspensions that occurred this year based on the previous policy.

Players suspended for PEDs in the old (current) policy are suspended for the first flagged positive test. But multiple national media outlets have reported that under the new drug policy, certain stimulants would be characterized under the league's policy for substance abuse.

And under the substance abuse guidelines, a player enters the treatment program with the first positive test but is not suspended. The substance abuse program includes counseling, and increased testing but more than one positive test must occur before the player reaches the suspension phase.

As it applies to Jones and Jordan, it is possible they would be remanded into the substance abuse program and required to undergo more frequent testing and counseling, but their four-game suspensions would be voided if Smith and the NFLPA gets its wish.

The devil will be in the details as it is unknown what substances under the current PEDs policy Jordan and Jones tested positive for and whether all postive tests under the old policy would be remanded to the substance abuse policy. Sources for both players declined over the past two days to specify what substances they tested positive for.

Jones recently complained that his positive test -- which was appealed and upheld -- was not for "anything that helped me play better," he said. "That's not me. If that was me, I would have really gone out and gotten big and faster but I didn't. I don't have to do that."

Keys to the game: Patriots at Dolphins

I think the Patriots win this game. Surprisingly, I see it as an offensive fireworks game.

I'm thinking that Bill Lazor's offense, new to the opposition, lights up the Pats. But I also think the New England offense takes advanage of a Miami defense that is without two starters (Reshad Jones and Phillip Wheeler) and without a significant backup (Dion Jordan).

I'm picking the Pats, 35-31 over the Dolphins.

Here are the keys to the game:

When the Patriots pass the football: Tom Brady, 37, said recently he would retire, “when I suck.” Well, that issue begins to be determined against Miami’s defense that in the last meeting turned Brady away from a potential winning passing touchdown. Michael Thomas had an interception in the end zone to seal Miami’s victory last December but Brady did throw for 364 yards in the game while throwing to luminaries such as Austin Collie and Josh Boyce. Brady will have his full complement of receivers this game, including tight end Rob Gronkowski. The question is how much will Gronkowski play and in what situations? He is perhaps the most difficult red zone matchup problem in the AFC. The Dolphins have three new starters – cornerback Cortland Finnegan, and safeties Jimmy Wilson and Louis Delmas -- in the secondary. The team has also revamped its nickel package. ADVANTAGE: New England .

When the Patriots run the football: The Patriots may deny it, but losing LeGarrette Blount in the offseason hurts the running game. Yes, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are still on the team, but which of those guys is the 235-pound guy who is also fast enough to return kicks like Blount was? Vereen is more third-down pass catcher -- a good one. Ridley has had fumble problems. And Bolden’s history is that of a solid backup, but nothing more. The Patriots have to overcome a significant shakeup in their offensive line. Their coach of the past three decades, Dante Scarnecchia, is now retired and five-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay. So a unit that has long been strength is a question. The Dolphins believe their defensive front is a strength and they believe they will cause some confusion by playing multiple fronts during the game. The team’s run defense has, however, been in decline the past two years. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins pass the football: It’s a new day for the Miami offense. There were will be motion where there was little last year. There will be quick, timing routes and throws where last year was based on waiting for plays to develop. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is expected to get the ball out on time and to the right place. You might say this may be more a safe and horizontal attack. But it is designed to keep the QB from getting hit too often. Tight end Charles Clay has been an object of attention for Bill Belichick in the past. New Dolphins offensive coordinator Bill Lazor believes if that’s going to be the New England approach again, it will create opportunities for his receivers. To which Belichick might respond, “We added Darrelle Revis in the offseason.” He’s good. DVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football: The Dolphins will finally put their cut blocking, zone blocking new offensive line on display. And it will be Knowshon Moreno, who played for Denver last year, carrying much of the load with Lamar Miller getting work in a secondary role in multiple packages designed to limit his need to make decisions at the line of scrimmage and instead feature him in space where his speed is an asset. The Patriots can show a 3-4 and 4-3 front but the key here is that Vince Wilfork, who missed much of last year with a torn Achilles, and middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, who also missed much of the season because of an injury, are back in the lineup regardless of fronts. And they are the team’s best run defenders. ADVANTAGE: New England.

Special teams: Assuming kicker Caleb Sturgis can stay healthy through warm-ups, the Dolphins have questions to answer on kick and punt returns. Simply, Jarvis Landry is going to handle both duties, replacing Marcus Thigpen, who is coincidently on the Patriots practice squad now. Landry is a rookie and thus an unknown in his first NFL game. That doesn’t suggest the moment might be too big for him, but untested is untested until, well, it is not. The Patriots have traditionally performed well against Miami and they are coming with a veteran unit that gets Patrick Chung back. There’s also this: How much information did Thigpen give the Patriots about Miami’s special teams schemes? ADVANTAGE: New England.

Coaching: Joe Philbin has seemingly upgraded his coaching staff with the addition of proven offensive line coach John Benton, proven linebacker coach Mark Duffner, solid offensive line assistant coach Jack Bicknell Jr. and the enthusiasm and confidence of Bill Lazor as the offensive coordinator. The Patriots, meanwhile, are diminished by the loss of Scarnecchia. But then there’s Bill Belichick. Interestingly, Belichick has been concerned about the Dolphins ability to unveil new things he didn’t prepare his team for based on the unknowns the new Miami offense might unveil. ADVANTAGE: New England.

September 05, 2014

Friday injury report: Wheeler out as expected

Phillip Wheeler is not playing Sunday. If you are a regular here, you know I said I didn't see how he could play Sunday without a healthy opposable thumb on his right hand. It was fractured.

Look for the Dolphins to use either Jelani Jenkins or Jason Trusnik or both, depending on the defensive package, in the game. Many of you will ask why not rookie Chris McCain?

He's coming, but he's a rookie and he's also banged up, dealing with a hip issue.

Guard Billy Turner is doubtful with his foot injury.

For the Patriots, QB Tom Brady (calf) and tight end Rob Gronkowski (knee) are listed as questionable. They are both expected to play.

Here is the full injury report:

Salguero 2014 NFL standings predictions

The NFL regular season has begun and on Sunday the Miami Dolphins kick off against the New England Patriots. It's going to be an exciting season, as most NFL seasons are.

But if you don't feel like paying constant attention between now and January, go ahead and take the time off because this is how it's going to go, in my opinion.

These are my 2014 NFL standings in advance. Wolf them down:

AFC East

Team                   2013 record      2014 prediction             Comment

1. New England     12-4                  12-4                 Still division's best QB and coach.

2. Miami                8-8                    8-8                 Dolphins migrate to the mean.

3. NY Jets              8-8                    8-8                 See their CBs? It's a passing league.

4. Buffalo              6-10                   6-10               See their QB? It's a passing league.

 AFC North

Team                  2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. Baltimore          8-8                  10-6                   Healthy, deeper than in '13.

2. Cincinnati         11-5                 9-7                    Not a believer in this team.

3. Pittsburgh         8-8                  9-7                     Better but D is still old.

4. Cleveland          4-12                4-12                   Must...pass...ball...oh, can't.

AFC South

Team                    2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. Indianapolis        11-5               11-5                  Luck gets better, and better, and ...

2. Tennessee           7-9                 6-10                   Locker does not get better.

3. Houston              2-14               5-11                  See their QB? It's a passing league.

4. Jacksonville        4-12                5-11                Irrelevant until Henne gets the clipboard.

AFC West

Team                   2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. San Diego           9-7                   12-4              They were hot late last year.

2. Denver              13-3                    11-5             No run game, Welker suspended.

3. Kansas City        11-5                    6-10              Mirage of '13 evaporates.

4. Oakland             4-12                   5-11            Undisciplined with aged talent.

NFC East

Team                 2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. Eagles              10-6                  11-5              Kelly's crew picks up where it left off.

2. Redskins           3-13                   9-7              RG3 is for real despite '13.

3. NY Giants           7-9                   6-10            New O and Eli Manning are not a fit.

4. Cowboys             8-8                   4-12          Jerry will feel nostalgia for 8-8.

NFC North

Team                2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. Green Bay        8-7-1                 10-6            They don't play Seattle every week.

2. Detroit             7-9                    9-7              Discipline works.

3. Chicago            8-8                    7-9              Offense improves, D regresses (again).

4. Minnesota         5-10-1               6-10            Many QBs, none proven starters.

NFC South

Team                 2013 record      2014 prediction                Comment

1. New Orleans     11-5                  11-5            Order restored.

2. Tampa Bay        4-12                  9-7             Have talent and Lovie can coach.

3. Carolina            12-4                  7-9             Fine D, but Cam can't do it alone on O.

4. Atlanta              4-12                  6-10             Better but still not good.

NFC West

Team                 2013 record      2014 prediction                     Comment

1. Seattle             13-3                  13-3           QB, OL are better and D brings the boom.

2. San Fran.          12-4                 10-6           OL isn't great anymore, D is missing key pieces.

3. Arizona            10-6                  7-9            OL is better, D is worse.

4. St. Louis            7-9                   4-12         Bradford on IR, season over. Again.