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Game review: Miami Dolphins 10, Bucs 6

The good: Brian Hartline earned a starting WR job. Well, he wasn't actually annointed by the coaching staff, but trust me, he's going to be a starter in the regular-season opener at Atlanta in two weeks.

The kick return team also did a fairly good job, averaging 30.3 yards on three returns.

The bad: A much, much longer list for the Dolphins during Thursday night's 10-6 victory over Tampa Bay. 

"I would assess it this way," coach Tony Sparano said. "Our defense was on the field too long and our offense wasn't on the field long enough."

You think, coach? The Dolphins, ineffective on offense much of the first half, ran a total of 54 plays. The Bucs, relying on an offense that looked good-not-great while Byron Leftwich was in the game, ran 74 plays and was electrifying by comparison.

During the time Leftwich was in there, the Miami defense looked terrible. Miami defenders mounted precious little pressure on the quarterback. And the secondary blew a couple of coverages some times, while failing to make plays at other times even as defenders were draped around receivers. Luckily Leftwich is a mediocre QB so he didn't make the Dolphins pay for their problems.

"They converted too many third downs," Sparano said. "I have to watch the film and reserve judgment on that. But I thought they missed a few receivers at times during the course of that thing. I thought our guys battled hard and kind of bent but didn't break. We came up with a few good rushes and hit the quarterback a couple of times in certain situations in the course of the game."

This is where I remind you the Bucs did not play their two starting receivers. Antonio Bryant is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Michael Clayton is recovering from a hamstring injury. Some dude named Stovall torched the Miami secondary for 73 yards on six catches in the first half. 

"We have to get off the field on third down," strong safety Yeremiah Bell said. "A completion is a completion no matter who you're against, no matter who's in the game. Like I said, the concepts stay the same, it's just that the first guys are normally better receivers. At the same time we have to make the plays and get off the field."

The ugly: Chad Henne may indeed become the starter at some point this year and more likely in 2010. But he's not ready for that baton to be passed quite yet -- not if this game was an indicator. Henne completed 2 of 8 passes for 55 yards with one interception.

Let me give you some perspective on Henne's night. His passer rating was 16.1. He completed only one more pass to his teammates than to players on the other team. It was a struggle.

"I wasn't excited about how we threw the ball as a whole tonight," Sparano said when asked specifically about Henne.

The Miami defense was disappointing in that it seems a step slow a lot. The rush gets there just after the passer releases the ball. The cornerbacks stick a hand in just after the receiver pulls in the pass. And there was too much shoddy tackling.

One more thing on the ugly. Lex Hilliard did a lot of things well the last seven months to earn a spot on the Dolphins' 53 man roster. And he might still earn that spot. But Thursday night did not help. He was ineffective running the ball, gaining only 32 yards on 11 carries for a 2.9 yard per carry average. He also fumbled, which is a transgression Sparano detests.

Did I mention Brian Hartline played well? I'm telling you he's the starter after he caught three passes for 79 yards. I asked Sparano if Hartline is the starter, because it sounds better coming from the head coach than a goofy columnist. But the coach wouldn't give up the money quote. 

"I got to watch the film," Sparano cliched. "I like what he did, OK? He did make some big plays, which is critical. One of the things we have to do a better job of on offense is we can't take 15 plays to score every touchdown. We have to get some chunk yards and Hartline was able to make some chunk yards tonight. [Greg] Camarillo was able to make a catch out there one time, too, but Hartline was able to get down the field that way, so that was positive."

Well, the head coach didn't give me what I wanted to hear. So I asked Hartline if he has adjusted his goals from simply making the club to winning himself the starting job. And ... bingo!

"Absolutely," he told me. "There's no reason why I can't ... I'm going to try to set goals to maybe so high I can't reach them. I have high goals and I'm always readjusting my goals. But as you saw tonight, we have a lot of good receivers on this team and any rotation or how we're going to use them, that's going to be the coach's thoughts. But I'm changing goals. Probably daily.

"There's a lot of things I know I'm going to learn from this film going against guys like ronde and other guys. There's stuff that I see that maybe you guys might not that when I get a chance to watch the film, I can correct and do better on."

Can I throw this out at you guys without starting an insurrection? Miami's two most productive receivers now, today, as you read this, are Brian Hartline and Greg Camarillo. Camarillo is still not at the level he reached just prior to his ACL injury last season. But he's progressing and he finds a way to make a play almost every game.

Ted Ginn Jr.? Almost invisible for the second consecutive game. He had one catch for 19 yards.

"The coverage was dictating where the ball was going and [Hartline] was able to make some plays for us and the ball was going his way quite a bit," quarterback Chad Pennington said. "We're just working on trying to get better. We got some things we have to clean up, polish up and get a little bit better which is disappointing. We've been doing pretty well on third down, made that an emphasis and tonight we didn't do a good job. And that's how you keep your defense off the field and how you keep drives going and create some momentum so we have to do a better job there."

Pennington started painfully slow, missing on five of his first nine passes, which is like a personal disaster for a guy who completed 67.4 percent of his passes last season. But Pennington recovered nicely and finished the night 9 of 16 for 128 yards and one TD. His passer rating was 103.1.

Finally, I've been hearing a lot this morning about how the Dolphins are excused for looking bad in the areas where they struggled because, well, they didn't prepare for the game. They didn't game plan. They didn't have much time between games.

Fair. But ...

They played an opponent that didn't prepare for the game, that didn't game plan, and didn't have much time between games.

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