Much has changed about the Dolphins’ offensive line in the wake of an historically dismal season in which they allowed a franchise-record 58 sacks --- eight more than any other NFL team last year --- and embarrassed themselves with a bullying scandal.
The unit has a new coach --- John Benton --- and five new starters who will suit up Sunday against New England, as center Mike Pouncey continues his recovery from hip surgery.
But this, regrettably, has not changed: The Dolphins’ first three opponents, the Patriots, Bills and Chiefs, possess potent pass-rushes.
The Patriots, who visit Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, ranked fifth in the NFL with 48 sacks last season and had 10 in two games against the Dolphins, including 2.5 by Chandler Jones.
The Bills, who play host to the Dolphins on Sept. 14, ranked second behind Carolina in sacks last season with 57 and had nine sacks in the two games against Miami, including a key Mario Williams sack that forced a fumble and set up the Bills' winning touchdown in their October meeting.
The Chiefs, who visit Sept. 21, ranked sixth in the NFL with 47 sacks.
All of that is cause for some concern even though the Dolphins’ pass protection in preseason was generally quite good, aside from missteps by Dallas Thomas and a few other backups.
Benton, who was praised for his work as the Houston Texans’ offensive line coach the past eight seasons, says he’s “fairly optimistic” that his group will hold up in pass protection early in the season against formidable defensive lines.
“We’re doing some good things in protection as a group,” Benton said. “It’s something I’ve really tried to push, that as a group, we can be a lot better than we can be as individuals. It’s very true on the offensive line. I think we’ll hold up well. I expect us to. We’ll be disappointed if we don’t.
“I think we’ve got very good matchups on the edge with both tackles and we can grind it out inside. We’ve got five NFL caliber players and that’s what’s expected of them.”
As for run blocking, the Dolphins were poor in their first two preseason games but excellent in rushing for 200 yards against Dallas in the third. So what does Benton expect?
“Potentially, we can be very good [at run blocking],” he said. “We’re a work in progress right now. With the scheme, with the techniques and as much as anything, putting five new guys together, there is so much feel, and how I’m working with this guy and that guy. That should develop fairly quickly. That’s one of the biggest question marks in my mind.”
Benton feels very good about his tackles. Left tackle Brandon Albert --- who was a Pro Bowler for Kansas City last season and signed a five-year, $47 million deal with the Dolphins --- “has been doing a very nice job for us, both on the field and in the room. He brings a maturity and professionalism.
“He has proven himself to be a top level NFL player and he has not dropped off a bit. He’s one of our better guys up front in terms of the run game, a tremendous athlete.”
What’s more, Benton said rookie starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James has exceeded his expectations.
“Very optimistic about Ja’Wuan,” he said. “I really feel good about him. We did a lot of homework on Ja’Wuan going into the draft, and at the same time, I’m still surprised mentally how much more mature he is and ready for this level than I would have expected.”
He said James is “further ahead” as a pass-blocker. His run-blocking is not a “deficiency but it’s not where it can get to potentially,” Benton said.
“He’s got some athleticism to make some of the tougher blocks as he hones his skills and develops more power. He’s not weak by any stretch. With technique, he’s come a long way since he got here and you will continue to see a steady incline in his improvement.”
Neither Albert (77 snaps) nor James (133) allowed a sack or quarterback hurry in preseason. Against New England, Albert often will be matched against Jones (11.5 sacks last season) and James against Rob Ninkovich (eight sacks).
More questions surround the interior of the line.
Center Samson Satele, signed Aug. 2 to fill in for Pouncey, has been “maybe even a little better than expected coming in,” Benton said. “He’s really been schooled over the years from a protection standpoint, which has helped us, in terms of running the show and getting everyone targeted.” He will have his hands full with Vince Wilfork on Sunday.
Asked about the chances Pouncey returns by the end of September --- Miami’s fourth game is Sept. 28 against Oakland --- Benton said, “I don’t know. Optimistically, there’s a chance that could happen. I don’t feel confident enough to say there’s any plan in the works.”
As for left guard, Benton likes Daryn Colledge, who signed June 30 after starting every game the past six seasons (four with Green Bay, the past two with Arizona).
“Daryn’s done a nice job for us,” he said. “Very intelligent player and he uses a lot of that in his game. He and Samson are blue collar, bring-your-lunch-pale type guys.”
It was surprising that Shelley Smith --- the starter at right guard --- played behind Dallas Thomas for two weeks earlier in camp, and Benton, laughing, admits “Shelley was perplexed by that, too.” He explained that happened because the staff liked what Thomas was doing early in camp and the battle at both guard spots “just had to run its course.”
Thomas lost the job after being dominated by Tampa Bay All-Pro Gerald McCoy. “Hopes are still high for Dallas,” Benton said.
But Smith is the more experienced player and graded out well as a run-blocker in St. Louis.
“Shelley is real athletic, not the biggest guy in the world,” Benton said. “Does a real good job getting to the second level, cutting guys off. Real quick feet.”
Even though the five starters haven’t played together very long, Colledge said: “Everyone is feeling good about how we’ve meshed. Everyone is comfortable. Other than Ja’Wuan, everyone has been [an NFL] starter. Brandon is a very good player. Samson has been a starter in this league. Shelley and I know how to play.”
FINS, HEAT TIDBITS
### Tom Brady missed Thursday's practice with a calf injury, but he told Westwood One tonight: "I'll be ready to go Sunday."
### Chris McCain, who said he was playing primarily linebacker when he came to the team, said he's now splitting his snaps evenly between linebacker and defensive end in a role similar to Dion Jordan's.
He might be needed at linebacker Sunday --- along with backups Jason Trusnik, Jonathan Freeny and Jelani Jenkins --- if Philip Wheeler is sidelined or limited by a thumb injury. The Dolphins list Freeny as Wheeler's backup. Wheeler has been practicing with covering on the entire hand, making tackling a challenge.
Koa Misi has been limited in practice by a shoulder injury, but it would be surprising if he doesn't play. Dannell Ellerbe is healthy.
### It always amuses us that in conference calls or news conferences with reporters before games against the Dolphins, Patriots coach Bill Belichick often goes down the Dolphins' entire roster and heaps lavish praise on individuals or units, sometimes both.
He even made time this week to single out long snapper John Denney: "Real good snapper, experienced." And yes, he mentioned Orleans Darkwa and Billy Turner, too.
### Bruce Gaston, the undrafted defensive tackle claimed by the Dolphins off waivers today, was with the Patriots only for a few days. But that's enough time for him to be able to give the Dolphins some insight into the Patriots' defensive game plan this week --- something Don Jones and Marcus Thigpen cannot share with the Patriots.
But Gaston won't have as much institutional knowledge as Jones or Thigpen would about their former team. Gaston, who played at Purdue, spent training camp with Arizona and was among the Cardinals' final cuts.
### There's a "free Reshad Jones" sign above Jones' locker stall during his four-game suspension. Alas, no "free Dion Jordan" sign by his locker.
### As expected, longtime Heat assistant coaches Ron Rothstein and Bob McAdoo were formally assigned to new positions Thursday. Rothstein, 71, announced he is retiring from coaching and will become a corporate liasion for the Heat and a studio analyst for the team's cablecasts on Sun Sports. McAdoo, 62, will become a community liaison and pro scout for the Heat.
Erik Spoelstra has explored adding a new assistant to his staff, with former Warriors and Kings coach Keith Smart reportedly under consideration. Spoelstra's bench also is expected to include lead assistant coach David Fizdale, along with Juwan Howard and/or Dan Craig.