Alain Poupart, Associate Editor for Dolphin Digest, did not mince words when sizing up the performance of the Dolphins' offensive line last week in Atlanta.
"Offensively, the biggest probably was the offensive line. The expensive offensive line. Bill Parcells won Super Bowls with the Giants behind a suffocating defense and a physical offensive line, and that's the same blueprint the Dolphins would like to utilize. They have spent the money on the offensive line, shelling out big bucks over the last two years to Jake Long, Justin Smiley, Vernon Carey and Jake Grove.
"Those guys clearly didn't produce against Atlanta. Long needs to be singled out, not only because he's the highest-paid guy on the line, but also he plays the most important position. It was clear on this day he couldn't handle the speed of John Abraham, who fooled him with a change-up on one play by bull-rushing him and knocking him over. Long better buckle up at practice this week because Dwight Freeney is next."
Long struggled last week vs. John Abraham
Doug Benc/Getty Images
In a similar tone, Orlando Alzugaray of Miami Sports Radio 560 points the finger at several players on the line: "You spend over 150 million dollars for an offensive line and this is the result? Like I've said before the jury is still out on center Jake Grove who hasn't been impressive in training camp or preseason. The real surprise against the Falcons was the poor play of tackles Jake Long (two sacks allowed) and Vernon Carey."
Now the question confronting Dolphins Head Coach Tony Sparano is: How to correct this? According to the Miami Herald, Sparano wants Long and Carey to "shorten the distance between them and the incoming defender so they aren't making their initial contact only a few yards away from quarterback Chad Pennington in certain situations. The point of engagement needs to occur sooner." Sparano told the Herald that the problems could be fixed and stressed better communication.
Both Long and Carey have major battles on their hands as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis come to town. After a rookie season that saw him earn a spot as a Pro Bowl alternative, Long's inconsistent play in the preseason and opener are starting cause whispers of a potential sophomore slump for the 2008 first overall draft pick. It's likely too early for talk like that.
Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel has the details: "Jake Long didn't have a good preseason, whiffing twice on rushers. It was surprising in that you never saw such stuff from him as a rookie. That's why you hope the opener isn't the start of a sophomore slump. On both plays he was out-muscled and then lost his balance. The first by John Abraham, he simply got steamrolled. In the second, Kroy Biermann knocked Long back and off-balance, then ran around him. Another play, Abraham beat Long, and then flushed Long [sic] out of the pocket for an incompletion."
Long's struggles in the opener are even more surprising when you consider the stat that he only gave up 2.5 sacks all of last season. Freeney brings speed and a huge array of pass-rush moves to this battle. He's coming off a solid Week 1 performance that saw him easily got the best of Jaguars rookie LT Eugene Monroe by spinning, swimming, and bull rushing to a sack and a couple of pressures.
Freeney and Mathis affect a game in so many ways. As a result of the pressure, quarterback David Garrard hardly ever had time to do anything beyond a three-step drop. The Jags were also limited by having to give the tackles help, thus taking an option out of the offense. In the end, Jacksonville averaged just 3.9 yards per pass play.
While all eyes will be on the marquee matchup of Freeney versus Long, the battle on the other end should also be a good one. The 6-foot-5, 340 pound RT Vernon Carey shows good initial quickness for his size. His powerful punch at the point of attack allows him to get the upper hand on opposing linemen. Carey is tough and versatile. He started all 16 games on the left side in 2007 before moving to the right side last season. These attributes are some of the reasons why Pro Football Weekly listed Carey as one of the elite right tackles in the league.
If he had his choice each week, Vernon would likely prefer to face bull rushers over speed. He anchors very well against bull-rushers. He, however, can be beat laterally. As Coach Sparano noted above its important that his tackles engage early. Carey has struggled reacting to speed moves off the edge. If that's happening on Monday Night, Mathis has the speed to gain the advantage and avoid Carey's initial punch.
Last week, in an effort to disguise looks the Colts allowed Mathis and DE Raheem Brock to stand up prior to the snap and move from side to side. This is just the type of lateral movement that has given Carey problems in the past. So keep an eye on that.
For Indianapolis, Freeney and Mathis are still the top two pass rushing options. However there is a new guy in town . . . Mr. Blitz. In Week 1, the Colts brought the blitz at least 10 times; bringing linebackers and safeties to complement their front four.
The Indianapolis Star talked to MLB Gary Brackett about the increased blitzing. "That's about 10 more than we did last year," he said, exaggerating to make his point. "Last year that wasn't really our philosophy; not blitzing. We did have some blitzes in, but more so run blitzes."
Miami will have to adjust scout team looks. How the Dolphins adjust will dictate just how often Coyer sends the extra pass rusher and from where?
The Colts will count on Johnson to help stop the Fins' run game
Harry How/Getty Images
Last week pass protection was not only part of the Dolphins' offensive line problems. RBs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for a total of 82 yards on 17 carries. The thinking in Miami is that the offseason acquisition of free-agent center Jake Grove from Oakland and the re-insertion of a healthy OG Donald Thomas into the starting lineup it would allow them to do more between the tackles running. Remember, last year Miami struggled running between tackle so much that the coaches implemented the Wildcat offense out of necessity.
That up-the-gut, punishing running style may not have happened much in Week 1, but do not expect the Dolphins to abandon ship after one poor performance — especially with the Colts normally porous run defense coming to town. Philip Wilson of the Indianapolis Star notes that while the Colts run defense was not world beaters last week, they did turn in an overall solid performance. Wilson writes, "Jacksonville managed 96 yards on 22 carries, or 4.4 per carry, which isn't stout but compares much more favorably to the gaudy numbers of onslaughts past. That the Colts, without suspended DT Ed Johnson, held Maurice Jones-Drew under 100 yards was particularly impressive."
Colts DT Ed Johnson will be back this week. The ability of Johnson and his interior line mates Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir to get penetration is vital. Look for the penetration and blitzes to come over the middle.
As noted above, Dolphins C Jake Grove has had some struggles so far in Miami and the Colts will want to test him. Grove, on the flip side, can play with an aggressive style that should open up more running lanes in the middle of the line. The Dolphins are still waiting for that aspect of Grove's to show itself.
LDT Antonio Johnson is coming off a solid Week 1 performance that saw him earn a game ball. Johnson, who was picked up by the Colts last season from the Tennessee Titans' practice squad, started the Jacksonville game and responded with nine total tackles (five solo). "(Johnson) played very, very well," Indianapolis team president Bill Polian said." Johnson will need a repeat peformance this weeks as Miami RG Donald Thomas can be a monster in the run game and is probably the team's best in-line mauler.
When they do bounce it outside look for LG Justin Smiley to be leading the way, Smiley is the unit's top pulling guard. The ability of Colt linebackers to get off those blocks will determine if a three-yard gain turns into a 10-yard gain or more.
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