The preseason showdown between the Miami Dolphins’ defensive front and the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line will be a star-studded clash of titans, and the results should serve as a phenomenal measuring stick for what the Dolphins can accomplish in 2016.
The tale of the tape heading into Friday night’s battle between the Cowboys and Dolphins reads like a heavyweight fight. Dallas, widely considered to have the best offensive line in the NFL, will hit the field with 3 Pro Bowlers in tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zach Martin and center Travis Frederick. Miami, in turn, will counter with 3 four-time Pro Bowlers in Cameron Wake, Mario Williams and Ndamukong Suh.
Yet, despite all the marquee names and individual accomplishments, Williams, one of the newest member of the Dolphins’ defense, believes success, be it against the Cowboys or any other team, will ultimately depend on teamwork.
“There is a lot of talent across the board, and the most important thing with talent is you have to have continuity,” Williams recently explained to Steven Wine of the Associated Press. “And we have to learn how to play together and play off of one another.”
Laying the groundwork for that coordination should begin against the Cowboys since all three Miami stars sat out the first preseason game against the New York Giants. At this point, the only possible question mark is Wake, who is still recovering from the torn Achilles he suffered last season and, as such, isn’t guaranteed to be on the field against Dallas. That said, his presence would make a significant difference.
The Dolphins were without Wake for more than half the 2015 season, and it showed. Miami tallied just 31 sacks through 16 games. Yet, before he went down to injury, Wake was on pace to finish the season with a career high 16 sacks.
So how did the 34-year-old DE get through his grueling rehabilitation to make it back onto the field in 2016?
“Get to the quarterback. That was the only thing on my mind,” Wake explained to the Miami Herald’s Adam Beasley, leaving no doubt he still has the focus and intensity that made him a star.
“Get to the quarterback. That was the only thing on my mind,”
Just as important as Wake’s return is the addition of defensive end Mario Williams. Williams could prove to be a marked improvement over Olivier Vernon, whom the Dolphins lost in free agency, given that Miami’s new wide-nine defensive scheme is designed to maximize the effectiveness of speedy pass rushers like the former Buffalo Bills standout. Yet, no matter how improved the defensive attack may be, whatever pressure the Dolphins manage will be hard earned. Dallas’ formidable front five gave up just 33 sacks last season.
That said, Miami’s pass rush isn’t the only thing that will be heavily scrutinized in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s film room. The Dolphins are looking to improve their run defense, which ranked 28th in the league last season, giving up a staggering 2019 yards. Here again, Dallas should prove a genuine test.
The Cowboys’ running game, spearheaded by 1000-yard rusher Darren McFadden, ranked 9th in the NFL last year with 1890 yards, but it is the offensive line that is the true engine behind that success. Thanks to outstanding blocking, the team’s three leading rushers, McFadden, Joseph Randle and Robert Turbin, all averaged over 4 yards per carry. If that weren’t daunting enough, the addition of Ohio State rookie Ezekiel Elliott, considered by most as the best all-around back in the draft, should make the Cowboy’s ground attack even harder to stop.
Dallas’ offensive line also features second-year guard La’el Collins, a first-round talent from LSU, who tumbled out of the 2015 draft due to a police investigation into the murder of a pregnant woman with whom he’d had a previous relationship. The Dolphins briefly pursued Collins, but lost out to the Cowboys. Yet, in an ironic twist, Miami eventually landed Mississippi lineman Laremy Tunsil, who also took a dramatic, albeit, less drastic fall than Collins in this year’s draft after a video of him allegedly smoking pot was released online just minutes before the draft began.
Tunsil, as it happens, is also the biggest question mark on the Dolphins’ offensive line. To this point in camp, Adam Gase has chosen to focus on cross training the first rounder at both left guard and left tackle with the second team. Nonetheless, after starting guard Dallas Thomas’ poor showing against the New York Giants this past Friday, many south Florida fans are hoping Tunsil will be elevated to the starting lineup against the Cowboys.
Whether it comes this week, or later, Tunsil’s ascension to the first team seems inevitable. Despite first game jitters, the rookie’s pass blocking was solid against the Giants, and he consistently reached the second level on running plays, exhibiting the kind of speed, strength and decisiveness that Dallas Thomas has never shown. The Cowboys would be a reasonable choice as Tunsil’s first crack at a starting defensive line. Like the Dolphins, Dallas managed a less than impressive 31 sacks last year, and as such should not prove overwhelming to the rookie.
According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Chris Perkins, Tunsil’s fellow offensive linemen believe he is ready to step up.
“Athleticism and aggressiveness,” were the words guard Billy Turner used earlier this summer to describe Tunsil, while guard Jamil Douglass echoed those sentiments by stating, “It’s crazy how athletic he is.”
But the greatest praise came from Branden Albert, the man who Tunsil is expected to eventually replace at left tackle.
"“He is a more freakish athlete than I ever was,” said the two time Pro Bowler, according to Andy Cohen of the Dolphins’ official site. “Don’t get me wrong. I was real good as a rookie, but this kid has a chance to be dominant. He can make the Pro Bowl this season. Who knows, he could make it 14 times before he’s through. He’s that good.”"
In addition to helping protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was sacked 45 times in 2015, Tunsil could also provide a boost to Miami’s rushing attack. His ability to get out ahead of running backs could prove crucial against the Cowboys, who ranked 9th against the run last year. In turn, the Dolphins ground game was ranked 23rd in the league with a paltry 1496 yards.
The addition of Tunsil to the starting lineup would bring the total of first rounder on the Dolphins’ offensive line one to four, as he would join Albert, right guard Ja’Wan James, and three time Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey. Yet, regardless of whether Tunsil starts or Wake plays, Dolphins’ fans will, no doubt, be glued to the trench wars in Dallas. For those battles will be the best early gauge of just how far the offensive and defensive lines will carry Miami in 2016.