The Dolphins won their third straight preseason game, 10-6 over Tampa Bay Thursday night, but it was far from a complete effort. For the second time in three games, the defense was strong, holding an opponent to under 10 points.
In fact, Miami limited the Bucs to 288 yards of total offense, and despite not forcing a single turnover, the Dolphins managed to keep Tampa Bay out of the end zone.
Of course, the Bucs were not fielding their top unit, with wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton both out. And Tampa Bay's offense isn't expected to light up the league in 2009.
The problem was, the Dolphins' offense was just as anemic as the Bucs'. Miami gained just 250 total yards, ran for only 79 yards against a rebuilding Tampa defense, and turned the ball over three times.
The first half was a disaster, as Miami did not gain a first down until the 11:27 mark of the second quarter, and the first three possessions gained just 29 yards.
Chad Pennington was shaky until the end of the half, when he guided the team 53 yards in 10 plays in the final 1:45.
A Dan Carpenter field goal put Miami on the board, and the Dolphins went into the locker room trailing 6-3.
Pennnington came out firing in the second half, rolling to his right and hitting rookie Brian Hartline for 55 yards to the Bucs 6.
Two plays later, Pennington rolled right, turned back to his left under pressure, and found a wide open Anthony Fasano in the end zone for the winning score.
Pennington finished 9-of-16 for 128 yards and a TD.
Hartline, who started alongside Ted Ginn, made his case to line up with the first unit with a team-high 79 yards on three catches.
The running game was not up to snuff though, as the Dolphins struggled to gain yardage up the middle.
Lex Hilliard again led the team in rushing with 32 yards on 11 carries, but he almost cost Miami the game when he fumbled as the Dolphins were driving inside the Bucs' 25.
Surprisingly, the Dolphins didn't run the "Wildcat" at all, after using it five times for 53 yards in last week's win against Carolina. Rookie quarterback Pat White also did not see any playing time, though that should change when the Dolphins empty the bench in their last preseason game next week.
For the third straight week, the special teams gave up a big return. Clifton James ran back a kickoff for 30 yards, and Sammie Stroughter had a 25-yard effort.
There was some good though, as Patrick Cobbs came through the line untouched to block a Dirk Johnson punt at the end of the game's first series. But reserve linebacker Charlie Anderson dropped the ball, and Tampa Bay recovered in Miami territory for a first down. The drive ended in a 29-yard field goal by Mike Nugent.
The second half was much better, as the Dolphins' kick return coverage was excellent, though Davone Bess could not take advantagte of good blocking on one return because he couldn't turn the corner. Bess had just six yards on four returns on the night.
Chad Henne relieved Pennington in the third quarter, but he did not play well, completing 2-of-8 passes for 55 yards. He also had a bad interception inside the Tampa Bay 15 when Miami was threatening to put the game away.
The defense got off to a shaky start, as Byron Leftwich hit on 9-of-17 passes for 100 yards, but he missed three more open receivers that could have amounted to a huge day.
The run defense also struggled early, as Cadillac Williams gained 54 yards on eight carries. Earnest Graham came in and picked up where Williams left off, pounding for 39 yards on five carries, including a 27-yard run where four Dolphins missed tackles.
The defense got better as the game wore on, and did not allow a TD.
As for the cornerback battle, all signs point to rookie Sean Smith being the starter opening day. Despite missing last week's game with flu-like symptoms, Smith was back in the starting lineup Thursday.
Against the Bucs, he was targeted seven times and allowed three completions, all on passes from Leftwich to receiver Maurice Stovall for 34 yards. Smith also had one pass breakup and one tackle.
Twice Smith appeared to be beaten -- including once when Brian Clark was wide open in the end zone -- but both times Leftwich overthrew the target.
Fellow rookie Vontae Davis played the second half, starting opposite Smith. He was targeted seven times for four completions -- all coming off the arm of rookie Josh Freeman for 37 yards.
Davis broke up three passes, including the final one on fourth down, which he should have intercepted but dropped. He also got away with an illegal hands to the face on the play. All told, Davis was more active with five tackles.
Considering who the completions were against, it's safe to say that Smith should be the opening day starter.
The defensive line didn't get much pressure against the Bucs' first unit, though offensive line should be one of Tampa Bay's strengths this year. It wasn't until the second- and third-stringers entered the game -- and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni started to call blitzes -- that the Dolphins were able to generate any pressure.
The most impressive performance amongst the first-stringers was Kendall Langford, who hit Leftwich as he was about to pass on the opening series and knocked the ball loose. Tampa Bay ultimately recovered, but had to settle for a field goal. Langford also got nice penetration to stop Williams behind the line of scrimmage. He finished with one tackle and one assist to go with his sack and forced fumble.
Paul Soliai continued his strong preseason with a sack on Luke McCown that resulted in a four-yard loss in the second quarter, and Nate Jones had another sack on the corner blitz.
In all, the Dolphins had four sacks, three coming against the Bucs' backups. Tampa Bay did a good job of picking up Joey Porter and making him a nonfactor, while Jason Taylor was held in check as well. Taylor was a step late on a blitz that resulted in a rushed McCown pass, and he finished with three tackles and an assist on the night.
It wasn't the performance Coach Tony Sparano wanted, particularly offensively, but the Dolphins have another chance to open up the playbook against New Orleans next Thursday.
(Photo: Yahoo Images)