Five questions the Dolphins’ joint practices with the Buccaneers can help answer

·5 min read
Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

Wide receiver Tyreek Hill has been one of the stars in the first two weeks of Dolphins training camp. The six-time Pro Bowler has routinely had his way in drills, whether that be in 1-on-1 drills or 11-on-11 action. However, his matchups with one player — cornerback Xavien Howard — haven’t been as fruitful. So, Hill won’t mind putting their must-watch clashes on hold to practice against another team this week.

“I’m really sick of going against ‘X’ man,” Hill said last week. “He’s been locking me up in practice. I’m really eager to go against somebody else. Somebody that I’ve played twice. I really can’t wait to get to Tampa, and I know the guys are very eager to get down there as well to play. Everybody is excited.”

On Wednesday, the Dolphins will hold their first of two joint practices against the Buccaneers ahead of their preseason opener on Saturday night. For many veterans, it will be invaluable reps against an opponent as they won’t play much, if at all, in the preseason game. For young players, it’s another opportunity to impress coaches in the competition for remaining roster spots.

Here are five questions the pair of practices can help the Dolphins answer:

Is Tua’s deep-ball connection legit?

For all the talk about quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s arm strength and his ability to throw the deep ball, it’s been a matter of when, not if, during his start to training camp. He’s quickly developed a strong rapport with Hill and continued his connection with second-year player Jaylen Waddle, finding the pair for multiple big gains each practice. Tagovailoa and the offense have had their hiccups with a new scheme, and the Dolphins defense has played a role in that, too. Overall, though, Tagovailoa has looked confident and decisive in a scheme led by head coach Mike McDaniel that has been friendly to quarterbacks through the years.

With the Buccaneers, Tagovailoa will face a defense that’s not much different stylistically than the one he has s faced in Miami Gardens. Led by now-head coach Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay blitzed more than any team last season, bringing extra rushers on 40.8 percent of opposing dropbacks, according to Pro Football Reference. The Dolphins ranked second, blitzing on 39.6 percent of dropbacks. The Buccaneers have playmakers on every level of their defense and especially in the secondary. It’s unknown whether Tagovailoa will play in Saturday’s game, but a good set of practices would be a positive sign for the offense’s outlook this season.

How much progress has the offensive line made?

McDaniel said the position group with the toughest acclimation period in his new offense is typically the offensive line, as it has to unlearn previously taught blocking techniques and instill an attacking mind-set in the zone run scheme. Through the first set of training camp practices, the offensive line has not looked like the turnstile it often was in 2021, and that is reason enough for hope. The impact of Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead has been visible when he practices, and the entire line has opened lanes for chunk gains on the ground.

The most pressing concern on the offensive line remains Connor Williams’ transition to center. He has had several inaccurate snaps that have thrown off the timing of plays, and he is still settling into a position he has never played in an NFL regular-season game. He will be tested by one of the league’s top defensive tackles, Vita Vea, as well as veteran addition Akiem Hicks. Shaq Barrett, who led the NFL in sacks in 2019, will also be a handful for tackles Armstead and Austin Jackson.

Has the defensive front truly taken a step forward?

No collective position group has been as impressive in training camp as the Dolphins’ defensive front. Every practice, multiple players seem to make plays, stuffing runs in the backfield and applying pressure on the quarterback. The Buccaneers have questions along their offensive line, with new starters at both guard positions. Center Ryan Jensen sustained a severe knee injury on the second day of practice, forcing Tampa Bay to insert a third new starter in Robert Hainsey. With uncertainty up front, the Dolphins’ defensive line could be primed to take advantage and disrupt the flow of an otherwise potent Buccaneers offense.

Can the young cornerbacks continue their positive camps?

No two players have had tougher assignments this summer than Noah Igbinoghene and Trill Williams. With Byron Jones (Achilles) on the physically-unable-to-perform list and Howard taking limited reps in 11-on-11 work, Igbinoghene and Williams have had plenty of snaps opposite Hill and Waddle, two of the fastest players in the league. The two corners have given up big plays but have shown tremendous resiliency, making many plays of their own.

Their impending matchups against Tampa Bay’s wide receivers offer a bit of a change in style. While Hill and Waddle are known as speedy deep threats, receivers such as Mike Evans and Julio Jones are bigger, more physical wideouts. The veteran pass catchers should be another helpful measuring stick for Igbinoghene and Williams.

How does McDaniel look matching wits against a top defensive mind?

McDaniel will call plays as head coach of the Dolphins and he’s been preparing for the game-day responsibility by relaying calls to Tagovailoa via walkie-talkie. He has gotten good practice each day by facing defensive coordinator Josh Boyer and he’ll get another test in Bowles, one of the league’s top defensive minds. The pair of joint practices should feature many game-like situations, giving McDaniel the opportunity to tinker with certain play calls and get a feel for where his offense is most comfortable.