Dolphins O-line responds to criticism

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
DAVIE, Fla. -- Two weeks into the season, Miami Dolphins ridicule had resumed. The wait-and-see grace period was over.

New football operations department, new general manager, new head coach, half a new roster ... the Dolphins didn't look any different than the version that went 1-15 last year.

Derision was spread thickly and impartially. But the place it stung most of all in the Dolphins locker room was among the offensive linemen. Their running attack was nil. Sacks were plentiful.

"People were ragging on the O-line pretty bad," rookie left tackle Jake Long said.

Rags to rushes was the line's theme last week. The Dolphins exploded in Week 3 with a 38-13 frolic over the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

Most of the attention was trained on the captivating single-wing Wildcat offense the Dolphins unveiled. But the offensive line controlled the game regardless of the formation.

"They had something to prove in the game, no doubt about it," said Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, a long-time offensive line assistant. "You take criticism for a couple weeks about not running the ball, offensive linemen take that personally, offensive line coaches take that personally. And they should."

In one afternoon's work, against one of the NFL's best front sevens and arguably the most fearsome defensive line, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams each tripled his rushing yardage output for the season.

Brown ran 17 times for 113 yards and four touchdowns. Williams ran 16 times for 98 yards.

"Did anybody give us any chance, really, to play like that?" left guard Justin Smiley said. "Everybody in our room did. We know what we're capable of doing and how we're capable of playing, but the first two weeks we didn't execute. Last week we went into the game hitting on all cylinders, and we dominated."

Domination isn't a word Dolfans are used to hearing in their favor, but their revamped offensive line was in total command against the Patriots.

The Dolphins linemen don't view their performance as one good afternoon but as a coming-of-age performance for a group still learning to play together. They'll have a chance to back up their performance Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, who rank 13th in rushing defense but third in third-down efficiency.

"We were as good as an offense can play," Smiley said. "We set the bar awfully high. That's what's expected of us now.

"So now there's no excuse every week. We have to go out there and play like that."

Only second-year center Samson Satele is in the same position as 2007. Smiley, from the San Francisco 49ers, was the Dolphins' top free-agent signing. Long was the No. 1 draft choice. Right tackle Vernon Carey lined up on the other side last year. The Dolphins signed right guard Ike Ndukwe off the Baltimore Ravens practice squad before the season finale.

Carey, who is 27 years old, is the oldest offensive lineman. He and Smiley are in their fifth seasons, making them the unit's most experienced. All five starting linemen have only 127 career starts combined.

By comparison, Jets guard Alan Faneca has 157 career starts and Jets tackle Damien Woody has 124. The three-man Patriots defensive line the Dolphins went against last week have 217 career starts among them.

"I go against them every day," Dolphins outside linebacker Joey Porter said of the Dolphins O-linemen. "They're a young group. In time, around Week 8, Week 9 they'll be able to prove how good they really are."

Suffice to say, with Bill Parcells running Miami's football operations, establishing a redoubtable offensive line was a high priority. Sparano was Parcells' offensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys. The Dolphins brought in Mike Maser, who has coached NFL offensive lines for 14 years.

But Miami's running game was a joke through the first two games.

Brown and Williams had grand plans to rush for 1,000 yards apiece, but 19 backs, including four rookies, had more yards than the 121 yards the Dolphins mustered as a team -- and that figure included a couple receiver reverses and a quarterback scramble.

So much for smashmouth, right? You wondered if Sparano would rather get caught singing Smashmouth songs into his hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror than call a run play on third and 3.

From an offensive lineman's perspective, mocking a team's ground game is tantamount to questioning his manhood. But the Dolphins had no one to blame but themselves.

"We weren't running the ball like we wanted to," Long said. "Everybody was talking, and that was the big thing: 'Why can't this offensive line open up holes?'

"We took that personally and put it on ourselves and took the blame."

Then they went out and bulldozed the vaunted Patriots defense, gashing their renowned defensive front in earnest.

Miami befuddled New England with the Wildcat package only six times. Take out those unusual plays and Miami still had 342 net yards, didn't allow a sack and gave Chad Pennington enough time to complete 17 of 20 passes.

"Whether that be good or bad, that's the way it is now," Smiley said. "Now people know we can play that way. There's no gimmicks. It's the way things have taken shape.

"Obviously, a lot of people were down on us, but with good reason. We weren't playing up to expectations. We're showing our capabilities now."