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Tonight against New Orleans is about staying healthy, staying sharp. About maybe one final brief tune-up for the starting players. About some young players holding on to a dream.
But it’s also about special teams. Nobody was happy with the two turnovers last Saturday night against Tampa Bay, least of all special teams coach Darren Rizzi. Tonight represents one last opportunity for Rizzi to correct those mistakes, to build some continuity and to figure out which combinations work best.
“Over the past eight seasons in the NFL, 25 percent of the games were decided by three points or less,” Rizzi said. “At the end of the day, there is no unit that changes the impact of field position more than special teams. I know I’m selfish because that’s what I coach. But I believe special teams effects every game.”
So how does this current group of Dolphins’ special teams measure up?
• We know that Caleb Sturgis will be the placekicker. We know he has a strong leg and is accurate. But how will he do in pressure situations? We don’t know that.
• We know that Brandon Fields is the punter and, at least the way I see it, he is the best in the league.
• We know that John Denney will handle all the snaps for the ninth straight season. He is as reliable as they come.
• We know that Marcus Thigpen will return kickoffs and probably most of the punts as well. “He was top five in the league in both last season,” said Rizzi, “and I honestly believe he left some plays on the field.” After a fumble against Tampa Bay, Thigpen could use tonight’s game as a confidence builder.
But we don’t know a lot about the coverage or the blocking teams because, except for three or four core players returning from last season, most of these groups will consist of first and second-year players. The roster is about to hit 53 in a few precious days and only then will Rizzi really know who’s available.
So tonight against New Orleans, check out who is running down on kickoffs. See who the flyers are on the outside. Notice which players are making the tackles on kickoffs and punts. This will provide an early indicator of who Rizzi is counting on and which young players will make the team.
For some of these special teams hopefuls, tonight is their Super Bowl.
“When we start camp, at the first special teams meeting we try to hit home with the young guys that the bottom of the roster will come down to special teams,” Rizzi said. “ I don’t think a light goes on in that meeting because they have too many other things to worry about.
“As camp progresses, that light gets bigger and bigger and bigger. I become a very popular man.”
That’s because the younger players realize that Rizzi is their ticket on this roster. Some of the best players in this league started on special teams and some, in fact, remain on special teams.
Heard of linebacker Jason Trusnik? Played every game on all six special teams last season for the Dolphins. Was on the field for more than 400 plays. Led the team with 12 special teams tackles. You think he’s valuable? You think he’s got a spot on this team virtually locked up?
Press Rizzi on the subject and he’ll tell you that this group of special teams has a chance to be the best he has had in five seasons with the Dolphins. There is more speed and better athletes. There are more choices, more big-play potential. We haven’t even mentioned No. 1 pick Dion Jordan who in college was a havoc machine on special teams. But he’s got to get healthy first.
So as the preseason winds down, the special teams gear up. As Rizzi pointed out, there is one chance in four the opener against the Browns comes down to the play of his units.
“A lot of the guys have the height and weight but what I look for is desire,” Rizzi said. “I see a lot of players on this team with the desire I’m looking for.”
And now he must hope that desire produces results, that the special teams become, well, something very special.
On Friday, A.C. in the A.M. analyzes the final preseason game.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.