The Miami Dolphins were without starting center Mike Pouncey during this past Sunday’s win over the San Diego Chargers. The offensive line, despite giving up four sacks to a far-from-spectacular Chargers pass rush, wasn’t the unit in shambles it projected to be either.
Behind strong running from Daniel Thomas, the Dolphins were able to surpass 100 yards on the ground in Week 11, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill had solid protection on many of his 35 pass attempts. Sam Brenner was promoted from the practice squad a day prior and did an adequate job of filling in at starting left guard. The versatile Nate Garner, meanwhile, shifted over to center to fill in for Pouncey and also had a fine game.
So when news broke on Tuesday afternoon that Pouncey is having gallbladder issues that could require season-ending surgery, many Dolphins fans pointed to Brenner and Garner’s success versus the Chargers to downplay the significance of Pouncey’s health. Many also took solace in the report that Pouncey is going to try to tough it out on pain medication in order to finish the season.
Pouncey himself tweeted on Wednesday morning that he is “Back 2 Life,” which appears to strengthen the chances he’ll be on the field on Sunday afternoon versus the Carolina Panthers. And despite how well Brenner and Garner played versus San Diego, the Dolphins need Pouncey back on the field as they attempt to make a push for the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008.
Miami’s playoff hopes would take a serious hit if Pouncey’s gallbladder proves too painful to tolerate and he’s forced to shut down his season for surgery. Garner and Brenner played well in Week 11, but they did so against a below-average San Diego front seven.
Pro Football Focus ranks 46 eligible 3-4 defensive ends by an overall grade which primarily evaluates each player’s ability to rush the passer and defend the run. The Chargers’ two starters at the position, Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, are slotted No. 44 and 46 respectively. At nose tackle/defensive tackle, Pro Football Focus ranks 71 eligible linemen. The Chargers’ starting nose tackle Cam Thomas is currently ranked 59th.
As you can see, the Dolphins’ offensive line benefited from facing a porous defensive line this past Sunday.
On the Chargers’ second line of defense, only one of the team’s four starting linebackers owns a positive grade. That player is outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury over the past two weeks. Needless to say, Miami’s offensive line’s strong showing could have been a product of their opponent’s shortcomings.
The Dolphins and their makeshift offensive line won’t have that luxury in coming weeks, however, especially not on Sunday versus the Panthers.
Carolina boasts one of league’s most dangerous defensive fronts. Led by a stud rookie duo on the interior in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, the Panthers are only allowing 84.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks third in the NFL. Garner and Brenner would have their hands full with the two in the event that Pouncey isn’t able to play.
There’s hope Garner and Brenner wouldn’t be overmatched, but despite the two being praised for filling in against the Chargers, both graded out negatively. Brenner also gave up a sack against one of the worst front sevens the Dolphins will have faced all season.
Pouncey hasn’t played up to his standards at times in 2013, but he’s still been one of the league’s top centers. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the seventh best center in football through 11 weeks. He excels at getting to the second line of defense, which has been a big reason for some of the Dolphins’ sporadic success running the football this season. Miami will miss that ability beyond its Week 11 matchup if Pouncey misses more time.
Two crucial dates with the New York Jets in December will also test the Dolphins’ offensive line. The Jets have dominated against the run this season, as the 73.2 rushing yards they concede per contest is the lowest in the entire NFL. Those two showdowns with the Jets could make or break the Dolphins’ season. Without Pouncey, I tend to believe the latter would be the more realistic outcome.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.