The Dolphins — led by a group of young defenders — smother Buccaneers in first half

David Wilson
Miami Herald

Ten plays was all the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted to see with Jameis Winston at quarterback Friday. It was all the Miami Dolphins let them see.

Winston played only one series in Tampa and the Dolphins, playing their second game of the preseason, forced him to spend most of his only drive under duress. Miami sacked the quarterback once, nearly brought him down another time and forced the Buccaneers to punt on the only look it got against Tampa Bay’s top unit at Raymond James Stadium.

It was another promising performance by some of the young players on the Dolphins’ defense. The Bucs finished the first half with just 83 yards on 33 plays for an average of 2.5 yards per play. Miami sacked Winston and Blaine Gabbert three times, hit the quarterbacks nine times, added four tackles for loss and recovered a fumble. The Dolphins eventually lost 16-14, but went into halftime with a 6-3 lead despite turning the ball over on downs in their only trip to the red zone.

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At the center of Miami’s disruption was a pair of linebackers. Jerome Baker, the lone first-team linebacker to play Friday, nearly got to Winston on the sixth play of the game, but the linebacker couldn’t quite bring down the quarterback and Winston scrambled across midfield for a first down.

Four plays later, Baker ended the drive. The 22-year-old blitzed again and got to Winston, holding up the quarterback for a moment in the pocket. Defensive end Charles Harris finished the job and dropped Winston for an 11-yard loss to end Tampa Bay’s first drive.

“They got a couple first downs on that first drive, but we picked it up, got them off the field, forced a punt,” coach Brian Flores said at halftime. “We kind of got into a groove after that.”

Harris finished the half with 1 1/2 sacks, four quarterback hits and a tackle for loss. Fellow defensive end Tank Carradine hit the quarterbacks three more times and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins added another two quarterback hits, a sack and a tackle for loss.

Baker, Harris and Wilkins are all potentially long-term fixtures on the defense, all younger than 25 and all taken in the third round or earlier of their respective NFL Drafts.

Harris’ time in South Florida, in particular, has been a disappointment. A first-round pick from the Missouri Tigers in the 2017 NFL Draft, Harris played in all 16 games as a rookie and recorded only two sacks. In his second season, Harris played 11 games and only had one sack.

“I think Christian and them were creating a lot of pressure,” Harris said, “making the quarterback step up — well, actually pushing them, making them step back — and then I was able to capitalize.”

On Friday, Sam Eguavoen was an unexpected force joining them.

A 26-year-old who spent the last three years in the Canadian Football League, Eguavoen has worked as a second-team linebacker with the Dolphins in training camp and came off the bench again for the second preseason game. He made three tackles on the Bucs’ first drive, then quickly blew up their second.

Gabbert’s second pass went to running back Andre Ellington in the flat and Eguavoen sniffed it out. The linebacker made a textbook form tackle and jostled the ball loose. Cornerback Eric Rowe jumped on the fumble and the Dolphins took over in Tampa Bay territory.

Eguavoen added two more tackles for loss before halftime to finish the first half with seven total tackles, including one on special teams.

“It’s not exponential growth,” Harris said, “but it’s a steady growth.”

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