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Kalen Ballage

Kalen Ballage rushing full speed towards Dolphins starting RB job

Kalen Ballage is getting a rare opportunity with Kenyan Drake down with an injury. The Dolphins are going to need a running back, so he’s responding to the call by making play after play. His speed and acceleration caught the Tampa Bay Buccaneers off guard both days they held joint practices, resulting in several touchdowns. That level of production does not go unnoticed, and it’s clear head coach Brian Flores is enjoying noticing them.

“Oh, I saw them.” He said during his Wednesday press conference.

It makes sense that Ballage is pushing himself with Drake out. At the start of training camp, he was the one who worked with the starters, only to eventually be overtaken by the Alabama speedster as the days went on. It appeared that Drake was ready to lock down the starting job, at least until these joint practices with Tampa. All of a sudden, he, QB Josh Rosen and WR Preston Williams are getting chances to work with the starters after being stuck under the veterans.

“I think young guys have to be able to come out here and make plays.” Ballage said Wednesday. “This (isn’t) college anymore. It’s not high school. In my opinion, age doesn’t really matter. I think you just come out here and if you can ball, you can ball. I think that’s a big part of it.”

He’s doing a good job of impressing the coaches, and those touchdown runs included good execution across the board. That’s precisely what coach Flores is looking for in his players.

“They all work together. It’s 11 guys.” He said. “If you put 11 guys in and they execute their responsibility, you’ll get a good play. Kalen did a good job of making a guy miss, and that’s how you get long runs, receivers blocking corners and secondary players, and that’s how you get long runs. It takes everybody.”

At this point, it’s impressive that Kalen Ballage is able to do as much as he’s doing. The Dolphins offensive line is an absolute mess, so these touchdown runs are a testament to the home run capability Ballage has in him. It also acts as a demonstration for what the offense itself is capable of.

“It’s something that I’ve always known.” Ballage said. “I think that it gets the best athletes and the best talents in space, gets them the ball and kind of puts the rest on us to make plays. I think that that’s something that’s real important.”

Ballage’s opportunity to showcase himself stands to last a while, especially since Kenyan Drake has to wear a walking boot for an undisclosed amount of time. While coach Flores isn’t really concerned, indicating Drake will be ready for week one of the regular season at the latest, it doesn’t bode well for Drake with Ballage running full speed towards the starting job.

Kalen Ballage has had his struggles, but they appear to be past him. Back in college, he felt extremely underused. In his rookie season, he sat behind Drake and veteran Frank Gore. He appears ready to take charge, and he has a chance to prove it on Friday.

Chandler Cox

Chandler Cox giving Miami Dolphins much-needed physicality

Think back to the last time the Miami Dolphins had a fullback. More than likely, the name Lousaka Polite springs to mind. Polite was the bruiser, they guy that was given the ball when it was third and short and Miami needed a first down. Unremarkable, but reliable, and steadfast. Since then, the Dolphins have made halfhearted attempts to find a replacement, but not until now, with Chandler Cox, have they add any success.

The last real fullback Miami had on the roster was Jorvorskie Lane. Serviceable, but he never lived up to Polite’s standards. Then the Dolphins tried to get Charles Clay to be an H-back type hybrid, playing both tight end and fulback. It soon became clear that Clay was more effective as a pass-catching tight end. There was also the reported pursuit of veteran fullback Vonta Leach, one of the best at his dying position, back in 2013. Ultimately, nothing came out of that, and since then the position has been in limbo.

Both Joe Philbin and Adam Gase decided to forgo the fullback position for the most part, putting strong emphasis on the passing game. Ryan Tannehill was tasked with making the offense run almost solely on his arm, with little to no investment placed in the running game. Only in 2016, with now free agent RB Jay Ajayi, did anyone get to see what the offense could look like when they started playing smashmouth football. Ajayi became an instant star, and the Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But it wouldn’t last. Ajayi’s body gave out just as his ego kicked in, and Gase sent Ajayi to the Eagles where he won the Super Bowl in 2017. He didn’t contribute much to that victory, but it was a victory all the same. And once again, Miami’s rushing attack fell by the wayside.

Enter Brian Flores, who comes from New England. The Patriots know how important a strong running game is, and Flores made it clear Miami would remember that lesson. They would have a fullback, no questions asked.

“I think it adds a competitiveness, a grit, a toughness, to the team.” He said back in late May. “We want to run the football. I think having a lead blocker clear the way helps that, I value that position. I think it brings a toughness, a grit that I think I like in my team … Quite honestly, I played linebacker and I’ve had to deal with fullbacks. It’s not always the easiest thing to do. Wherever the league goes is where it goes; but personally, having dealt with a lead blocker, it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

That much is true. With a fullback leading the way, defenders have to get through an extra player to bring down the running back. In that moment it might take to knock down the fullback, the running back could score a touchdown. That is precisely what happened on Thursday night against the Falcons. Mark Walton was handed the football, and Cox blocked two different defenders, leading to a score that gave Miami the lead.

Chandler Cox already has the respect of his teammates. With fullbacks being a dying breed, the fact he goes out there and does everything he can do to contribute makes him a rarity.

“He’s an Auburn guy, but you know, I won’t hold that against him.” Drake joked on Thursday. “He goes in there, he’s still out there doing his job, so I know he’s going to be tired up in this game, but he’s a rookie so he’s got to get his dues in, so I look forward to him doing a lot more for this season.”

Having a fullback is a luxury it seems, one that most teams decide not to have. With the NFL putting more and more focus on protecting quarterbacks, it’s clear that the league wants teams to throw more. But the effectiveness of a fullback can’t be denied. And some believe the position may yet see a comeback as Miami adjusts to having one.

“I think it will be, but it takes time to do that when you haven’t done that.” running back coach Eric Studesville said in late July. “It’s different to have another guy closer to you and he has to make decisions. There is a trust that builds in that. Chandler (Cox) has done a great job of coming in here. It started yesterday in pads right away. He’s physical with his pad level. We’ll all get better at that and we’ll get better feeling him and what’s going on. I think it adds another dimension to our offense and capabilities and what defenses have to prepare for.”

Chandler Cox adds an extra blocker, and he has the ability to run if necessary. He can catch, he can lead, he can back up the offensive line in the backfield, he’s the full package. And, he’s already adjusting well. Becoming a physical team after spending so long focused on finesse will take time. But Cox will do a lot to speed up the process.

Josh Rosen risks

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores wants Josh Rosen to curb risk taking

One major difference between Miami’s current quarterbacks and the one that departed in the offseason is their willingness to take chances. Both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen are aggressive in their decision-making, a trait put on full display during the Dolphins win against the Falcons. They attempted plays that can only be described as incredible. Some of them worked, while some of them did not.

That willingness to be aggressive is part of what makes Rosen such an intriguing prospect. However, it can also lead to mistakes that Miami can’t afford to make. One such mistake was when Rosen attempted a pass in the middle of the field to WR Isaiah Ford, only to be intercepted by linebacker Jermaine Grace. The three-year veteran stepped right in front of the route and Rosen could do nothing but watch as his team chased the defender down.

Rosen is taking chances, but head coach Brian Flores wants him to tone it down a bit.

“Yeah. A couple times there I thought, maybe, those are a little dicey.” Flores said after the game. “And at some point as a quarterback you’ve got to take the sack. That’s the best play. But the guy’s got a little bit of a gunslinger mentality and wants to let it rip and obviously got the nice one out to Preston, but I think we want to play smarter than that I would say in that situation, not just let the ball go like he did.”

Once again, Flores functions on the premise of basics and fundamentals. Even if risky plays end in favorable results, that doesn’t mean Flores condones the decision. He wants smart, calculated football. That means taking advantage of what the defense gives, not forcing something when things get dangerous.

“I felt some guys at my ankles.” Rosen said. “I knew Preston kind of had a stop coming back to me, I saw he was a bit inside of him. So I knew if I just put it up he would kind of have the break on it. It might have been a little bit too dicey; but I don’t know. A couple fall in your favor, a couple don’t. I probably should be a little smarter with that, even though this one worked out.”

Not having consistent protection can easily lead to more of these mistakes. Josh Rosen had to spend the majority of his playing time dodging defenders before he could make a throw. In reality, it’s a testament to Rosen’s improvement that he was able to accomplish what he did against Atlanta. Rosen completed 13 out of 20 attempts for 191 yards, and of course his interception. That averages out to a 75.2 passer rating, which does not reflect his overall performance. Rosen grew more comfortable as the game continued, and soon those risky plays started looking routine.

“I feel substantially better now than I did two weeks ago.”Rosen said. “But like I said, I’ve got a long ways to go. The way ‘Fitz’ (Ryan Fitzpatrick) in our meeting room can break down a defense and how quickly he can make comments on where everyone is, where the ball should go, is pretty impressive and I think if I can kind of hedge that gunslinger attitude a little bit and put a little bit more thought into it, I think I could develop pretty nicely.”

It’s encouraging that Rosen recognizes the flaws in himself. He even goes as far as to admit he’s struggled with taking unnecessary risks throughout his entire football career. He’s learning when the best move is to give up on a play and try again on the next down, and when it’s okay to throw up a prayer. It’s something he’s been dealing with all through the offseason and training camp already.

Josh Rosen isn’t making excuses for himself, though he easily could have on Thursday. With the offensive line unable to protect for him, he didn’t have much time to think about what he was doing. But that’s moot. He made a mistake, and he knows it. He isn’t about to whine about something he feels has no bearing on his ability to make wise choices.

“I threw the pick in a completely clean pocket. So football is football.” He said. “You’re never going to have a completely clean pocket all of the time. When you get it, you’ve got to take advantage of it and when you don’t, you can’t make stupid mistakes by trying to play hero ball. I did kind of a little bit of everything, so I’ve got a lot of film to watch. Just because like good plays gained yards doesn’t mean that the way we got that was like a sustainable way to do that in the future. So I think that like I said at the beginning, there’s good, bad and everything in between.”

If Rosen can eliminate some of the bad, then he can easily take the starting job away from Ryan Fitzpatrick. If he eliminates the everything in between and keeps only the good, then Miami will finally have their franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen. The sooner he learns those lessons, the better off everyone will be.

“I think that’s what this time is for, that’s what training camp is for.” Flores said. “It’s to develop these guys, help develop them, help work on their techniques, fundamentals, consistency. That’s what training camp is for. That’s why I got into coaching, that’s what I love about coaching. We want to win, there’s no doubt about that. But we’re going to try to develop these players as best we can and try to win at the same time. And I think development of players is something that’s ongoing.”

Header for defense versatility

Miami Dolphins coaches using versatility to define defense

Consider the New England Patriots. One of the things that makes their defense so formidable is that opposing teams can never be sure what they’re facing. Is there a blitz? Why are there are so many defensive backs? Are the linebackers blitzing or in coverage? It’s through reputation alone that they’re considered good, even when they’re objectively bad. They put together personnel groupings that throw offenses for a loop, make them think twice about what they should do. The versatility of their players is a big part of what makes that defense tick.

And that’s exactly what head coach Brian Flores is stressing as he installs his defense.

“I would say first and foremost, it’s in the kicking game for really anyone on the team. If you make plays in the kicking game, you make a name for yourself in the kicking game here in this organization, that means a lot to me. If guys want to impress me, do it in the kicking game.” Flores said on Wednesday. “That’s where I started in college, that’s how I got on the field at Boston College. That’s how I broke into coaching in the National Football League from working with guys like Brad Seeley and then Scott O’Brien.

“It’s a very important phase of the game to me, so if a guy wants to impress on this team, do it there, carve out a role there, and then if you’re at the game for the kicking game, we’ll find something for you to do offensively or defensively. The players know that. I think everyone in the league should know that. That’s a spot where you can definitely carve out a role, and then, that’s how your reps increase. If you do a good job in the kicking game, you get more offensive or defensive snaps. If you do a good job with those snaps, we’ll give you more, and that’s how guys evolve and grow in this profession.”

Already, training camp has consisted of players lining up where they normally wouldn’t. Reshad Jones, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick are getting linebacker snaps. Bobby McCain is turning himself into a safety. Defensive linemen are lining up out wide, inside, and everywhere in-between.

Is Miami running a 4-3, or a 3-4? Maybe a 4-2-5?

“I don’t even know what that is.” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said on Thursday. “People ask us, (and we) say, ‘I don’t know.’ You look out there, we can be 1-10 if you want us to be. We’ll figure out something. If it works, we’ll do it.”

So nothing is off the books when it comes to what the defense will do on any given play. Matchups decide who’s on the field at any given moment. The more players adapt to what’s thrown at them, the more they will get to play. Even if they don’t project to start over someone else.

Of course, this puts a mental strain on the players. They have to overcome it.

“It’s not more so the attacking defenses that I’ve been in, in the 4-3 systems that I’ve been accustomed to.” said veteran DT Akeem Spence. “In this defense, you’ve got to really learn a lot. It’s more so learning about more spots than positions and learning a new technique and what Coach Flores wants and Patrick Graham want and trying to go out and execute and compete.”

“It’s all about discipline. The biggest thing is everybody’s got – I mean, the coaches are going to put you in the best position to make plays, and I think that’s the biggest thing I keep in mind.” said pass rusher Charles Harris. “The number count isn’t the most important thing. When that game ends and you’re winning, that’s all that really matters. Like I’ve said before, one of the biggest things that we’ve got, one of the quotes that we’ve got coming is ‘get over yourselves.’ If I’m not getting that many plays, it might not be a week. We might have different schemes for different teams and stuff like that. You really don’t know.”

The Dolphins’ first preseason game draws ever closer, and after Saturday’s faux scrimmage, things are only going to ramp up from here. But more importantly, everyone will get a chance to see what this team can do in real action. True, it’s only the preseason. But considering what the expectations are for this team, how they do against other teams evaluating their depth will be telling.

Quickie Miami Dolphins training camp notes — Day 8

Day 8

– “My High School coach is here.”- Coach Flores
– Tomorrow’s Scrimmage will have a game day simulation “feel”- Coach Flores
– We are all in this thing together (on coaches running to T.N.T Wall)- Coach Flores
– “Defensive issue” yesterday cause Coach Flores to run to wall.
– Some praise for the Michael Dieter/ Shaq Calhoun starting guard duo- Coach Flores
– BUBBLE TIME
– Its a walk through, so we are not allowed to tweet/write what “exactly” they are doing.
– Mostly Special Teams work to start practice. Guys in new spots as compared go last year.
– Hard to do reporting on what they are doing, but you are seeing many personnel sets, heavy subs on defense, and the use of 9 different skill guys in a set of play calls. Last year, you could go 3 quarters with just 7 skill guys seeing action. That seems to be a thing of the past. Maximum use of the roster and the talent on hand is the new norm. Good to see.
– There must be an NFL requirement for Special Teams Coordinators to be boisterous and use colorful language. Danny Crossman is cut from that same Darren Rizzi mold, in that regard.
– Walk through is complete, plenty of special teams work, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd teams run through their basic sets.
– Reggie McKenzie, Chris Grier, attended the walk through, and seemed to be engaged in conversation/evaluation.

Practice MVP: NONE
Struggled: NONE

Dolphins coach Brian Flores fires his first

The Miami Dolphins still haven’t played their first preseason game under Brian Flores. But he’s already making it clear that he will not hesitate to make changes, even if they are changes to his original direction.

The first of note was today’s firing of offensive line coach Pat Flaherty.

Here’s how it played out on Twitter:

Here’s how our Chris Kouffman (@CKParrot) of Three Yards Per Carry viewed the move:

It should be noted that this came after a particularly brutal performance by the offensive line in practice. There’s not much talent there other than left tackle, so any coach will have trouble. But that group has been overmatched so far by another group (defensive line) that isn’t loaded with stars either.

How was it viewed elsewhere?

Accountability is key, apparently. What a welcome change.

Dolphins assistant head coach Jim Caldwell taking leave of absence

The Miami Dolphins will be missing one of their most experienced and high profile coaches for the 2019 season, as assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell is taking a leave of absence to address health issues.

A statement was released by the Dolphins on Saturday morning regarding Caldwell’s status.

“I will be stepping back due to some medical complications that require my full attention,” Caldwell said. “I want to thank Stephen Ross, Chris Grier, Coach Flores and the rest of the organization for the support they have given me and my family.”

Head coach Brian Flores offered his own sentiments within the statement.

“Our focus is on Jim’s health and supporting him in every way that we can,” He said. “With his knowledge and experience, Jim has been an invaluable member to our coaching staff and will continue to serve as a sounding board for me throughout the season.”

Caldwell will still serve as a consultant to head coach Brian Flores, but not having him physically there will have an impact. Caldwell is one of the first coaches Flores added to his staff, bringing him on board on Feb. 8, 2019. His experience as an NFL head coach was projected to be invaluable to Flores, a rookie head coach who is only just starting to learn what it means to be a head coach in this league.

Not having proven, experienced people behind him is likely part of what led former Dolphins head coach Adam Gase to make the mistakes he did. Flores was smart to hire Caldwell to be his right hand man.  He brought with him 17 years of coaching experience, with two stints as a head coach for the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-11 and the Detroit Lions from 2014-17. In that time, Caldwell put together a 62-50 (.554) regular-season record, four playoff berths, two 11-win seasons and one conference championship. He also won a Super Bowl as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens during the 2012 season.

On top of being the assistant head coach, Caldwell was also tasked with coaching the quarterbacks, as he’s had experience coaching the likes of Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, and of course Peyton Manning, who spoke to Michael Rothstein of ESPN back in 2015 about Caldwell’s stressing of fundamentals and how everything had a specific purpose.

“The discipline of having that routine really made an impact on me,” Manning said. “I really felt like I just sort of took a step up during the years that he was my quarterbacks coach.”

The hope was that Caldwell would have a significant impact on the next young QB who stepped foot in the building. In this case, Josh Rosen was that young QB, and Miami is hoping he turns out to be worth his initial top ten pick draft status. Now, however, it will be up to seven-year veteran Jerry Schuplinski to fill that void, who spent his previous six seasons in the league with the New England Patriots, starting his role as assistant QB coach in 2016 for Tom Brady.

Caldwell’s absence will hurt the team, but true to form, the Miami Dolphins have made it clear that they care about the people working for them. With any luck, the 64-year old Caldwell will overcome his unspecified health issues and be able to return to the sidelines in no time. Until then, Caldwell will have the support of the team as he rests and recovers from whatever ails him.

Voices

Now, Josh Rosen needs to earn it

DAVIE – So it begins. The Josh Rosen era? At this point it’s the onset of the audition.

Coach Brian Flores prefers to view it as a competition.

Though few outsiders believe Rosen won’t be behind center when the Dolphins open the 2019 season, it is in the best interest of the franchise that the second-year quarterback acquired from the Arizona Cardinals must show he merits the job.

That is as it should be. If Rosen really has the makings of a franchise quarterback, it should be no sweat to earn the starting job.

If not, it will become apparent to the coaching staff through the course of offseason work, training camp and the exhibition season.

Flores made that point recently and the process began this week with the first week of offseason organized team activities for veterans and rookies.

Tuesday was the first full session open to the media and the largest turnout in years for OTAs – it’s offseason practice! – assembled to get a glimpse of Rosen in action.

For the record, when they began running plays in 7-on-7 drills, veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was lined up with the starting receiving corps of Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, Jakeem Grant and Mike Gesicki.

There certainly was a message in that, for Rosen as well as for the media to pass along to the fan base.

Remember, it’s a competition – even if it’s really a charade (wink, wink).

Notably, Fitzpatrick was the sharper quarterback through the course of the session.

When it was Rosen’s turn, he fired a strike over the middle on his first pass. His second was picked off by Sam Eguavoen, a former CFL linebackers and returned to the end zone.

Rosen also fumbled a couple of snaps at the beginning of practice.

None of which, of course, is of any consequence. As Flores said, “We’re not making cuts today.”

It’s May, and much of this rebuilding team is still putting names to faces and learning the way to their respective lockers.

“You kind of underestimate from the outside looking in all the logistical issues from having to have to move and uproot your place,” Rosen said after the workout. “I’m walking into the receivers room thinking it’s the bathroom. But when you step on the field you’ve just got let all that go and just play football.”

Rosen’s twitter account featured a photo from Monday’s session of its smiling namesake under center and the message, “Great to be back on the field and just play football.”

 

Rosen’s predecessor, Ryan Tannehill, waited until the beginning of his final season in Miami to try to project some personality via social media, but the effort kind of fizzled out – like his tenure.

It was refreshing that the absence of No. 17 in the quarterback corps isn’t due to injury. (Wide receiver Brice Butler now wears Tannehill’s old number).

It was more than time to try something different and it begins with competition (really, it is) between a 37-year-old journeyman and a top-10 draft pick who has already been discarded by the team that traded up to select him and acquired by the Dolphins for a No. 2 draft pick.

The intrigue of a rebuilding season will be in where that leads under the direction of a rookie head coach and staff, many of them with connections to the Patriots’ extended run of success.

“We’re looking for guys who can consistently move the ball down the field,” Flores said of the quarterback competition.

Flores has said that he welcomes players wanting to know the why of things, which has been portrayed as a criticism of Rosen in Arizona.

“I appreciate it. Our meeting room has been really productive, really good,” Rosen said, noting that he’s already picked up valuable guidance from quarterback coaches Jim Caldwell and Jerry Schuplinski. “It’s always about progress. I just want to keep taking steps forward and I think they’re helping me do that.”

During Tuesday’s 90-minute session, with players in shorts, Rosen showed some zip and the ability to connect with receivers in coverage.

He lobbed a deep ball on the mark that should have gone for a touchdown but it slipped through the hands of Parker. Some things don’t change.

“Obviously, he’s a talented player – big arm. But like everyone else he’s got a long way to go – [on] fundamentals, technique, playbook,” Flores said of Rosen, who did display some pocket presence in dancing away from a rusher and completing a short pass.

This week is about formulating early impressions. Drawing firm conclusions is still months away.

As Flores noted, this stage of the offseason program is still voluntary. Veteran safety Reshad Jones elected not to attend as he did during the first offseason minicamp last month.

But for most of the 91 players on the roster, the audition is underway.

“Everybody is getting evaluated in this building every day. Period,” Flores said. “That’s just what it is.”

When it comes to the quarterback sweepstakes, that’s a good thing, no matter who ends up winning it (wink, wink).

One way or another the Dolphins will find out if he is the player to lead them into the future or whether they’ll need to dip back into the talent pool and find someone else next year.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

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