Dolphins observations: Knowshon Moreno makes impression in debut

Miami Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno (28) runs as Dallas Cowboys defensive end Martez Wilson (56) and cornerback Brandon Carr (39) defend in the first quarter.

Brad Barr/Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Hometown fans finally got to see their Miami Dolphins in action Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium as they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 25-20 in their third preseason game of the year.

The announced crowd of 55,623 didn’t witness much offensive prowess in the first half, which featured no touchdowns from either team. But that changed in the second half with a series of entertaining drives by the reserves — aided in large part by the Cowboys being their own worst enemy with constant penalties — that turned the game around.

Running back Knowshon Moreno was the star of the first half, leading the rushing game with power and finesse en route to 64 rushing yards on 10 carries through the first two quarters. Receiver Mike Wallace upped his production with six catches for 67 yards, but the play of the night came courtesy of Damian Williams with a deep 54-yard catch in Matt Moore’s first drive of the night that set up Miami’s first touchdown of the night.

The Dolphins suffered several dropped passes that were unforced, as well as a costly fumble that could have led to an early Cowboys touchdown. Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill continues to perplex, this time with an uneven performance in which he had several positive plays that were quickly forgotten after a disappointing interception that ended his night.

"We had, you know, we made a lot of plays," Wallace said. "But we have to finish those drives. You got to score touchdowns. You can’t go down, you know to the 10, 15 yard line and get three every time or turn the ball over. That’s the main thing. You can’t turn the ball over when we get that close down the field."

Both teams settled for field goals in their opening drives that took up most of the first quarter but the scoring didn’t really open up until both teams pulled their starters for the game by the third quarter. Why the first team offense sputtered against one of the weaker defensive teams in the NFL will certainly be scrutinized by the coaching staff this week.

Here are five observations from the victory against the Cowboys.

1. Rushing game back on track.

Dolphins vs. Cowboys

Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno formed a highly effective 1-2 punch to start the game, combining for 45 rushing yards on the first drive to immediately help alleviate concerns of an ineffective running game this season. To compare, the Dolphins managed just one more yard total for the entire game last week versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 53 against the Atlanta Falcons, their first preseason opponent. By the end of the first half, they had 93 rushing yards but little to show for it with just one field goal.

Damien Williams had his chance in the second half and he took full advantage of it, powering his way for the Dolphins first touchdown of the night and then scoring on the subsequent 2-point conversion with a gorgeous spin move to evade two incoming Cowboys defenders in order to barely reach the end zone.

Even reserve Orleans Darkwa got in on the action with an impressive 53-yard run up the middle late in the fourth quarter to set up the Dolphins’ second touchdown. He then muscled his way up the middle for the final touchdown of the night with a 1-yard carry to win it with less than two minutes left.

The running backs also got the help they needed from the offensive line.

"We left yards out there," said T Branden Albert. "We can do better. You don’t want to say that this is it. We can do better. We’ve got some things we need to clean up but for the most part we did a good job. It was better today."

2. Moreno showcases skills in first preseason game.

Moreno’s ability to break tackles and gain extra yardage was on full display Saturday night, with an eight-yard gain on Miami’s second to last play of the first quarter after he burst through the middle and powered his way through. On another play midway through the second quarter, Moreno somehow was able to gain nine yards while breaking three tackles in a row before being finally brought down. Two plays later, he showed his agility with a hard cut to the right to avoid two Cowboys players lunging at him. The skill set that Moreno possesses is simply unmatched on this squad and his presence gave the team a huge boost.

"Yeah, he ran the ball well," head coach Joe Philbin said at halftime. "We had really good production, good balance. We have to get some things going off our play action game and we have to do a better job on third down."

3. Moore again outplays Tannehill.

Starting quarterback Tannehill completed 13 passes in 21 attempts for 119 yards, but his uneven performance was further overshadowed by his troubling interception in which he foolishly attempted a deep pass under heavy coverage.

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"Yeah I saw it," Tannehill said. "I thought the corner was going to fall off. Stupid decision, stupid throw, (RB Daniel) Thomas was wide open down the middle, should have done the check down."

Backup Matt Moore made his first appearance with less than seven minutes left in the third quarter and started strong after he connected with Williams to set up the first Dolphins touchdown. But he also had an interception after he had trouble holding onto the football after a botched shotgun snap and was then picked off trying to find receiver Armon Binns, which was easily returned for a DJ Adams touchdown. Moore rebounded strongly however and led the team to 22 second-half points.

4. Defense makes gains with the first team.

Cameron Wake notched two sacks in the first half to lead a mostly positive first half performance by the starters, which didn’t allow a touchdown in the first half against a potent Cowboys offense.

The secondary unit again was strong, limiting Dez Bryant to four receptions and 32 yards. They were successful in not allowing any big plays from quarterbackTony Romo, who finished 10-18 for 87 yards.

"Our coaching staff preaches that you got to finish and never give up on the play," said CB Brent Grimes. "Tackling was a big focus for the most part. I feel like we wrapped up and got the guy down when they got the ball. That was one of our main focuses. That’s what you do in the preseason. You pick something to focus on. That was one of the focuses of our team. I feel like we did a lot better this game."

Linebacker Philip Wheeler missed a pair of tackles, but for the most part the defense shored up early preseason tackling woes and displayed signs that they could be a very strong defensive unit in the regular season once Dion Jordan andReshad Jones return from their four-game suspensions to start the season.

5. Injuries continue to limit Dolphins.

Several players were out for the Dolphins including starting linebacker Koa Misiand kicker Caleb Sturgis, who continues to be bothered by a groin injury. Running backs Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee and Marcus Thigpen were all out for the night in addition to rookie defensive end Terrence Fede, cornerback Walt Aikens, tight end Arthur Lynch and defensive tackle A.J. Francis.

Starting center Mike Pouncey still has yet to see any action after being placed on the PUP list to start training camp, with Samson Satele again doing a capable job holding down the position.

Kicker John Potter, himself an injury replacement for Sturgis, left the game with a hip injury sustained late in the third quarter. Without him, the team attempted two-point conversions after their two touchdown drives.

Next up: vs. St. Louis Rams next Thursday at 7 p.m.

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at