More ups than downs for Dolphins in loss to Bucs

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There were more positives than negatives for the Miami Dolphins in their next-to-last preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night.

Miami lost 17-16 thanks to a Tampa Bay touchdown with 63 seconds left. The score was set up by the Dolphins’ fourth turnover. (I know, I know … but bear with me.)

More importantly, the Dolphins escaped the game with no apparent serious injuries. A week earlier at Houston, starting tight end Dustin Keller went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Most Miami starters on both sides of the ball played the first half during the team’s first game at Sun Life Stadium since beating Buffalo on Dec. 23. The Dolphins defense dominated, and the offense had its moments.

Week 3 of the preseason — game No. 4 for Miami thanks to the Hall of Fame Game — is considered the closest thing to a regular-season dress rehearsal. Teams usually play key starters sparingly to avoid injury in the final preseason game.

Here are a few observations from the Dolphins’ loss to the intrastate rival Bucs.

1. It looks like Charles Clay will be Keller’s replacement to start.

Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman insinuated such during the week, and Clay had six passes thrown his way — the only Ryan Tannehill passes thrown at a tight end — with one catch.

Clay’s reception was for 5 yards. He would have had a scoring reception if not for a nice play by Bucs safety Mark Barron, who got a hand on the ball as it reached the tight end/H-back.

Tight ends Dion Sims and Kyle Miller each caught a pass from Pat Devlin in the second half. More production overall will be needed no matter who plays the position.

2. Miami’s red zone offense still needs work.

Tannehill hit Brandon Gibson with a 4-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left in the first half.

Miami had taken over at Tampa Bay’s 48 with 1:29 remaining thanks to Josh Freeman’s fumble. The Dolphins reached the red zone with :39 showing and responded when faced with urgency.

That was the good news. However, Miami was forced to settle for Caleb Sturgis field goals (22, 23 yards) on two earlier trips to the red zone.

“It’s not good enough,” coach Joe Philbin said of his offense’s red zone performance. “I didn’t think we were very on third down in the first half.”

Running back Daniel Thomas, whose brawn is supposed to complement Lamar Miller’s explosiveness and elusiveness, finished with 3 yards on 7 carries. He had negative runs on each possession that settled for a field goal.

Miller rushed eight times for 35 yards.

3. Tannehill continued to develop a rapport with free-agent newcomer receivers Gibson and Mike Wallace.

Tannehill threw to Gibson eight times, with five receptions for 43 yards. The slot receiver, however, also dropped a pass in the end zone.

“He has to catch the ball more consistently, no doubt about it,” Philbin said.

Wallace caught three of four balls thrown his way for 31 yards. He got his hands on the incompletion, which was a bit high but catchable.

The offense’s highlight, other than Gibson’s touchdown, was a 17-play, 76-yard drive that ate up the first 8:25 of the game. Tannehill was 6 of 8 on the drive and hit four different receivers. It would have been five, but a 4-yard pass to Gibson was overridden by Tampa Bay’s offsides penalty.

4. The special teams unit needs to avoid turnovers.

Marcus Thigpen muffed a first-guarter punt when blocker Nolan Carroll was pushed into him by Tampa Bay’s Michael Adams.

Thigpen then fumbled a punt early in the second quarter to give Tampa Bay the ball at Miami’s 41.

“We had four (turnovers) in the game. It’s an issue, no doubt about that,” Philbin said.

Thigpen did have a nifty 38-yard return later in the second quarter but he needs to hold on to the ball.

By the way, former Dolphins coach Dave Wannestedt was in the house as Buccaneers special teams coach.

5. Miami’s defense played well and produced some pressure.

The Dolphins first-team defense limited the Buccaneers to 63 first-half yards, just 26 (2.0 per carry) with one first down on the ground.

Freeman completed 4 of 11 passes for 51 yards against the Dolphins first-teamers and was sacked three times for 14 yards.

Improving the team’s ability to get to quarterback was a definite offseason priority, as evidenced by the drafting of Oregon edge rusher Dion Jordan, who did not play due to a shoulder injury.

The Dolphins had six sacks overall. Jared Odrick, Olivier Vernon, Jonathan Freeny, Josh Kaddu and Kelcie McCray each had one.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.