As season opener nears, Miami Dolphins as confusing as ever

The Dolphins look a little sideways as they move toward their season opener in two weeks. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

PHILADELPHIA—Is the offense covering for the defense, or is the defense buying time for the offense to take shape? That’s not an ideal question for the Dolphins to be asking this close to the regular season, and the answer seems to change week to week.

The remodeled Miami defense was thought to be significantly better this year prior to its arrival for joint practices in Philadelphia this week, which would be extremely helpful given that the offense was unexpectedly forced into transitioning to a new quarterback in Jay Cutler. Anyone’s confidence in that idea had to be rattled by what happened this week.

The Dolphins spent two days scrambling to keep up with the Eagles, a 7-9 team last season, then endured more of the same in Thursday’s preseason game.

“Well, we obviously have some things to work on,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “A little rusty, little rough around the edges, but I think (the game) was a good test and I think it was a good indication. We have to buckle down whenever we get back to work.”

There will be plenty for the team to diagnose between now and the resumption of practice Sunday.

Cornerback Byron Maxwell, thought to be past his inconsistency, blew his assignment on a touchdown pass. The NFL’s most expensive defensive line—$45.2 million—managed one sack on 37 dropbacks by Carson Wentz and Matt McGloin. In the first half, Miami yielded 14 first downs, 4.6 yards per carry and 28 points.

The Eagles had 10 plays of 12 yards or more, and eight of those came in the first quarter.

“I think we’re in a good place,” Ndamukong Suh said. “But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where we think we’re at. It’s about being able to go out and perform in Week 1.”

Nothing’s quite right on either side of the ball right now, and the season opener against Tampa Bay is two weeks from Sunday.

After a nondescript performance against Baltimore last week, the offense hit on deep balls to DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills (he drew a 42-yard pass interference in the end zone), plus some nice runs by Jay Ajayi. Cutler looked the most comfortable he’s been since signing.

There were still issues, though. Philadelphia got good movement against the offensive line, and the Dolphins are fortunate that Cutler has plenty of experience navigating those problems. The most troubling aspect of the offense was its 1-for-7 performance on third down, which coach Adam Gase blamed for the defensive struggles.

“Maybe we’re just that bad on offense,” he said.

That’s something he repeated often last season, when Miami ranked 25th in third-down conversion rate, gained the second-fewest first downs and had its defense on the field for 68 snaps per game. San Francisco was the only team to place a bigger burden on its defense.

The upside is that Cutler looks well-equipped for this situation and is making good use of Miami’s wealth of skill player talent. The offense is dangerous enough to put big numbers early, especially considering the Dolphins open with seven straight games against opponents that finished in the bottom half of the league in pass defense last year.

Third-down shortfalls aside, the offense produced 8.4 yards per play (not counting the 42-yard gain by Stills) during Cutler’s time Thursday. He’s shown a connection with all the receivers and tight end Julius Thomas.

Also, Ajayi was excellent with 53 yards and two scores on nine rushes. The Dolphins need that and then some from Ajayi, particularly as he aspires to develop into a staple of the passing game.

If the offense keeps trending upwardly with Cutler, it’ll give the defense extra time to straighten itself out. That’s not a perfect solution, but it might be enough of a cushion for the Dolphins to get rolling.

[Against Eagles, Jay Cutler shows he’s exactly the QB the Dolphins need]

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[Dolphins-Eagles photo gallery]

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