The Miami Dolphins played without three regular starters on the offensive line last week
Accustomed to the anonymity of the trenches, the Miami Dolphins' offensive line has received lots of unwanted attention this year, with troubles on and off the field.
The rocky relationship between tackle Jonathan Martin and guard Richie Incognito has threatened to sink the season, and cohesion in games has also been less than ideal. Chronic pass-blocking breakdowns have contributed to Ryan Tannehill's NFL-high 41 sacks, and the Dolphins rank 24th in the league in rushing.
Given the problems up front, it's remarkable the Dolphins (5-5) are in contention for an AFC wild-card berth.
"An offensive line is really a building block in an offense," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. "Certainly when you are struggling, a lot of times it starts with those guys. We continue to be a work in progress, and we will continue to be until we get things solidified in there."
That might not happen for a while. Miami has started a different cast up front in each of the past four games, and the unit remains in flux because of a gall bladder ailment that sent center Mike Pouncey to the hospital for three nights and forced him to miss Sunday's victory over San Diego.
Incognito's not returning this week. On Thursday he agreed to postpone his grievance hearing challenging his suspension until the NFL completes its investigation into the team's bullying scandal.
Pouncey rejoined the team Wednesday but didn't practice. Afterward he drew a large throng of media, which has become the norm for Dolphins blockers.
Miami's offensive linemen might not be the best in the NFL, but left tackle Bryant McKinnie laughingly said they're the most famous.
"I'm pretty sure people know who everybody is on our offensive line is, because that has been the focal point," McKinnie said.
Pouncey's status for Sunday's game against Carolina is uncertain, but last week the Dolphins showed they can win without him, Martin or Incognito. A patchwork line repeatedly opened big holes up front, and the Dolphins averaged 5.5 yards per carry in their 20-16 victory over San Diego.
Nate Garner started at center for the first time in his six-year career, and undrafted rookie Sam Brenner made his NFL debut at left guard.
"This is the first time I've actually seen where you have three starters who are gone and you have to move people around," said McKinnie, a 12th-year pro. "You have to have faith in the guy who's going to come in and fill in and hope they are prepared well. And they were."
McKinnie is now third in seniority at his position, with a whopping total of four starts since being acquired from Minnesota in a trade. Right tackle Tyson Clabo, who was benched six games into the season, regained his starting job when Martin left the team three weeks ago. Right guard John Jerry is the lone lineman to start every game this season.
Reserve Will Yeatman suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, further depleting the Dolphins' blocking corps. When Pouncey became ill, Brenner was called up from the practice squad Saturday, then received another promotion only hours before kickoff against San Diego.
"For someone who came in on Sunday morning and told he was going to start, I think he did pretty good," Sherman said.
Garner started four games at right tackle last year, one game at left guard in 2011 and four games each at left guard and right guard in 2009. He had played a total of three snaps at center previously, but handled the line calls well against the Chargers.
"Nate really had only one mistake in communication," Sherman said. "Mike Pouncey has been a stalwart in there. For him to go in there and do what he had to do, just phenomenal. Those are big shoes to fill when you're filling Mike Pouncey's shoes."