Monday, December 08, 2008

Al Johnson the "smartest lineman" Sparano ever coached


December 4, 2008

DAVIE — Whenever rookie left tackle Jake Long had a question on game days, he knew he could turn to veteran left guard Justin Smiley.

"Justin is a guy who could un-muddy the water for him a little bit," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said Thursday. "He had the ability during games, when things are happening fast, to help Jake slow it down a little bit.

"Now, Jake has to be able to do that. I think he can."

The entire offensive line will face more pressure with Smiley out for the season with a broken right leg, an injury sustained Sunday against St. Louis. This Sunday against Buffalo, second-year guard Andy Alleman will make his first NFL start.

Smiley had made 61.

"That's what this league is about, getting in there when you get your opportunity and proving you can play and belong," Alleman said. "I just want to make sure there's no drop-off there."

The Dolphins faced a similar challenge when starting right guard Donald Thomas broke his right foot in the opener against the New York Jets.

But Thomas was a rookie sixth-round pick, not a high-priced free agent like Smiley, and Miami coaches have tinkered at right guard since Week 2.

Ikechuku Ndukwe replaced Thomas but has shared snaps with other linemen, including Alleman.

"Andy has been playing; that's a good thing," said right tackle Vernon Carey, who is second to Smiley among Miami's offensive linemen with 60 starts. "The thing is he has to get in synch with left tackle and be on the same page."

Integrating a new left guard in the middle of a playoff race will be a challenge for a unit that depends on communication and continuity. That much was clear against the Rams.

Miami's O-line committed five penalties for 40 yards, including a false start by Alleman and a holding call on Ndukwe. The latter negated a touchdown run by Ricky Williams.

"It was one of those games where each of us took our turns with mistakes," center Samson Satele said. "That can't happen. If we do that against Buffalo, everything goes downhill."

Sparano said he expects the Bills, 6-6 and desperate for a win against 7-5 Miami, to try to exploit Alleman and the middle of the inexperienced line.

"I would expect they would try a few more line stunts," Sparano said. "They like to walk people up a little bit, confuse you a little. I would expect they would try to expose him and just see exactly what he knows and how he responds."

Alleman, who played college ball at Akron, was a third-round pick by New Orleans last year. The Saints cut him Sept. 2, and the Dolphins signed him.

Sparano has been impressed by Alleman's growing confidence since his first significant action a month ago - 33 snaps during a 21-19 win against Seattle.

Sunday, Alleman stepped in for Smiley in the first half and again pleased Sparano, a longtime offensive-line coach before joining the Dolphins.

"The guy just was flying all over the place," Sparano said. "That's a good sign when a guy walks into a game like that in that kind of situation and he plays that fast."

If Alleman slows down or the line hits another snag, Sparano has options.

Brandon Frye, a second-year pro out Virginia Tech, has appeared in the past three games and is the first backup option at guard. But the wild card could be Al Johnson, a six-year veteran signed by Miami from Dallas last week.

Johnson, 29, has made 45 starts, including 31 at center for the 2004-05 Cowboys. He also plays guard. But he is coming off a severe knee injury and hasn't played in '08.

"He's the smartest lineman I ever coached," said Sparano, who was with Dallas before taking over the Dolphins. "But physically would be the issue."

With one month to go and the playoffs in sight, there are many questions facing the line. Satele said effort wouldn't be one of them.

"We couldn't wait to get out there as an O-line group," he said Wednesday when practice resumed. "Vernon talked to us and wanted us to fire out, step it up a little because we had a bad game."

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