It’s starting to feel real: Dolphins now within game week of season opener vs. Chargers

MIAMI GARDENS — The Miami Dolphins have gone nearly eight months since their last meaningful game. They went through an arduous training camp in South Florida’s heat and humidity dating back to late July. They’ve played three preseason games that don’t count in the standings.

Now, it’s time for real football to be played again.

And the Dolphins kick off a 2023 season full of expectations with a big game Sunday, visiting the Los Angeles Chargers, another team with its sights set on competing among the AFC’s best.

“This is an exciting time of year,” Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “You work so hard year-round, day in and day out. Not just the days you’re required, but even on your off days doing whatever it takes. So it always gets a little more exciting.

“Just try to keep it calm until Sunday, and let it all out on Sunday.”

“Everybody’s excited,” star wide receiver Tyreek Hill said. “It’s going to be a fun matchup. I’m glad that the league gave us this game, so we can go ahead and knock it out. It’s going to be fun.”

After a playoff appearance in 2022, these Dolphins are not shy about stating their ultimate goal of competing for a Super Bowl, and it starts with a like-minded opponent.

“It’s the reason you play the game,” Wilkins said. “You want to compete at the highest level, win at the highest level and beat the best teams.”

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel has some of his first head coaching demons to exorcize against that opponent at SoFi Stadium. Last season’s 23-17 Sunday night loss to the Chargers was one where his offense appeared out-maneuvered against an opposing defensive game plan.

The Chargers took away the middle of the field in pass coverage and frustrated Dolphins receivers by jamming them at the line of scrimmage. Although Tyreek Hill had a 60-yard touchdown catch and another long touchdown on an offensive fumble recovery, not much else worked for the Miami offense. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went 10 of 28 for 145 yards.

“They did a great job last year (with) those two teams — last year’s teams,” McDaniel said. “They did one of the better jobs all season, but this is a new year, really, is the way I kind of look at it. You do learn certain things about individual players, maybe play calling, degree of tendencies, but Week 1 has a great way of kind of equalizing that.”

McDaniel is looking to guard his players from the mindset of making things personal against Los Angeles after last season’s embarrassing December defeat on “Sunday Night Football,” which was part of a pivotal five-game losing streak.

“I’m sure there will be a couple ‘Hey, I’m going to get you this time; you got me last time,’” McDaniel said. “Not making more of one individual opponent. It’s more about us and how it relates to us.”

Working in McDaniel’s favor against Chargers coach Brandon Staley, he now has Staley’s defensive coordinator from that game on his side. Renaldo Hill is Miami’s pass defense coordinator and defensive backs coach.

It’s not just McDaniel, Tagovailoa and the Dolphins’ offense facing a defense that gave them issues last December. The Miami defense will have to face talented Chargers fourth-year quarterback Justin Herbert.

“I enjoy going against him,” said Dolphins safety Jevon Holland, a college teammate of Herbert’s at Oregon. “Always fun dialogue within the game, too, so it’s enjoyable.”

Holland still remembers the first time with the Ducks that he noticed Herbert could go a long way. As a freshman, Holland noticed that Herbert, as a bigger quarterback, was keeping up with the fastest players on the team in sprints.

“I was like, ‘This dude is special,’” Holland said. “And his arm talent is crazy.”

Los Angeles also has a new offensive coordinator under Staley in Kellen Moore, who formerly held that role with the Dallas Cowboys.

“That really doesn’t matter. It’s a new year,” Wilkins said. “They do some different stuff this year, but you can kind of understand matchups and just take a good mindset into the game.”

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