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TAMPA – Branden Albert pondered the word for a brief instant, then grumbled.

Scrutiny.

"I don't know why we're under such scrutiny," the Miami Dolphins new left tackle said after an exhibition victory Saturday.

Maybe because you're lining up with five new starters?

"We're not perfect," Albert told USA TODAY Sports. "We've got five new guys. We're working out here. I think we're doing a good job."

That last point is relative, and it will be up for debate for a while.

Miami's offensive line was Ground Zero for the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal that rocked the NFL last season and provided fuel for new NFL workplace initiatives. The next chapter is in play now with a unit that has had nearly a complete makeover.

So much for offensive linemen flying under the radar as nameless, faceless behemoths in dirty uniforms. The Dolphins' line is under a hot spotlight, subject to be exposed.

At least now it is seemingly all about football — like whether quarterback Ryan Tannehill can stay intact behind his O-line?

But, as displayed during an uneven performance for the unit against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the football task is daunting. With Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey expected to miss half the season because of a hip injury, the Dolphins face the enormous task of putting together a rebuilt line in a hurry.

That's the root of the scrutiny now.

"We still have some work to do," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said, now halfway through the preseason.

Last season, Miami allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks. Better protection is essential if Tannehill is to ever realize his star potential as a young quarterback.

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Although Tannehill was blasted Saturday by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy on the first play of the second quarter — fumbling, which set up a Tampa Bay touchdown — pass-blocking wasn't the biggest issue during the litmus test of an outing against the Bucs' strong defensive front.

Miami averaged 1.8 yards per rush, and in the first half when the starters played four series, it was 0.6 yards per run.

"It's not like it's an atrocious thing," insisted Albert, mindful that Miami averaged 2.5 yards per rush in its preseason opener at the Atlanta Falcons. "The running game doesn't always click in the first quarter. Sometimes, not in the second quarter. Sometimes it comes in the third and fourth quarters, when you're wearing teams down.

"Eventually. We'll get it done. We're going to have to. We can't pass the ball the whole year."

Pro Bowl-credentialed Albert, a big free agent signee who spent his first six NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, is positioned to be a solid rock for the line, and not only because of his performance.

He brings leadership.

It was striking how Albert passionately defended second-year guard Dallas Thomas on Saturday night. Thomas was victimized by McCoy on the only sack allowed on Tannehill during the preseason and left Raymond James Stadium as a huge question mark at right guard.

With penalties and missed blocks that contributed to some of the negative runs that stung the offense, Thomas had such a bad night that he was trending on Twitter during the game.

"He's a good player, man," Albert said. "He struggled a little bit, but he's working hard. It's his third week playing guard. He went against a good player today. Stuff happens. It happened to me when I was a young player. You're not always able to have your best game in one stroke."

In the bigger picture, so much is riding on players such as Thomas, rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James, journeymen Samson Satele and Daryn Colledge, and Albert.

That lineup could soon change, too. While Albert and James are set at the tackles and Satele is pegged to man the middle until Pouncey returns, Philbin would not back himself into a corner and declare that he'll have his starting line solidified before the third preseason game, on Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys.

He knows he can't. The guard spots, as he put it, are still "wide open."

Shelley Smith and Billy Turner are competing with Colledge and Thomas for starting roles.

"I haven't ruled anything out yet," Philbin said.

Of course, with new line coach John Benton replacing ousted Jim Turner, there are more than enough reasons for having the issues settled. Tannehill's potential as a playmaking — and maybe even a healthy — quarterback is at risk. If he's not protected, the big arm won't have time to find the deep threats. The new scheme that new coordinator Bill Lazor has installed won't work without a strong front (see the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom Lazor worked under Chip Kelly last season, with one of the NFL's best O-lines). Up-tempo systems don't work when the blocking breaks down.

"We've just got to fix some things in the run game," Albert maintained. "It's not like we got the quarterback hit 1,000 times (Saturday). He got hit one time. I don't think everybody needs to panic."

Football people have long contended that one of the toughest elements in a team to develop is the cohesion of the offensive line. It takes time, repetitions and experience.

The Dolphins line hasn't even been together long enough to start exchanging Christmas presents, but essentially that's just the tough hand the players are dealt.

As the clock ticks toward the regular-season opener against the New England Patriots, the Dolphins need a quick fix or it could be a very long season …with a lot of panic.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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