DAVIE, Fla. (AP) -- The Miami Dolphins are a middling team at the midpoint.

Sound familiar? It should.

For the fourth time in the past six seasons, including last year, the Dolphins are 4-4. They went on to the playoffs in 2016 but aren't trending toward a repeat, with losses in the past two games and a tough second-half schedule that includes seven opponents who are above .500.

"We're probably not exactly where we want to be," coach Adam Gase said Monday. "We've had too many ups and downs."

Gase found cause for encouragement in the latest loss, however. Squandered scoring chances and 11 penalties hurt in a 27-24 defeat against Oakland on Sunday night, but Miami's offense showed signs of life , and quarterback Jay Cutler had one of his best games of the season.

Miami remains last in the NFL in yards per play and points per game. But Gase believes players responded well to his complaints about blown assignments and poor study habits, and he's optimistic the Dolphins are well-positioned for a second-half surge, beginning against Carolina next Monday night.

"The guys last week prepared the right way. That's what has me somewhat excited moving forward," Gase said. "Everything is up for grabs. It's who wants to do it right. Our guys have a great opportunity. You've got a shot. You've got eight games left. See what you're made of."

Cutler agreed.

"A lot of football left to play," he said. "A lot of opportunities for us to put it together."

Gase was satisfied with the new look of the offense following last week's trade of Jay Ajayi. While the Pro Bowl running back rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown to help Philadelphia beat Denver 51-23, his replacements in Miami combined for 83 yards rushing and 82 receiving.

Kenyan Drake had a 42-yard run, Miami's longest this year, and he and Damien Williams each caught six passes from Cutler.

"I like where that's headed," Gase said. "Those guys out of the backfield in the passing game made a big difference. … We're trying to find our way on offense. This last game felt a little more normal in what it should feel like."

Another reason for optimism is the looming addition of two starters, left guard Ted Larsen and safety T.J. McDonald. Larsen returned to practice last week after recovering from a torn biceps, and McDonald is poised to make his season debut after serving an eight-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

Is McDonald ready to play?

"Run across the middle. You'll find out," Gase said. "I think he's pretty ready."

Issues of concern include a defense that has backslid in recent weeks, with Miami allowing 95 points in the past three games. The Raiders threw for 300 yards and converted eight third downs.

"We gave up way too many points," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. "It's not going to be winning football if they're scoring 27 points."

Gase figures the burden on the defense will be eased if the offense can become more potent. And he liked the swarming defense that forced two Raiders fumbles on a single play .

"That was us," he said. "That's how we should play. It was 11 guys with their hair on fire."


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