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We probably won’t see much of the starters in tonight’s preseason opener at Atlanta. That’s just the way it works. Get two or three possessions. Maybe an entire quarter. Then call it a night. With four preseason games, there is plenty of time to get some quality time for the starters before the games count for real.
Still, even if the time is limited, the bottom line remains the same. We need to see progress. We need to see evidence. We need to see a football team answer some of the summer’s most important questions with a positive response. That’s what tonight is about. Come out sharp. Make some plays. Build some confidence. Then get some more playing time next Saturday night in Tampa Bay. It’s all part of the process of getting ready for New England on Sept. 7.
Once the starters take their seats, tonight is more about the long shots making a good impression, the rookies making an early statement and the back-ups proving they belong. But, in my mind, it is more important for the starters to feel good about themselves and, at the very least, to demonstrate they are heading in the right direction.
My wish list for tonight? Here’s five areas worth focusing on:
1. Ryan Tannehill: It always starts with the third-year quarterback. He’s had an up and down training camp. Looked sharp in the scrimmage last Saturday, but followed that up with three interceptions each on Monday and Tuesday. Tannehill needs to show tonight, even if he only plays a quarter, that he has a solid grasp of this offense and that his passing is sharp and his decisions are smart. One touchdown drive against the No. 1 Atlanta defense would probably do wonders.
2. Get some answers on the offensive line: Sometime soon, hopefully real soon, the Dolphins will settle on a starting five. Here’s hoping that tonight’s game seals the deal so this line has time to build a real chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised if the starting five tonight gets more minutes than Tannehill since everyone is new. The right side of the line warrants special attention where rookie tackle Ja’Wuan James and second-year player Dallas Thomas currently reside. It is crucial they build a good rapport. It is crucial to do it quickly.
3. Koa Misi’s first real action in the middle: There is no longer any doubt about this move. It is a done deal. Misi has been in the middle all of training camp. Looks comfortable there. Has taken a leadership role. But now we need to see whether the pieces all fit, whether not only Misi can be a difference-maker in the middle, but also how well veteran Dannell Ellerbe responds to his move to the outside. My biggest concern on defense is how well this group can stop the run. Until I see a clear improvement in the preseason, those doubts will persist.
4. How well will this secondary respond? The Atlanta Falcons have one of the most potent passing attacks in the league and the Dolphins have a secondary with a new starting corner (Cortland Finnegan) and a new starting safety (Louis Delmas). While I expect the first-team Atlanta offense to play no more than a quarter, that should be enough time to give us an indication of where this secondary resides. I like the depth here. I like the two second-year cornerbacks. I like Jimmy Wilson as the nickel. I think this area can really be a strength of the team. But I need to see it all come together. Tonight won’t offer final proof; more of an early gauge.
5. How about some balance on offense? With all the talk about Tannehill and his deep band of receivers, it’s easy to overlook the running game. But that can’t happen for this team to be successful. Knowshon Moreno has returned from the PUP list and isn’t expected to play tonight. That gives Lamar Miller another chance to show he deserves to be the dominant ball carrier. Miller has had a strong camp. With Moreno now in the mix, Miller would be wise to do something special against the Falcons. Another back to key on is second-year player Mike Gillislee. He’s had a good camp, but he needs to make a statement. Tonight would figure to be as good a time as any.
(On Monday, AC in the AM offers some final thoughts on the preseason opener)
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