Tonight the Dolphins take the field at Sun Life Stadium to play in what amounts to a "dress rehearsal" for the regular season game. This is the game that will most resemble a meaningful regular season game, with the starters playing into the third quarter.
Head coach Tony Sparano said this week that though this is only a preseason game, it's a good barometer to find out where the Dolphins stand right now:
"This is a team I consider a playoff team from the NFC, and from our end we consider ourselves to be one. So this will be a good challenge. I'd like to play well when you bring your first groups out there for a little more time."
With that said, let's talk about just four of the many things we should be watching for tonight.
-Consistency is the key for the offense. Last week I wondered how the Dolphins' first-team offense would bounce back after a really ugly performance in the preseason opener against a below average (to say the least) Tampa Bay defense. Needless to say, after a slow start last week Chad Henne and the starting offense quickly put our worries to bed. The passing attack looked crisp and efficient. Henne looked excellent. The offense showed the kind of resiliency that you want to see.
But now the offense has to show consistency. Outside of the center position, the starting offense is set. Nobody is really playing for jobs. Instead I'll be focusing in on how well the offense moves the ball against a playoff contending NFC team. Will the offensive line again provide the quarterback enough time to scan the defense and make a throw? Will Henne again be accurate with his passes and make the right reads? Are the dropped passes by the starting receivers a thing of the past? This is really the final tune-up for the starting offense. Let's hope for another strong showing.
-It's time for the secondary to improve. The Dolphins will likely face Matt Ryan and the Falcons' starting offense for a little over a half tonight. This means the secondary will have to put up with play-makers like Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Tony Gonzalez - also known as players who are far more dangerous than the guys the Dolphins have faced in their first two preseason games.
Sean Smith and Vontae Davis have already allowed enough long pass completions to worry even the most optimistic Dolphin fan. Sure, some will talk about how Mike Nolan has been using a very "vanilla" defensive game plan in the preseason. But when the games actually count and the Dolphins start bringing pressure, these corners are going to be asked to defend receivers one-on-one. Are you confident they'll be able to do it?
-Which back-up receiver will set himself apart? That's the question now following the trade of Greg Camarillo to Minnesota. Patrick Turner, Marlon Moore, and Roberto Wallace are the three players who have seen their window of opportunity open wider than ever. One of these three are going to make the team. Another has a very good chance - though the Dolphins could end up scouring the waiver wire to find their fifth receiver. Regardless, it's time for one of these three to step up.
Moore has been the most impressive this preseason, though he's played against the bottom of the opposition's roster. Still, he's got speed and the ability to create some YAC - which we know Tony Sparano is looking for. Turner, though, has great size and may have finally had the light come on after a very disappointing rookie season. Wallace possesses the best combination of size and speed but has shown the least this preseason. Once the starters come out tonight, all eyes will be on these three receivers to see which ones seize the moment.
-The coaching staff will be looking to see who stands out on special teams. Many of the remaining position battles could come down to who are the best special teams players. Roster spots at positions such as inside linebacker, wide receiver, and cornerback could come down to who performs the best on special teams. And for good reason, too.
Miami has had some major struggles this preseason in various aspects of special teams. Their punt protection has struggled mightily, surrendering two blocked punts already. Their kick and punt coverage units have allowed far too many long returns - partly because poor tackling and partly because of poor angles. And the guys who are supposed to be blocking for their own return men haven't given Nolan Carroll (kick returns) and Davone Bess (punt returns) many lanes to run through. For guys struggling to make the bottom of this roster, performing well on special teams could be their ticket to the 53 man roster.