The preseason is funny. When things are going good in the preseason, fans will talk about how "it's only preseason" - meaning it doesn't mean much. But when things aren't going good, panic sets in among many fans. No longer is it "only preseason."
I fall victim to this, too. But I also don't think you can just dismiss a team's struggles in the preseason as easily as some want to. Now don't get me wrong - I don't think the win-loss record matters. Final scores don't matter. But I think the play of the starters matters very much in terms of how ready this team looks for the beginning of the regular season. These athletes many be good - but they aren't machines. They just don't flip a switch when the regular season begins. That's not how it works.
The Dolphins have been very slow starters under Tony Sparano, going 0-2 in 2008 and 0-3 in 2009. If the Dolphins want to be serious playoff contenders, they can't start slowly this year. Their early season schedule is rather brutal. A slow start could bury this team in a hole that's too deep to get out of.
That's why many, including myself, are a little concerned with the disappointing performances out of many of the starters on both sides of the ball. Is it "CLS" (Chicken Little Syndrome)? I don't think so. I'm not sitting here saying how the Dolphins are going to stink this year or that they need to get rid of "Player X" and start "Player Y." I just wish the first-team offense and defense would have looked a little bit more "regular season ready" than they did on Friday night.
Onto the highlights and lowlights.
-Cornerback Vontae Davis probably had the strongest all-around game of any Dolphin. He had good coverage on his man all night and showed the kind of tackling that we all expected to see from the physical corner that he is. Upon further review of the game, though, some of the throws in his direction might have been completed with better throws from Matt Ryan. Still, it was Vontae's tight coverage that shrunk those windows for Ryan to throw to - and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
-I was impressed with outside linebacker Cameron Wake for most of the night. Though he didn't record any sack, he did hurry Matt Ryan twice. We know Wake will be able to get to the passer, though. What was so impressive was Wake's performance against the run. He held his ground well when the run went at him. But what I really liked was Wake's backside pursuit of the ball carrier. Wake was very active and it's an encouraging sign considering his ability to defend the run has been the biggest question mark about his ability.
-Though we know defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is holding a lot back in terms of his defensive schemes, we saw a glimpse of how Karlos Dansby is going to impact this defense. He provided good coverage all game long on future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez - the same Gonzalez that killed this team last year in the regular season opener. This is just the beginning of what to expect from our big defensive acquisition.
-For the second time in three weeks, defensive tackle Paul Soliai put together a very solid game. It wasn't as dominant as his preseason debut against Tampa Bay. But against a better team, Soliai showed that he might have what it takes to give Randy Starks the necessary breathers he'll need to stay fresh for a full four quarters. He didn't dominate - but he ate up blockers and made some tackles on rushes right at him, looking hard to move after disappearing for much of last week's game.
-Running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams were factors in the passing attack - something I am hoping to see carry over into the regular season. We've talked a lot about how Brandon Marshall is going to free up the middle of the field for the tight ends and for the slot receivers - as well as how the attention he's going to get should help reduce the number of defenders in the box, providing more running room for our backs. Something that hasn't been mentioned is how Marshall's presence on the field is going to free up the running backs out of the backfield, too, to become bigger factors in the passing attack.
-Speaking of Brandon Marshall, he's definitely worthy of being mentioned here. His stat line is rather plain - 3 catches for 51 yards. But this is the "chunk yardage" Tony Sparano has been talking about. In that drive right before the half, Marshall caught two passes in five plays that gained 46 yards. The first was a beautifully thrown touch pass from Chad Henne along the left sideline. The second was a bullet on third and 11 that was good for 20 yards. This kind of quick-striking ability has been an element this team has lacked for years. Now with Marshall, it's back.
-I can't leave out kicker Dan Carpenter as a highlight from Friday night. Carpenter connected on both of his field goals - the first from 53 yards (and probably good from 60+). He also made a likely touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff return by the Falcons. Good for Carpenter. Not good for the coverage unit.
-I was impressed with the play of Tony McDaniel on Friday night. He was rarely moved off the line by just one blocker and he got into backfield a couple of times. He's probably now a lock to make this team.
-Wide receiver Marlon Moore was getting on the field with the starters as the fourth receiver - and he looked like he actually belonged there. Is he now ahead of Patrick Turner? I hope so only because he has much more speed than Turner and will produce more YAC than Turner.
-I got to mention Pat White, right? He played for the first time this preseason - and didn't look so terrible. I know it was against Atlanta's second and third team defense. Still, his throws were accurate and he didn't look as out of place as he did at times last year. Does it mean anything? Probably not - though you never know. But I still think he's the odd man out when the final cuts come around.
-Chad Henne wasn't terrible - but he wasn't great, either. I was expecting a better performance out of Henne on Friday night and was disappointed. But I'm also confused as to why so many Dolphin fans are so down on Henne. Yes - that was a bad decision to try to squeeze that pass into Anthony Fasano in the endzone. Yes - he didn't go through his progressions as well as he seemed to last week against Jacksonville. But man, he's been getting killed by some fans since the game. Are we forgetting that at least four of his passes were dropped by his receivers? Again, he wasn't very good by any means. But I didn't see anything out there that isn't correctable and that would be a long-term problem. He's gotten better on his touch throws and his accuracy. He still looks more comfortable out there than he did all last year. I just wish we'd see a little bit more fire and energy from him - like we did from Chad Pennington. But for those calling for CP10 to be the starter - give me a break. I'm the biggest fan of CP10 you'll find (many will attest that I might be too big of a fan of his). But his throws just float - even worse than they used to. And many are saying Pennington out-played Henne. But 7/14 for 62 yards against more back-ups than starters is not out-playing. This is Henne's team. It's time everyone gets behind him.
-I mentioned the dropped passes briefly above - and it deserves mentioning again. I was being generous in saying there were only four. If I really wanted, I could say I counted six - including Brandon Marshall's fumble that was challenged and overturned, resulting in an incomplete pass. The Dolphins now have double digit drops in three preseason games. It's not so much as worrying me, though, as it is angering and confusing me. I don't get it. These guys were sure-handed in the past. What the hell has happened?
-The offensive line is continuing to struggle. I know I keep asking - only because many seem unconcerned about their performance - are you concerned now? The one sack allowed to Henne wasn't anyone's fault. A defensive back came unblocked on a blitz. But I saw John Jerry and Richie Incognito get beat in pass protection, resulting in hurries. I saw Incognito and Jerry getting shoved back on running plays. Jake Grove and Joe Berger both failed to stand out at all. I rarely saw any running lanes for the backs. This is just not the kind of performance we are used to seeing from a Dolphin offensive line since Tony Sparano has been here.
-I'm disappointed in Lousaka Polite's performance. And that's not because he actually got stopped on a 4th & 1 play. It's because the big man didn't look like himself when he was lead blocking. Last year he was a monster, plowing defenders into the ground. He actually whiffed on a couple of blocks on Friday night.
-Twelve men on the field again? Really? I swear - if I see that called against the Dolphins one time in the regular season, I'm going to need to be locked away. Really.
-Nine more penalties on Friday night. Nine! What the hell is going on this preseason?