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Dolphins at Buccaneers: What to watch for

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We've finally reached the "dress rehearsal" for the regular season.  The third preseason game is historically when coaches decide to play their starters into the second half.  Thursday's game will be no different for the Dolphins when they visit Tampa Bay.  The good news for Dolphin fans nationwide?  The game will air live on FOX at 8 pm eastern.

Here are just some of the things to look for on Thursday night:

OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION OUT OF FIRST TEAM
Through the first two preseason games, there's no doubt that we've seen improvement out of the first-team offense.  But of the Dolphins six total offensive possessions with the first-team offense, only three have resulted with points - and only one ended with a touchdown.  On Thursday, Tony Sparano plans to keep Chad Pennington in the game into the second half and plans to keep the starting offensive line together for the first three quarters.  It has also been reported that the Dolphins did at least do a little game-planning for this game despite it only being a preseason game.  That means we should see a more efficient and, hopefully, productive offense on the field in Tampa.

It'll all start up front, of course, with the offensive line.  After a tough start against Jacksonville to open the preseason, the line put together a very strong showing against Carolina last week.  Justin Smiley and Jake Grove looked much more comfortable in that second game and Donald Thomas continued to progress as he continues to make up for lost practice time.  While the Bucs aren't as stout up front as Jacksonville, they have done a great job of holding opposing starting running backs to little yardage.  In their preseason opener against Tennessee, Chris Johnson and LenDale White combined for just 13 yards rushing on 10 carries.  The following game against Jacksonville, the Bucs held Maurice Jones-Drew and Greg Jones to just 13 yards on 5 carries.  So Tampa's starting defensive unit is no slouch against the run - making this a good barometer to measure how the offensive line and the ground game is coming along.

But while Tampa has been tough on the ground, they haven't been nearly as effective defending the pass.  Last week, David Garrard lit up the Bucs secondary to the tune of 216 yards through the air on 10 of 16 passing, including a 74 yard TD pass to Troy Williamson to start the game.  Even if you take away the long TD pass, the Bucs surrendered 9.46 yards per attempt to Garrard.  Meanwhile, Chad Pennington has quietly put together a solid preseason.  He's completed 12 of his 18 attempts for 143 yards and a touchdown.  But if you take away his (under-thrown) 35 yard 'Wildcat' pass to Patrick Cobbs, CP is only averaging 6.35 yards per attempt.  Better than Chad Henne's YPA?  Yes - but not nearly as good as his current 7.9 YPA average.

WHICH RECEIVER MAKES A PUSH TO BE A STARTER?
But more important than Chad Pennington's performance - and I say this because I'm fairly confident we know what we're going to get from CP - is how the receivers perform.  Ted Ginn had a solid opening game but was quiet last week against Carolina.  Many fans are hoping this is the year Teddy finally breaks out - and it could be.  But I'm hoping to see more consistency out of Ginn. 

With that said, though, all eyes will really be on the battle to start on the other side of Ginn.  Greg Camarillo, Davone Bess, and Brian Hartline have taken turns working with the first-team offense throughout camp.  Bess than began the preseason as the starter.  Last week, however, Hartline got the start.  Tony Sparano said on Tuesday that he is getting close to figuring out who his other starting receiver will be - meaning this game against Tampa will be each player's final opportunity to make a case that he should be the starter.  In particular, though, I'm interested to see how much work Camarillo gets.  He only saw four plays in the opener and got in a few more plays last week.  I'd like to see him get more involved in the offense as he works his way back.  Regardless of if he wins the starting job or not, Greg is going to be a key contributor to this offense.

CAN SECONDARY REBOUND?
I'm not trying to say that Miami's secondary played poorly last game against Carolina.  But I also wasn't impressed, either.  If you look at the numbers, the Dolphins didn't play poorly against the pass.  But those watching the game know that the Fins had trouble defending Carolina's tight ends in addition to surrendering two big 3rd down conversions.  On the drive that resulted in the DeAngelo Williams TD run, Jake Delhomme completed a 15 yard pass on 3rd & 8 and a 16 yard pass on 3rd & 12 to keep the drive alive.  Those are the kinds of situations where this secondary must step up, make a play, and get off the field.

Of cours, the return of Sean Smith will should certainly boost the unit's play.  Smith was exceptional against Jacksonville in the opener but missed last week's game with a mysterious "illness."  Jason Allen, who also missed, will be back, too, and should provide some quality depth to the secondary.  While I'm very interested in seeing how Smith performs in his second professional game working with the starters, I'll also be paying close attention to safeties Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson.  Carolina's tight ends did a number on the Dolphins last week and, generally, it's a safety's fault when a tight end makes a big reception.  Last week, Carolina's tight ends combined for 7 receptions and 109 yards despite not having a single tight end who would rank in the top half of the league.  That's unacceptable and I'll be looking for improved play against opposing tight ends.

MORE TO WATCH FOR
Some other quick hits on what I'll be watching:

  • Punt coverage must improve.  The Dolphins surrendered a 58 yard return last week against the Panthers.  Those kinds of mistakes are killers in regular season games against tough opponents.
  • Who shows the most ability as return men?  I expect Ted Ginn, Davone Bess, Patrick Cobbs, and Brian Hartline to all get opportunities to return kicks and/or punts against Tampa.  Let's hope some of these guys make a play and win the job thanks to their own strong play - not by default because nobody else stood out.
  • Consistent pass rush - that's a key for the first-team defense.  We've seen that unit apply a lot of pressure on the QB during their limited action in the first two preseason games.  But can they do it consistently?
  • After being somewhat inconsistent, Dan Carpenter has been on the mark during the preseason.  He's out-kicked Connor Barth on kick-offs and is perfect on FG attempts - hitting both of his kicks from 40+ yards.  One more perfect game and he could have this job officially locked up.
  • Third downs are key.  So far through the preseason, the Dolphins have been excellent on 3rd down - converting 43% while holding opponents to just 28%.  But as I said above, the Dolphins surrendered two key 3rd down conversions last week against the Panthers that kept a drive alive that resulted in a touchdown.  Those kinds of breakdowns need to occur less.
  • Let's see some Lex Hilliard against an opposing team's starting defense!

GAME THREAD
Game time tonight is 8 pm eastern and our live thread will be up around a half hour before kick-off.  The game will be televised live on FOX.  So join us then!