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Dolphins at Saints: What to watch for

A lot of casual football fans feel that the preseason is meaningless.  These same fans probably feel like the fourth preseason game is a total waste of time and not worth watching.  But these fans aren't the kind of diehard football fans that we all are.  And they are certainly not Dolphin fans.  Why?  Because Dolphin fans know that this fourth preseason is indeed worth watching.  There are a number of things to focus on tonight when the Dolphins head to New Orleans to face the Saints to close out their preseason.

Below are just some of the storylines to watch.

One of the things I love about the fourth preseason game is how those "roster bubble players" get a lot of playing time.  These are the guys fighting not just for the win but for their own jobs.  And nothing will motivate you more in life than the risk of being out of work.  Sure, football is just a game.  But to these "bubble" guys, it's their livelihood.  Therefore, I've always enjoyed watching the final preseason games - and I'm not just talking about the Dolphins' final game.  There's nothing like watching players compete with their own teammates to be the 52nd or 53rd player on the roster.

Since I posted a longer article focusing in on the key battles that remain yesterday - and you can view it by clicking here - I won't get into it too deep here.  I will say, though, that I'm most interested in two battles.  Being the Jersey guy I am, I'm very much pulling for John Nalbone to make the team over Joey Haynos.  To his advantage, Nalbone is a very good blocker and is also a special teams contributor.  He has two special teams tackles in three preseason games.  Haynos, on the other hand, is a massive guy (6'8, 270).  But I think that hinders him on special teams.  I'm not so sure a guy his size can run down the field and cover a kick as well as others can - and that could hurt him.

The other battle I'm interested in is between Lex Hilliard and Brandon London.  I'm fully confident that both will not make the team but am fairly certain that one will.  The contract extension handed out to Ricky Williams could be a factor here.  With Ricky and Patrick Cobbs signed for 2010, Hilliard would again be, at best, a fourth running back in 2010 if he was to stick around that long.  He is practice squad eligible, but if the Dolphins like Lex enough, it would be a risky move to try and sneak him through waivers.  Meanwhile, London is not eligible for the practice squad and is probably the better special teamer of the two.  But he hasn't impressed as a receiver as much as he should have thus far.

If you have at least one good eye, then you can't argue that Chad Henne's performance last week against Tampa Bay was pretty bad.  And I was one of the most critical of Henne - that I'm aware of.  But that doesn't mean I'm rooting against him - which is why I'm very interested in seeing how Henne performs tonight.  It's expected that Henne will play the second and third quarters.  Yes, that means he'll face backup defenders pretty much exclusively.  But that doesn't change anything to me.  If anything, it actually adds more pressure on Henne.  A bad performance against New Orleans' backups would make Henne get scrutinized even more.  What I hope to see are more accurate throws, quicker reads, and better decision making.  I'm not looking for some big performance, just an improvement - just something that shows he can bounce back off of a very poor outing.

Henne knows he has to improve and is putting pressure on himself to have a much better game against New Orleans as well.  "It wasn't me out there, says Henne.  "I don't want to have a game like that again."  I can't wait to find out how he responds.

While most NFL teams will rest their starters in their final preseason game, Tony Sparano is taking a different approach.  Chad Pennington is expected to play the first quarter and the starting offensive line will probably play at least the first half.  Why?  Simple - to get better.

This is where Sparano and most other head coaches differ.  Coming off of a sub-par offensive performance last week, Sparano is sending out his starting offense tonight so they can at least get in some work and build some confidence for their season opener against Atlanta.  I hope to see the starting offense get into a rhythm out there and make some plays.  We can't have two or three 3-and-outs to start the game like we did last week.

Meanwhile, Sparano - a former OL coach - has always been a believer in getting your starting offensive line extensive playing time in the preseason to help them gel.  This unit is no different.  It has a lot of talent - but has to work together and become a cohesive unit.  Last preseason, the starting offensive line played the entire first half of the finale.  I expect to see the same thing tonight.  After all, the more this unit works together in real game situations, the better off they will be in the long run.

Here are some more things to look for tonight:

  • A lot of attention will be paid to the battle for the starting WR spot.  But the reason I didn't bring it up above is because I'm fairly confident that whoever actually wins the starting job isn't necessarily going to be more important to the offense than the other two.  The Dolphins did a great job of rotating their receivers based on the situation last season and I foresee that happening again in 2009.
  • The outside linebacker position is an interesting one to keep an eye on.  Matt Roth will likely land on the PUP list, so he has no relevance to this discussion.  Joey Porter, Jason Taylor, and Cameron Wake are obviously locks.  But then you got guys like Charlie Anderson, Quentin Moses, and Erik Walden all hoping to stick on the 53-man roster.  Will the Dolphins keep 6 outside linebackers?  Those three are probably hoping.  But if the Dolphins only keep five, which one turns out to be the odd man out?  Moses has been the most impressive of the three.  But Anderson and Walden are the better special teams players.