The Miami Dolphins will be taking on the Dallas Cowboys tonight at Sun Life Stadium. This will be the Dolphins first home game of 2014. Preseason Week 3 is generally viewed as the simulation of the regular season, so we will see starters for at least the first half. Here are five things to watch when the game kicks off at 7PM/ET.
1. An entire half of real NFL football
This will be our first taste of real Dolphins football in 2014. The coaches for each team will have gameplans generated and the starters for each team will be tasked to execute as they would on Week 1 of the regular season.
This game is all about evaluation of the first team offense and defense (with the final preseason game being dedicated solely to forecasting the future of the fringe players and backups).
What does this mean? Quality football will be played for (at least) a full 30 minutes and a gauge of Miami's 2014 outlook will be exhibited.
2. Run game
I addressed yesterday how the Dolphins made a key change to their offensive line to shore up their running game. Now, we'll get to see what effects will root from this decision.
The Dolphins will replace guard Dallas Thomas with Shelley Smith, who is known as a more aggressive run blocker. This was a necessary move as the Dolphins have run for only 98 yards on 47 carries this preseason, including negative-five yards on nine carries behind the first team offensive line last Saturday.
The Dolphins will also likely experiment with 2014 third-round pick Billy Turner, who is currently battling a turf toe injury, at one of the guard spots (likely left guard) to see if he can hold his own. Turner is a powerful, aggressive player, but his pass blocking still needs work.
However, it must be noted that a combination of Turner at LG, Samson Satele at C and Smith at RG would leave the Dolphins very vulnerable to interior pass rush.
How much push is coming from the guard spots? How often do the running backs pick the preferred lanes or break second level tackles? How many yards per carry will this starting unit average against a mediocre, injury-marred Dallas Cowboys defense?
The return of running back Knowshon Moreno should also help this aspect of the Dolphins offense as Moreno has the best vision as a ball carrier amongst the running backs.
3. Linebacker Play
The play of the Dolphins' linebackers has been a topic of much debate, an argument that has been augmented by the memory of the questionable play of the linebackers in 2013. Many argue that this is the most troublesome unit on the Dolphins team (while I believe it's undoubtedly the running game).
The Dolphins linebackers have actually played well this preseason. Koa Misi at middle linebacker is a huge boost to this defense. Misi is thriving in this role and should help substantially in run defense.
Dannell Ellerbe is also in a comfortable spot, weakside linebacker, which should allow him to play faster and more instinctively.
Of course, I'll be watching Chris McCain to see if he plays with the first team, how often and what his impact will be when his opportunities arrive.
It will very be interesting to see how the linebackers play in coverage, which is my greatest concern about the unit. Cowboys TE Jason Witten is one of the toughest/best in the business and will feast upon shoddy coverage in the middle of the field to earn first downs and keep drives alive.
I will be looking to see how well the Dolphins blanket Witten, how well they execute their run fits, which was very well last week, and what linebacker combinations they decide to use (as we get closer to the regular season, we move closer to concrete answers).
4. First team safeties
The Dolphins will be facing a high-powered offense with many pieces with the ability to break tackles and produce big plays.
It will be key that the Dolphins' safeties tackle functionally. After a total of six missed tackles from the starting two safeties, Louis Delmas and Jimmy Wilson, there is much justified concern over the back-end of the Dolphins' defense.
Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is a run-after-catch savant, so wrestling him to the ground will be key.
The Dolphins have been working on their tackling in training camp, so if these two still have issues wrapping up then legitimate concern will be implanted into my mind (and the consistency of Chris Clemons will be missed).
5. Continued efficiency from Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill is off to a tremendous start this preseason. Tannehill has completed 75 percent of his passes with an average of over eight yards per attempt and zero interceptions.
While too much cannot be derived from these numbers, as we are still in the preseason, it's tremendous to see Tannehill play so well in his limited snaps.
Now that Tannehill will be playing at least the entire first half of tonight's game, it will be interesting to see how Tannehill builds upon his solid showings in the first two preseason games.
Playing well tonight will be a step in the right direction in terms of consistency, an issue that has plagued Tannehill throughout his short career.