The NFL regular season is less than two weeks away, meaning we are starting to close in on football games that really matter. Until Week 1 finally arrives, this week's slate of Preseason Week 3 contests will be the closest we can get to competitive football featuring the starters for most teams. This week, largerly considered the "dress rehearsal" game for most teams, who will then rest their starters for next week's final exhibition contest, will see starters play through the first half, and, often times, into the third quarter as a way to get them extended playing time, as well as allow teams to make halftime adjustments and get players ready for coming out for the second half. The Miami Dolphins are expected to play their starters, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, defensive end Cameron Wake, and running back Lamar Miller, in the team's first home game of 2015.
The extended playing time of the starters does not mean things among the reserve players have been decided. In fact, there will be starters trying to hold on to their position - or even playing out of position - so there will be plenty of story lines to watch this week. We take a look today at three positions to watch for the Dolphins as they host the Atlanta Falcons.
We may as well get the offensive line listed early, since that will be a major area on which to focus this week. While every week seems to include the offensive line on this list, this week may be the most important performance from the starters. Left tackle Branden Albert is not expected to play, while second string left tackle Jason Fox is still battling through a concussion he suffered last week. The Dolphins have a lot of options to fill the left tackle spot if it is needed, but there are not a lot of options that should make fans - or Tannehill - comfortable.
"A lot guys obviously have played tackle," head coach Joe Philbin said on Thursday. "Ja’Wuan James has played tackle, Dallas Thomas has played tackle in NFL games, (Jeff) Linkenbach has played tackle in NFL games and (Audrey) Walker and (Donald) Hawkins have played left tackle. We’ve got a number of guys that that we’ll take a look at and we’ll see how everybody is, talk to the medical people and go from there."
It's interesting that Philbin would bring up James as a potential stop-gap at the position. Miami moved the then-rookie James to left tackle after Albert's injury last year, but seemed determined to leave him at right tackle this year. The most likely move is for Thomas, who has been playing left guard, to swing over to tackle for Saturday. "He’s a good athlete,": Philbin said of Thomas on Thursday. "I think back, one of the things that intrigued us when we watched his college film was his position flexibility. He’s a guy that moves well enough, he’s athletic, he gets out of his stance pretty well and we think he’s had a good camp."
If Thomas does move, that would likely give Miami a starting lineup of Thomas, Jamil Douglas, Mike Pouncey, Billy Turner, and James to face the Falcons. While it is not horrible, it is not exactly a confidence boosting line for the dress rehearsal contest. Offensive line will be the story early in the game - and hopefully will not be the story by the end of the contest.
Yes, I know Tannehill has had a hot start to the Preseason, but this is the game that matters the most. With a shaky offensive line at best, Tannehill is going to have to stand in the pocket and make throws with players all around him. Will he be able to step up in the pocket and continue to complete passes like he has so far through the exhibition season?
We will include the entire passing game here, so look for how the Dolphins spread the ball around. Will Jordan Cameron get more involved in the offense? Can the Dolphins take the passing game from a solid possession style offense into an attacking, aggressive one? A big part of that will be determined by the offensive line, but if Tannehill can keep up the high play levels he has demonstrated thus far, including impressive decision making and ball placement, the Dolphins will clearly be set for the start of the regular season.
There are indications that Koa Misi could play this week, having just started practicing again after two weeks off with a calf injury. If he does, how will the Dolphins start the game? The best guess is with Jelani Jenkins on the weak side, Kelvin Sheppard in the middle, and Misi on the strong side. That said, will Sheppard be able to lay claim to the starting spot, or will Misi work his way back to the middle position, with Chris McCain, who has disappeared recently, earning a starting position on the strong side?
With the extended playing time for the Dolphins this week, Ndamukong Suh's presence should be felt more than in the previous games, which should translate to increased play from the linebacker. Will it actually happen?