Week 3 of the Preseason is a major one for every team around the NFL, with starters going longer in the game than during any other preseason contest. Teams typically gameplan for the contest, preparing like it is a regular season game, and they keep their starters in through halftime, allowing them to make adjustments, again like it is a regular season game. For the Miami Dolphins, heading into a Thursday night game against the Atlanta Falcons in Orlando, this preseason game could prove to be even more critical as the team looks to find their rhythm for the 2016 season.
There are a lot of question marks still surrounding the Dolphins, and there are still position battles that have to be won. Performance during the third preseason game could be a critical part of deciding the starting lineup for the team, as well as the 53 players who ultimately make the roster.
To get ready to watch the Dolphins game, we have some of the things that you should watch for Miami this week:
1. Can the offense find their rhythm early?
The Miami offense still appears to be trying to figure out the intricacies of the Adam Gase system. Last week, the offense talked their way back into the game in an effort to work on their rhythm. This week, will they be able to find their way to the endzone early, and will the be able to be consistent with their attack? Quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs to be in full control of the offense by the time the season starts, and, since this will be the last real preseason work he does this season, he has to take advantage of this game to figure out exactly what his offense is going to be in 2016.
2. Arian Foster and Jay Ajayi
Is Arian Foster going to jump to the top of the depth chart? Is Ajayi, in his second season, going to claim that spot? Both players are likely to see plenty of carries throughout the season, so the answer to those question may be for title only. The more important question for these two may be focused on their health. Both players have been banged up and have injury concerns. They both need to come out and prove they are ready to be the “feature” backs of this offense, and that the team can rely on them. Thursday night, both players should get plenty of touches, trying to prove that they are ready for the workload they will likely receive during the season.
3. Offensive line cohesion
The biggest question mark heading into training camp for the Dolphins was the offensive line. After the first two preseason games, they still have a question mark over the offensive line, though it may be getting smaller, finally. The team started rookie Laremy Tunsil at left guard for the first time, and Jermon Bushrod started at right guard. That combination seemed to work well, though Miami is not sold on it yet, with Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas still in consideration for either starting spot. Add in the injury to center Mike Pouncey, who will miss at least the last two preseason games and possibly more with a hip issue, and the offensive line needs to come out and establish itself early on Thursday, protecting Tannehill while also opening running lanes for Foster and Ajayi.
4. Run defense
The defense as a whole could be listed, but we are going to focus on the run defense specifically. The Dolphins have made a big deal about how the defense is going to be an attacking defense, using the Wide-9 technique to add pressure to the quarterback. That style puts pressure on the interior linemen and, especially, the linebackers to be in the right spot to fill gaps and shut down the run. Thus far, we have not seen that part of the defense, with the linebackers appearing to struggle with their assignments or missing their tackles. It has to be cleaned up and, in a game with specific game-planning, this should be the time to see it.
5. Cameron Wake
Dolphins Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake, who is coming back off an Achilles tear this year, has not made his 2016 debut yet. Adam Gase basically called him a game-time decision this week. The Dolphins defensive will not be full strength until Wake is back on the field, and while the team is probably doing the right thing in protecting the leg a little longer, Wake is itching to get back on the field. Thursday night could be the night for him to get at least a little action, since it is doubtful the team would play him in the last preseason game. If Wake does play, everyone will be analyzing his every move, trying to judge how healthy he is, and how ready for the season he is. It does make sense to get him game experience before the season starts.
The NFL wants to showcase Orlando and Camping World Stadium with this game, as it will be the host stadium for the Pro Bowl after the season. This could also be a great opportunity for the Dolphins, with Orlando wanting to make a more permanent relationship with the NFL. The team could look to re-establish itself as the AFC team in Orlando - currently the Jacksonville Jaguars are the broadcast team in the area - and could try to return some of the fan base that used to be strictly Dolphins, but now is split between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jaguars, and Dolphins. Whether that becomes a annual preseason game in Orlando, or some other relationship, this could be a good move for the Dolphins.