The Miami Dolphins are preparing to face the Atlanta Falcons in an Orlando preseason showdown for the Preseason Week 3 “dress rehearsal” game. This game should feature more of the starters from both teams than we have previously seen during the preseason, and should include game planned offenses and defenses, as well as halftime adjustments for the starters.
The NFL regular season is just two weeks away, but until it finally arrives, tonight’s game - and all the games this weekend - will be the closest we get to seeing regular-season style of football. To help us prepare for tonight’s game, I had a chance to speak with Dave Choate of The Falcoholic, giving us a better look at the Falcons, including former Dolphins defensive end Derrick Shelby.
Kevin Nogle (KN): I kind of feel like Matt Ryan is Ryan Tannehill, a few years ahead of Miami's quarterback. I know Ryan has had more success - like actually having winning records - and has been to the Pro Bowl, but I do not mean it in terms of actually being on the field. I mean it more in terms of fans wanting more, even if their quarterback is doing well. I don't know if, for the Dolphins fans, it is a case of the grass always being greener with someone else's quarterback, but it is a strange undercurrent sometimes. Ryan had a "bad" year last year with just an 89.0 passer rating, and it does mark the third straight year the Falcons have had a non-winning record. How do the fans view Ryan and what are you expecting of him in 2016?
Dave Choate (DC): Aside from Tannehill being way more mobile, I can see the comparison here, and I think Falcons fans are feeling it right now. Ryan is the most successful quarterback in team history in many regards and will retire with every single franchise record, but the Falcons haven't been to the Super Bowl with him at the helm, and he just wrapped up the worst season of his career nearly a decade into that career. I would say that there aren't a ton of Falcons fans who feel passionately that Ryan is an elite quarterback and that they wouldn't trade him for anyone else.
That said, aside from Kyle Shanahan's recent history with quarterbacks, there's plenty of reasons to think Ryan will bounce back. He's got a better supporting cast this year, he's in his second year in a system, and he's still a talented QB.
KN: A lot of talk this offseason centered on the Dolphins losing defensive end Olivier Vernon and running back Lamar Miller in free agency. However, I think that overlooks another player who could very easily be someone the team misses this year: Derrick Shelby. Miami had to move Shelby into the starting lineup last year as a replacement for Cameron Wake after an Achilles tear sidelined Wake. Shelby responded fairly well, putting up season totals of 37 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception, returning it for a touchdown. In four years with Miami, Shelby was not a dominant pass rusher, but he was always solid and worked hard to position himself as the primary backup for the defensive end position. Now that he has signed a free agent contract with Falcons, how has he looked in training camp and the first part of the preseason?
DC: He's been somewhat quiet in training camp and legitimately had a bad game against Cleveland, getting pushed around by Browns' offensive line, so it hasn't been sunny for Shelby just yet. That said, most fans liked the signing, Shelby's production in limited playing time suggests he'll be an asset, and the Falcons plan to feature him as a starter who will shift between defensive end and defensive tackle as needed. I'm bullish on his outlook in Atlanta, though I think he probably won't put up more than 5-6 sacks here.
KN: It seems like there is an expectation that the Falcons are putting the last few years behind them and moving back toward playing winning football. There does seem to be concern about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, however. What has caused this backlash after just one year of Shanahan in Atlanta, and what does he have to do to get back int he fans' good graces?
DC: Shanahan's track record has been scrutinized and mocked again and again in the fanbase (including at The Falcoholic!), and it has a lot to do with the fact that his offenses tend to get less effective after the first season he's there, he's undeniably arrogant and a bit inflexible, and he more or less openly clashed with beloved Falcons receiver Roddy White last season. Couple that with reports that Matt Ryan had trouble adjusting to the new scheme and you get the sense that Shanahan came in as an alien presence to a Falcons team that had experienced a lot of success and appeared to do more harm than good, even if it's hardly fair to hang all the offense's struggles on him.
To get back on the good side of every Falcons fan, all Shanahan has to do is get this offense to improve and help get this team to a winning record (or the playoffs, which would really help). We're football fans, after all.
KN: What will be the strengths and weaknesses this year for the Falcons' offense? Defense?
DC: Offensively, they should be tremendous running the ball. Devonta Freeman looks better than a year ago after a Pro Bowl season, and Tevin Coleman has the speed and ability to be dangerous as well. The Falcons will be able to ease up on the passing game a little bit and just pound the football, which is welcome. As far as weaknesses go, it's probably the passing game outside of Julio Jones, where everybody has a question mark associated with them. I do think the offense will be competent, though.
Defensively, this team is going to have a strong, physical secondary, even with growing pains from rookie safety Keanu Neal. Desmond Trufant is an elite cornerback, Robert Alford is very good, and safety Ricardo Allen should be better than he was a year ago. The question mark, again, is the pass rush, which has been a problem for Atlanta for a very long time.
KN: This is the third preseason game on the schedule, so we are likely to see the starters for both teams play deeper into the game than during the other three preseason games. That said, there are still likely to be plenty of rookies and younger players who can make an impact during the contest. Who should Dolphins fans be watching among that group?
DC: Rookie linebackers De'Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones are the guys to watch. They both might start in this one and get extended run, for one thing, but they're also genuinely fast, physical players who have shown a ton of promise thus far. There's an outside chance both will be full-time starters when the regular season rolls around, and I'm personally rooting for that outcome.
The other fun stories to watch are UDFA running back Brandon Wilds, who has legitimately impressed, and rookie receiver Devin Fuller, who has been a red zone weapon, which is very unexpected.