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Titans at Dolphins preview: What to watch for Miami

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins open their 2018 season later today, hosting the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins actually get to have a normal NFL schedule this year, playing in Week 1 and maintaining their Week 11 bye week, unlike last season where Week 1 was lost due to a hurricane and the NFL used their Week 11 bye to makeup the game. So, the first thing to watch for this week is simply the game. The Dolphins are back on the field, along with the rest of the NFL.

What else should Dolphins fans be watching for during the game? Hopefully things that will lead the club to a win over a 2017 playoff team and set them up for a quick start to the season. The Dolphins should be better this season than the national narrative of them suggests, but they need to prove they are capable of competing for a playoff spot, and the Titans will be the first step in that process.

1. Fast start

The Dolphins have to get off to a fast start, both on offense and defense. The last few years, it has seemed like the team needs a quarter or a half to find their rhythm, and by then, they are playing from behind. Miami needs to get the rhythm early, putting points on the board and letting the defense get after Marcus Mariota.

Look for the Dolphins to use their uptempo, no-huddle offensive attack early in the game to try to force them into that rhythm. The team should be looking to establish the run early in order to open up the play action passing attack, while also using the short passes to draw in the defense, then attack over the top. Short passes early can also allow Ryan Tannehill, who is making his first regular season appearance since December 2016, to shake off some of the rust and get settled into the game.

2. Cameron Wake

Wake comes into this season having recorded double digit sacks in each of the last two years, the first time in his career he has reached that mark in consecutive years. He has 92 career sacks, putting that 100 sacks mark within reach this season, which would put him as just the 33rd player in league history to reach that milestone. To start the season, Wake gets to face off against Dennis Kelly and not starting Tennessee right tackle Jack Conklin, who has been recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last year, and has been ruled out of this game. Can Wake take advantage of playing against a backup?

3. Miami linebackers and run defense

This will probably be a story line throughout the early part of the season as Miami starts a rookie outside linebacker and a second-year-who-missed-all-of-his-rookie-season middle linebacker. The Dolphins need those two players, along with veteran outside linebacker Kiko Alonso, to play with an attitude and to play in the correct positions. Last year, Alonso was injured throughout much of the year and was asked to do more than just play his position, needing to make sure the rest of the linebacker group was in the right place and trying to cover for them when they were not. This year, if Alonso is going to look like an improved player compared to 2017, he is going to need to be allowed to focus on his role, rather than trying to play all three linebacker spots himself.

The Dolphins have struggled to stop the run game from opposing offenses over the past couple of years, and the preseason was not exactly reassuring in that regard. The team is looking to a steady rotation of defensive tackles and defensive ends to keep the line fresh throughout the game, but it will be up to the linebackers to make sure they are hitting the right gap and sealing up holes. The linebackers have to prove they are ready for the NFL, otherwise Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis could have big days.

4. Penalty flags

Expect to see flags. It feels like the Dolphins are flagged way too often, though in the preseason it was not as bad as it felt at times. That said, the team still needs to clean up their pre-snap and drive-killing penalties. And, if the Thursday game between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles, where 26 penalties were called, the referees are not afraid of throwing a flag early this year. Expect to see flags.

5. Dolphins wide receivers

This is the “Ryan Tannehill is back” section of the what to watch this week, but it really is not about Tannehill. Yes, the quarterback needs to shake off the rust and he needs to prove he is ready to lead this team back to the playoffs, but this week may be more about the receivers (and tight ends). There are a lot of new faces among the options for Tannehill in the passing game, and they need to perform so the quarterback can get comfortable with them quickly. DeVante Parker is doubtful for the game and probably will not play, which means it will be up to Kenny Stills, Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, and Jakeem Grant to be in the right position and find the space for Tannehill to get them the ball. Add in rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, who has looked good in practice but the Dolphins were not looking his way in the preseason, and Tannehill has talented options that need to prove they are talented options.