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This is really the only game in August that matters from a big picture standpoint. This is the dress rehearsal, a chance to game plan for an opponent during the week and a chance to give your starters the most significant playing time of the preseason.
Some are playing for their livelihood. Others are trying to improve their status on the depth chart. But for the most part, Saturday night’s game against Tampa Bay at Sun Life Stadium is about the starters. About continuity and consistency. About making halftime adjustments. About simulating what it’s going to be like on Sept. 8th in Cleveland.
In other words: It’s time to get serious. Training camp is over and the season begins two weeks from Sunday. The starters figure to get no more than a cameo appearance in the final preseason game Thursday night against New Orleans. That’s why Saturday night brings with it significant meaning.
So much I want to see: Here’s my Top 10:
1. It all starts, as always, with Ryan Tannehill. When you evaluate the entire body of work, he has done well this preseason. He has kept his mistakes to a minimum and he has developed a real chemistry with his top receivers. Saturday night is about building on that chemistry. Tannehill needs to feel good about his game and about this offense heading into Cleveland. In so many ways, the weight of an entire team is resting on his shoulders.
2. This is a huge game for the offensive line. The experimenting and the shuffling has, by and large, stopped. Four of the starting spots are locked in: Jonathan Martin at left tackle, Richie Incognito at left guard, Mike Pouncey at center and Tyson Clabo at right tackle. It appears that John Jerry has the starting right guard spot assuming he can stay healthy, although Lance Louis could also be a factor. Jerry returned to practice this week, but he needs to get on the field against Tampa Bay. He needs time with his teammates. Continuity here is essential and there has been very little of it in the preseason.
3. Who’s going to start at running back? It isn’t the ideal scenario to head into your fourth preseason game not knowing. But the difference between Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas this summer has been razor thin. You can make a case for both. I’ve got a feeling, a strong feeling, that the coaches are hoping that one of them distances himself against the Bucs. For both players, they have a starting job on the line.
4. Who’s going to replace Dustin Keller? The most significant loss of the preseason won’t be easy to replace. In fact, you can make the case that there is no one player on this roster who can duplicate Keller’s skill set. But the Dolphins must move on and that means Charles Clay must step-up, rookie Dion Sims must continue his development and Mike Egnew must demonstrate he deserves playing time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dolphins claimed a tight end when rosters are trimmed next week, but for now the hope is that somebody does something special.
5. I want to see more of the first-team defense. Not a whole lot more, but enough to build on the confidence that has developed this summer. My gut feeling is that this is a top five defense. Loaded in almost every area. Significant challenges will come early in the season. What I want to see most against the Bucs is more takeaways, more impact plays, and no injuries.
6. Settling on the rotation at cornerback: The release earlier this week of Richard Marshall came as a surprise, more for the timing of it than anything else. But the Dolphins are loaded at cornerback which is a good problem to have. Now, it is important to build a pecking order, to figure out how much some of the young players can contribute right away.
7. How special will the special teams be? This is an enormous game for those players hoping to make the team based on their special teams contributions. On punt coverage, watch for the players lined up wide, the flyers. Who are the Dolphins using early in the game? Check out the wedge busters on kick returns. Which players do you see a lot of? Those are usually clear indicators of roster decisions.
8. Pressure kicks: It would be great if rookie Caleb Sturgis has a chance to win Saturday night’s game with a meaningful kick. While there is no more kicking battle, and while we know all about Sturgis’ accuracy and leg strength, what we don’t know is how he’ll respond with the game on the line. This is when a placekicker earns his keep.
9. Clean up the mistakes: Joe Philbin often likes to use the expression “playing a clean game.” Defined that means hold your penalties to a minimum, protect the ball on offense and play with poise and confidence. Simplifying it even more, I want to see both the first team offense and defense in regular season form.
10. Which young players will contribute? This has been an ongoing theme this summer and this isn’t as much about making the team as it is making an impact. Here’s five names to follow: Cornerbacks Will Davis and Jamar Taylor, defensive end Derrick Shelby, wide receiver Marvin McNutt and linebacker Jelani Jenkins. That should be enough to keep you busy.
On Monday, A.C. in the A.M. evaluates what happened against the Bucs
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.