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Tonight isn’t about the Atlanta Falcons. That will have to wait until Oct. 15th in Atlanta when the score counts for real. Tonight is about the Miami Dolphins and showing that the promise we have seen in three weeks of training camp can continue against someone other than themselves.
That’s what the first preseason game means. Set the right tone. Build on the good things. Correct some mistakes. Experiment with formations and personnel groupings. And, of course, see which veterans are already in regular season form and which young players are ready to make a noticeable impact on this team.
“It’s a great opportunity for a lot of players,” said coach Adam Gase.
There is always a different kind of anticipation before the first preseason game. We understand that the final score means little. We get it that it’s more of a three-hour measuring stick for individuals and units than anything else. But this is the first time we have seen this team in full game mode since the playoff loss to Pittsburgh, the first time we will see the draft choices and the new free agents and be able to evaluate how they can impact the overall picture.
The calendar says the opening of the regular season is exactly a month away and while nobody is talking right now about that Sept. 10th date with Tampa Bay at Hard Rock Stadium, it is important that this team starts building toward that game.
And that, in many ways, starts tonight.
No, we won’t see Jay Cutler in this game. He just got here on Monday and there is plenty for him to do before reaching game-ready status. For him, tonight will be about watching and listening and learning as much as he possibly can from his position on the sideline.
Nonetheless, there is plenty to focus on in this game. Here are five things I’m especially interested in seeing:
• Some signs the rushing defense has improved: We won’t see the starting defense for very long and, for some veterans, we won’t see them at all. But there will be enough pieces in place to gauge the progress of the rushing defense, at least to some degree. Of particular interest is rookie middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan who is expected to get his first start and has had a strong training camp. The Dolphins were ranked near the bottom of the league last season in rushing defense. It has been a significant emphasis in training camp. Now we’ll see how it carries over to a preseason game.
• Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake: Both are enjoying strong summers. Both have an opportunity tonight to make an argument for more playing time. With Jay Ajayi still missing time in the final stages of a concussion protocol, Williams and Drake figure to get most of the first team carries against the Falcons. Under the right circumstances, I believe either has the potential to be an every down back. You see it just about every morning on the practice field, Drake with his flat out speed and excellent moves and Williams with his versatility and toughness. Now, what this preseason is about for both Williams and Drake, is turning potential into production.
• A big play from DeVante Parker: I’m not asking for much here. I realize that Parker won’t play an awful lot. But almost every practice this summer has featured one outstanding moment from this new-look player and there is no reason to expect it to stop in the preseason games. So what I’d like to see, maybe on the first drive, is Parker cutting across the middle and the ball hitting him in full stride, his flat out speed doing the rest. Then, he could probably take the rest of the night off.
• Rookie defensive tackles Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor: Both have done some nice things in training camp. Both have a chance to play a lot this season. Godchaux has been lining up recently with the first team in practice. That’s a very fluid situation and we’ll see how it evolves, but there is no denying that Godchaux has gotten off to a promising start. Taylor, meanwhile, comes with a reputation as a difference-maker on special teams, especially with his large hands that produced so many blocked kicks in college. Tonight should provide a good indicator for both players.
• Jakeem Grant as a kick returner AND receiver: One of the feel-good stories of training camp is how Grant has embraced the switch to receiver. This past week alone, he made three or four big plays, two long distance catches just in Tuesday’s practice. The idea is to get him in the open field, in one-on-one matchups, and that, along with punt returns, is what I want to see tonight. The key for Grant is holding on to the ball. It’s been an issue on punts, one that he worked hard in the offseason to correct. But now he must show in a game that he can avoid the occasional drop, so important as this second-year player tries to solidify his spot on this team.