AC in the AM: Tonight Should Tell Us Plenty

It is a preseason game with, in many ways, a regular season feel. That’s the best way to frame tonight’s meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles.

This will be the truest measuring stick of the summer. The veterans will play at least a half, in some case well into the third quarter. Substitution patterns will be formed. Third down packages will be implemented. A game plan will be followed. We’ve seen glimpses of this in the first two preseason games. But tonight takes things to an entirely different level.

Tonight is about gauging how ready you are for the regular season to begin and which of the areas, in particular, need special attention over the next two weeks. Tonight is about the starters getting into a flow, about making adjustments and about building some momentum heading into September.

We’ve seen some positives surface over the first two preseason games. We’ve seen some young players who deserve further looks and we’ve seen flashes and indicators that offered promise. But we haven’t seen it sustained; we’ve only seen small sample sizes.

That’s about to change. While tonight’s game won’t answer all of our questions, alleviate all of our concerns or justify all of our optimism, it will tell us whether this team is trending in the right direction, whether the execution and the chemistry and the trust has developed to a regular season level. The practice field tells us plenty, but nothing close to what we learn by an extended look against the starters from another team, in this case the Eagles.

Don Shula used to leave his starters out there into the third quarter, so he could see how they responded to halftime adjustments. “The third preseason game,” he often said. “usually told me everything I needed to know.”

What do we need to know about this team? What do we need to see? Plenty. Here are five things for starters:

• A large dose of Jay Cutler: In the two series Cutler played last Thursday against the Ravens, he showed some good things, made a few nice throws. But now it’s time to expand on that. This game is perhaps as important to Cutler as anyone. He must continue to develop a rapport with his receivers and with his offensive line. But there are other things. How he changes plays at the line of scrimmage. The cadence he uses. His presence in the huddle. The way he steps up in the pocket. It is new to his teammates. It takes time and repetition and that’s what he’ll get tonight.

• The return of Mike Pouncey: Finally, we’ll get to see the offensive line as whole as it has been all summer. It starts with Pouncey who will be playing in his first preseason game and who means so much to the overall performance of this line. Foremost, I want to see Pouncey get through the game healthy and confident. That would be a victory by itself. But I also want to see the continued development of Jesse Davis at left guard, more consistency from right tackle Ja’Wuan James and further evidence that Laremy Tunsil will flourish as a left tackle. But it all starts with Pouncey, the clear leader, and just to have him back in the lineup is a major step forward for the entire team.

• A big play and a big drive: Both are important, first to show this offense can do things the easy way, then to show it can do it the hard way. The big play? I’ll take a quick slant to DeVante Parker that turns seven into 70. Or maybe a long distance connection with Kenny Stills racing down the sideline? Either would be fine. The big drive? That means some third down conversions, some first down runs by Jay Ajayi and maybe a couple of connections with tight end Julius Thomas. There is nothing that better says you’re ready for the regular season than a 12-play, 80-yard drive.

• The run defense stepping up: This was one of the major issues heading into the offseason and continued through training camp. Up until now, we haven’t seen enough to properly measure progress, but that should change with the first team defense figuring to play at least the entire first half. How much of an impact will some of the new players make? Lawrence Timmons? William Hayes? Their track record says they’ll produce. This game could help validate that. But it takes a coordinated effort to stop the run, from the defensive ends holding the edge, to the linebackers taking the right angles, to even someone like safety Reshad Jones disrupting things near the line of scrimmage. That’s what we’re looking for tonight.

• Special teams taking shape: This is when the mixing and matching usually stops and instead Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi starts coming up with the first team personnel for a variety of units. Punt coverage? Field goal block? Kickoff returns? It should all come into better focus tonight. You’ll see the special teams core players like Walt Aikens, Mike Hull and Michael Thomas take on more prominent roles. You’ll see how Rizzi envisions some of the younger players fitting in. Keep in mind, it’s just as important to develop a chemistry on special teams as it is any other area of the team.