The Dolphins finally play their first home game of the 2013 preseason on Saturday night at Sun Life Stadium. The second to last exhibition serves as a mock game for NFL teams, as Miami and Tampa Bay are expected to play their starters for at least the first half.
Joe Philbin’s Dolphins are hoping to play like a playoff-caliber team against a Buccaneer squad that was also aggressive during the offseason to improve on a 7-9 record in 2012. Here are the five keys to looking the part:
1. No more serious injuries
Tight end Dustin Keller blowing out his right knee last week in Houston was every team’s worst nightmare in a meaningless exhibition game. Keller was going to be a focal point of the Dolphins’ offense, but his loss doesn’t doom the team’s playoff chances.
Losing anymore significant contributors could put those prospects in jeopardy, though. Miami’s starters will play at least the first half, with the first-team offense likely staying on for most of the game’s first three quarters. That’s a lot of playing time — a.k.a. opportunity for injury — and only a clean bill of health will truthfully constitute a successful night, regardless of what the scoreboard says.
2. Jerry erases doubt at right guard
Last season’s starting right guard John Jerry had his left knee scoped early on in training camp, leaving the Dolphins with Josh Samuda to start the first three preseason games. The result was worse than expected, as Samuda proved to be a complete liability in pass protection. And given the constant pressure from the right side, Ryan Tannehill and the offense has yet to find any real rhythm. They’ve certainly made plays, but even in success, there’s been a sloppy element to their play.
Protection, at least from the right guard spot, should no longer be an issue. Jerry returned to practice this week as a full participant and should halt any leakage at the position. He’s always been a replaceable starter from a run-blocking standpoint, but he’s actually been pretty reliable in pass pro during his first three seasons. And solid pass protection is what this offensive line needs the most right now.
I expect his return to help Tannehill and the offense get into sync as the regular season draws near. Also, keep an eye on Lance Louis. He spent some time working with the starters this week in practice and could get a look with the first-team on Saturday night.
3. Miller wins starting job at running back
The Dolphins have yet to reveal who their starting running back will be this season, as they continue to consider naming either Lamar Miller or Daniel Thomas the offense’s primary runner. I’ve maintained that Miller is the more talented back of the two and if he’s not named the starter, the Dolphins would have been better off resigning Reggie Bush back in March.
While it’s unclear if Miller is better than Thomas, it was very clear over the past two seasons that Bush was. There’s at least a chance that Miller can be an upgrade for this offense and needs a starter’s workload in order to determine whether or not that’s the case.
4. Defense prove it can keep a top 10 offense in check
The Dolphins’ first-team defense has looked the part of potential elite unit the past two weeks. But we haven’t seen a large enough sample size to project whether or not they actually will be. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle’s group will likely play the entire first half against Tampa Bay, though, providing us with a fairly extensive sneak peek into how good they can be.
And believe it or not, the Buccaneers will be a nice test for this defense. Josh Freeman threw for over 4,000 yards, Doug Martin finished fifth in rushing and the Tampa offense as a whole was ninth in total yards in 2012. Shut them down, and the hype surrounding this Dolphins defense will only continue to grow.
5. Tannehill be the best quarterback on field
Josh Freeman looked to be a surefire franchise quarterback in his second season as a pro, throwing for 25 touchdowns compared to only six interceptions. By all accounts, Freeman is still a productive passer, but he’s yet to take the next step, to surface as one of the league’s best, and threw a combined 39 picks in 2011-2012.
Dolphins fans should hope Ryan Tannehill becomes a better starting quarterback than Freeman, that he’s already the better quarterback of the two. If Miami’s offensive line begins to come together with John Jerry back in the lineup, there’s no reason why Tannehill can’t be the best passer on the field Saturday night.