It’s finally game time! While it may not be the regular season and we’ll only see the starters for roughly 8-10 minutes in this one (most likely), it’s a chance to see how one of the youngest teams in the NFL and the face of Hard Knocks is progressing.
We’ll go over Players to Watch, Match-Ups to Watch, and What to Expect from this game.
MDD Lead Editor: Eric Galko
Players to Watch
The face of the franchise now has begun to win people over thanks to his adapting to the system in practices, flashing downfield passing ability, and getting some help from the HBO cameras in Hard Knocks. But I’ll be hoping for some of the hype that’s surrounding him to turn into a solid performance. Again, don’t look at the stats. Let’s see if he’s confident in timing throws, if he can go through progressions, and if he can manage a drive or two.
David Garrard has been ruled as the favorite to starter. Ryan Tannehill is winning people over and is the face of the franchise. What chance does Matt Moore have to be the starter? His best chance may be to seize his opportunities in games. He’s under the most pressure to impress in the game, and I’m hoping he will.
Based on practice reports and from the little we can glean from Hard Knocks, Chad Johnson appears to be close to his old form, which is fantastic news. If he’s 80% of the last “Chad Johnson” season (back in 2006), then the Dolphins receiving corps goes from deep but lacking studs to more of a complete unit. We haven’t seen Chad dominate a game in two years. Pre-season should mean a lot to him.
Thanks to Jared Odrick injuries he’s dealing with, Derrick Shelby is getting a shot with the first team defense. And thus far, he’s beginning to impress. For an undrafted free agent who’s at battling with four other defensive ends for the 4th and 5th DE spot on the roster, Shelby needs to carry over his practice work into the games. And for me, this will be the first time I see him since he was just okay at Utah in college.
Vontae Davis has been reportedly “out of shape”, leading to his demotion on the depth chart. While the team is right to stick it to Davis and make it clear his lack of ability to stay in shape and poor performance won’t be okay , they need him to get back to where he played last year. Think of it this way: if Davis can’t get back to his play last year, the Dolphins lose their most physical CB against bigger receivers, a starter from last year, and have a talented cornerback who’s out of shape and can’t cover slot receivers in nickel packages. Very bad news if he can’t step up in the game.
Match-Ups to Watch
Doug Martin/LeGarrette Blount vs. Dolphins LBs
The Bucs are looking to be a run first team with Greg Schaino now in charge. That’s the reason he put a premium on the offensive line in free agency and why they took Doug Martin in the first round. While we’ll only see Martin/Blount in the first quarter, it’ll be against our first team defense as well. I’m hoping to see the defense that was fantastic the last 9 games of the season, not the one that struggled the first 7 of 2011.
Sean Smith vs. Vincent Jackson/Mike Williams
If Vontae Davis won’t step up, it’ll be up to Sean Smith to become the Dolphins feature cornerback, mostly because both he and Davis have more natural talent and a higher ceiling than Richard Marshall. Smith will get the chance to battle with two bigger receivers in Jackson and Mike Williams. If he can give them headaches in this one early, the Dolphins can feel much more comfortable if Davis continues to struggle.
Jonathan Martin vs. DEs
I was a huge Jonathan Martin fan in pre-draft, and so glad the Dolphins were able to snag him up. He has the downfield blocking balance and leverage on the move to be a fantastic right tackle. He does everything well as a finesse run blocker and has adequate kick slide. While there will be a bit of a learning curve, he should match-up very well against Adrian Clayborn, Michael Bennett, and EJ Wilson (the Bucs DEs) in this game. If he can show more than adequate ability now, the future will be very bright for Martin and this young offensive line.
What to Expect
I don’t expect Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby, Davone Bess, Reggie Bush, Mike Pouncey, or Jake Long to play much at all in this game. They have no need to play all that much, with the possible exceptions of Wake and Pouncey. Wake has to adjust to the defensive end position, and may be asked to get a few extra snaps as they play around with their formations. And as for Pouncey, with a quarterback competition that is wide open, he needs to develop chemistry with all three for now.
Lots of Action from 2011 + 2012 Draft Picks
The 2012 Draft was a great one in terms of value for the Dolphins, and they’re going to want to see how their early picks (Tannehill, Martin, Vernon, and Miller) are progressing. But maybe more importantly for that class in the short term, Rishard Matthews and BJ Cunningham are two receivers not locks for a roster spot, and Kheeston Randle is battling for the 4th or 5th DT spot. Along with those recent picks, the 2011 draft features roster battling picks like Daniel Thomas, Clyde Gates, and John Jerry. All three need to begin to play much better.
Too Many Receiver Subs to Keep Track Of
As it stands now, the top four receiver spots are set for the Dolphins with Bess, Naanee, Johnson, and Hartline. However, after those four, the last two spots are up for grabs, with seven guys battling for them. Look for the coaching staff to hopefully start weeding some guys out through this game by subbing those top four out early on. My favorites are still Marlon Moore and Rishard Matthews, but Julius Pruitt, Roberto Wallace, Jeff Fuller, Clyde Gates, and BJ Cunningham all have very legitimate chances to make the team.