The best way to gauge what a team will actually look like when it starts playing for real in the NFL is to watch how it performs in its third preseason game.
This is the game in which the starters usually play the most, sometimes into the third quarter, but that may not be the case with the Miami Dolphins, who have a few starters who are well, just getting started.
Center Mike Pouncey and right tackle Ja’Wuan James are in that group. Both are expected to take their first snaps tonight and when quarterback Jay Cutler takes the field, he’ll do so with just 12 snaps under his belt.
This then may not be the best of gauges to determine just how the Dolphins will actually look when they kick off the regular season against the Bucs on Sept. 10 but it will still be a good one.
With that in mind, here’s a look at three areas of play that are worth monitoring as the Dolphins move a step closer to opening day.
Cutler played only 12 snaps in his Dolphins debut last week, completing 3-of-6 passes for 24 yards. He should play a lot more tonight, in part because he needs to. Cutler has only been with the Dolphins for 19 days and he’s trying to play catch up after missing all of the offseason workout program and the first week or so of training camp. Cutler is coming off a busy week in which he got a lot of work against the Eagles in joint workouts but neither those workouts nor that brief stint he had a week ago against the Ravens offered enough of a look at Cutler to determine whether he can truly be the savior he was brought in to be. This game should reveal a lot more about what Cutler has left and whether leaning on him was the best choice for the Dolphins.
The offensive line
Pouncey and James are both expected to start tonight and with the Dolphins seemingly leaning toward making Jesse Davis their starting left guard, this will be the first time Cutler has played behind the line that’s now projected to protect him when the season opens. The biggest fear, of course, is that Pouncey (hip) and James (shoulder) will prove they still haven’t recovered enough from their injuries to play at a high level while Davis proves he’s not ready to be a starter. The Dolphins desperately need this unit to come together in a hurry so Gase will want to see them work as long as possible but the fact Pouncey and James are taking their first snaps of the preseason may prohibit them from playing for an extended period.
The loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan forced the Dolphins to pull former Bengals starter Rey Maualuga off the street, but Maualuga isn’t ready to play just yet. That has given Mike Hull a chance to prove he’s worthy of a starter’s role, and he got off to a good start in that venture when he produced five tackles, including one for a loss, and a pass breakup last week against the Ravens. The Dolphins largely revamped their linebacking corps after signing Lawrence Timmons in the spring so there’s an opportunity here for Hull to earn a spot but he’ll have to keep putting good performances together to do it. The chance for Hull to prove he’s more than just a special teams regular is at hand. Let’s see what he does with it.