After two joint practices against the Carolina Panthers, the Miami Dolphins will finally get another chance to show what they can do in a real game as they head to Charlotte to face off against the Panthers in an honest-to-goodness preseason game.
The practices have been productive for the most part, about the only bad thing that happened was the loss of starting free safety Louis Delmas. Granted, that's a big bad thing, but it isn't impossible to overcome. So based on the past week or so of work, here are five things that should be watched carefully during the game Saturday night.
Walt Aikens has to prove he can handle the starting free safety job
As previously mentioned, the only truly bad thing that happened during the joint practices against the Panthers was the loss of starting safety Louis Delmas for the whole season, which created a need for someone to step up and take his spot in the starting lineup. So the main question is: who is the current candidate to do so?
The current favorite to win the job is second-year defensive back Walt Aikens, who made the transition from cornerback to safety once he came to Miami, and he has since thrived in that position.
Aikens will have to show he can perform the same way in games as he has in practices. He'll have to show he can cover well and handle playing in centerfield where Delmas often finds himself lined up. He already knows how to hit really well, now he has to show he can handle the rest of the free safety's responsibility.
Dallas Thomas must maintain his elevated level of play
I've been saying for the past few days now that third-year offensive lineman Dallas Thomas seemed to finally be rising above the level of mediocrity we're used to seeing him at, and was on the path towards becoming a legitimate guard in the NFL. I've been getting a lot of flack for defending him over the past few days, and now Thomas will have to show he's not faking it.
It seems quite possible that Thomas may finally be getting better and is developing after a long time of being flat out terrible, as his performances in practice indicate that his blocking prowess is increasing. What may hold him back is a shoulder injury he's fighting off, but even then he seems to be fighting through it.
All of these improvements are being made without left tackle Branden Albert flanking his left, so if he can continue to improve while Jason Fox holds down the fort, then Albert's return should elevate his status to a level where fans can be at least content to allow Thomas to play. But he needs to show he can do it, and the Panthers are a good test.
The linebackers need to execute in coverage
It seems that every single time I watched a linebacker end up in coverage in practice, and his name isn't Jelani Jenkins, that linebacker was getting beat in the passing game and was being forced to play catch up and try to make the tackle before too much damage is done. That isn't enough if the Dolphins defense is going to be as dominant as we envision it to be.
The linebackers to watch in particular are Chris McCain and Zach Vigil. McCain currently has the opportunity to show he can be an every down linebacker at the SLB spot, especially with veteran linebacker Koa Misi injured, forcing Kelvin Sheppard to take all the snaps at middle linebacker.
Vigil on the other hand is a promising rookie who has come on strong and really hasn't looked back since being given the opportunity to prove he can play in the NFL. But his weakness is also coverage, and it will be interesting to see if he manages to improve that aspect of his game. He's already shown he has good instincts, he just has to show he can cover too.
The offensive starters need to replicate their initial success
When the offensive starters came out onto the field last week against the Chicago Bears, they immediately proceeded to march down the field and eventually score a touchdown on a quick pass to Jarvis Landry in the front corner of the endzone on 4th down. Now against a tougher Carolina defense, the starters need to show they can replicate that success.
The issue with the drive before that was the fact that the Dolphins needed to get to 4th down at all, and they were forced to take a risk on a 4th down play. Would the Dolphins do something like that if it weren't a preseason game and it actually counted towards their record? Somehow I doubt it.
Offensive linemen Jason Fox and Billy Turner were both called for holding penalties on that one drive the starters played, and those mistakes need to be erased so they stay going forwards instead of backwards.
The starters are more than likely going to get more playing time this game, so they need to at least score a touchdown to prove that they weren't just taking advantage of a miserable Chicago defense.
Ndamukong Suh needs to eat Cam Newton
There are reports out in South Carolina that the Dolphins were actually asked by the Carolina Panthers organization to tone down their pass-rush so they could actually run their offense during the joint practices. The Dolphins complied with that request. Now that the game is on however, all bets are off.
The defense's success ultimately depends on how well All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh does in the middle of the field, and then that will free up defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon to attack the edges and make Panthers QB Cam Newton's life in the pocket a living hell.
Newton is big, strong and has proven that he has the ability to run with the football and could potentially escape pressure should the situation arise. The Dolphins need to show that it doesn't matter who they're facing, they need to be able to dominate in the trenches, as that's where most games are won or lost.
Suh is the biggest part of that, and given his and Newton's storied past, there should be some serious hits happening in this game.
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter:@FLSportDebater
Latest Dolphins News