Preseason Week 3: Dolphins at Buccaneers Primer

What: Dolphins at Buccaneers preseason exhibition
When: Tonight at 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: Raymond James Stadium/ Tampa Bay, Florida
Weather: 10% chance of isolated showers and thunderstorms before 8 p.m. Low around 79.
TV: Miami WFOR-TV (CBS 4), West Palm Beach WTVX-TV (Channel 34), Fort Myers HBBH-TV (Channel 2), Orlando WRDQ (Channel 27), NFL Network replay Sunday night at 11, NFL Preseason Live

Through two preseason games, it’s difficult to put your finger on the 2011 Miami Dolphins. Week 1 in Atlanta, against a Super Bowl caliber Falcons’ team, the Dolphins’ starters were embarrassed in the first quarter, falling behind 17-0.

Then, last week, the first-team looked dominant on both sides of the ball. Chad Henne was on, the running game surprisingly shined, and the defense forced more punts than yielded first downs. But all those good things happened against what was the worst team in football a year ago.

The picture should clear up some after tonight.

Obviously, we won’t be able to judge the Dolphins with any real certainty after a preseason game. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a 10-6 team a year ago in one of the toughest divisions in football.

Essentially, the Bucs are what many optimistic fans think the Dolphins can be- a legitimate wild card contender. With that said, it will be very intriguing to see how the Dolphins measure up in Tampa tonight.

The Bucs will be eager to bounce back after getting shellacked by the Patriots 31-17 a week ago in a game that was a laugher early on. If the Dolphins’ starters outplay Tampa’s tonight, there will finally be some legitimate reasons to be optimistic in South Beach.

Here are the five things that need to happen for a successful dress rehearsal:

5 keys to success

1. Stay healthy: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The primary goal tonight is still escaping Tampa healthy. The starters will see a boost in playing time tonight, as I expect several members of the offense to stay in until late into the third quarter.

That means the window of opportunity for a significant injury increases. But if they can come out healthy tonight, we should see a fairly clean injury report when the Pats come to town for Monday Night Football in a little over two weeks. That would be a successful preseason as far as I’m concerned.

2. Another strong showing from the running game: I’ve been very adamant about how encouraging it was to see the Dolphins run all over the Panthers last week. Then I saw the Cincinnati Bengals, who possessed one of the worst rushing offenses in the league in 2010, do the same thing on Thursday night.

We need to see similar success sustained against stouter front sevens to start buying into the resurrection of the Dolphins’ running game. Seeing Daniel Thomas hit the hole harder will be reassuring, as would witnessing Reggie Bush run between the tackles with the same conviction we saw against Carolina.

Also keep an eye on the newly signed Larry Johnson, who the Dolphins will kick the tires on in the second half. If he has anything left in the tank he’ll stick as a security blanket for Bush and Thomas. If not, he may get the axe before final cuts are even made.

3. Chad Henne continue to build momentum for the opener: Chad Henne also did a complete 180 from Week 1 to Week 2. Henne threw for nearly 200 yards and was two overthrown deep balls away from a near flawless performance. Just like with the running game, though, we need to see it again, against a better opponent.

The Bucs finished 7th against the pass in 2010, slightly edging the Dolphins who came in at 8th. It will be a great test for Henne and if he passes, he’ll have himself some nice momentum heading into Week 1 assuming he doesn’t play much against the Cowboys in the final exhibition.

4. Defense dominate against solid Bucs’ offense: The defense had their way against the Panthers, shutting their first-team out and only allowing Cam Newton and company to cross midfield in the final seconds of the first half. The Josh Freeman led Bucs, who I consider one of the most underrated quarterbacks in football, will be a much stiffer test.

Tampa produced the 8th ranked running game in football last year with a commendable 4.6 yards-per-carry. And Josh Freeman had the 6th highest quarterback rating in the league distributing to Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow. With all the bold talk coming from the Dolphins’ defense this week, we need to see them play at an elite level.

5. Will the starting free safety please stand up: One of the biggest headlines of the preseason has been the battle for starting free safety. Chris Clemons, the incumbent starter, and Reshad Jones, the second-year player with plenty of upside, haven’t exactly traded blows like heavyweight prize fighters.

Neither has made any plays of real significance through two preseason games. All the things the same, Clemons is going to start. The Dolphins trust him more and if Jones, the “playmaker,” doesn’t make any plays, they’ll stick with the safer option.

But it would be nice to see either one step up their game tonight and cement their name into the starting lineup. I have a hunch that the battle will be decided tonight, as the roster fringe players will be the center of attention against the Cowboys. 

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