The Miami Dolphins will play in the most important game of the preseason tonight when they host the Atlanta Falcons at Sun Life Stadium. With the starting lineup expected to play through the third quarter, this will serve as a dress rehearsal of sorts.
Many of the starter battles are already concluded, now will be the chance for the team to iron out the kinks and show whether they can execute the new fast-paced offense being installed by coach Joe Philbin. It's still just a preseason game, but Dolphins fans will be looking for improvement with the season opener now just two weeks away. Here are some major story lines to keep an eye on:
Can Ryan Tannehill keep making strides? Tannehill will get his largest chunk of playing time thus far. Last week against Carolina, he went just 11 of 23 for 100 yards, seemingly taking a step back in his first action against an opponent's starters (it didn't help that he was sacked 3 times and constantly hurried).
"He's making good decisions, and that's the most important thing a quarterback has to have," Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman told the Miami Herald Wednesday. "I think he's very much acclimated himself to the speed of the game at this point, and I don't think that's an issue."
Will the defense show any signs of life? Through two games, the Dolphins have allowed 329 yards per game, with most of that damage coming through the air. Only 4 teams are allowing more than Miami's 7.6 yards per attempt.
To be fair, keystones Cameron Wake, Kevin Burnett, and Karlos Dansby have seen limited playing time due to injuries (Dansby is expected to be inactive Friday), giving opposing quarterbacks more time in the pocket to find the open man. But Wake and Burnett will be back, so look for improvement on pass defense.
Will a wide receiver step up? The receiving corps is one of the weakest units on the Dolphins, and someone will have to get open for Tannehill. Starters Legadu Naanee and Davone Bess have combined for just 4 catches and 35 yards in the first two preseason games. That kind of production will not make Dolphins fans forgive GM Jeff Ireland for trading away Pro Bowl WR Brandon Marshall earlier this year.
Who will stop Atlanta WR Julio Jones? Jones is the kind of big-bodied receiver who gives the Dolphins secondary fits (to be fair, many different types of receivers gave the Dolphins fits in 2011). He's caught 9 passes for 150 yards this preseason.
The final score won't matter (it is the preseason, after all), but the Dolphins could reveal how much progress they have made in training camp Friday night. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.