AC in the AM: Starters Back In Spotlight Tonight

Posted Aug 17, 2017

It is time for the next step.

A week ago in the preseason opener against the Falcons, it was mostly about the younger players. It was their moment to show that further evaluation was warranted. But tonight against Baltimore at Hard Rock Stadium, the focus shifts toward the veterans and continuing to build toward the start of the regular season, now just a few precious weeks away.

The feeling is that the veterans will play at least a quarter, perhaps slightly more, after playing just a series or so against the Falcons. Next week, in the third preseason game, they’ll amp it up even more, probably playing all of the first half and, in some cases, into the third quarter. That’s usually all we see of the most prominent veterans in preseason games.

Which makes tonight important. It is imperative that this team has a strong September and the seeds for that are usually planted in August. The starting lineup must come together. The reserves must learn their roles. Communication must be refined and the new players, both rookies and free agents who figure to play right away, must develop a comfort zone with their teammates. You take steps in that direction all during training camp. But you need games to know that it’s working.

We’re not looking for any earth-shattering developments tonight. By the time the second quarter is halfway over, I expect we’ll see most of the younger players on the field. But that first quarter or so will provide a measuring stick for the veterans. How much more work do they need? Who looks in regular season form? Where are the concerns? The positives? What needs to be the emphasis in practice next week?

All of these questions in some form should be answered tonight.

I’m sure most of the attention will center on quarterback Jay Cutler and rightfully so. Barring a last minute change of mind by Adam Gase, I expect we’ll see Cutler for at least one or two series.

The importance of these next two preseason games for Cutler has nothing to do with learning the offense. You can already check that box off your list of concerns. He knew this offense when Gase was in Chicago and he’s already absorbed the few things that have changed since.

The importance now is learning his receivers. Where does DeVante Parker like the ball? How sharp does Jarvis Landry make his cuts? What’s second gear for Kenny Stills? How high can he get away throwing it to Julius Thomas? Cutler has answered some of those questions in practice. But until you play a game, until you’re going live against another team, do you really know for sure? So if Cutler plays, it’s hard to imagine him not being tonight’s major story. But he won’t be the only story. What else do I want to see? Five things quickly come to mind.

• Which rookies take another step? Five draft picks will play tonight and all have a chance of contributing as rookies. It starts with No. 1 pick Charles Harris, a defensive end, continues with cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, offensive guard Isaac Asiata and finally a pair of defensive tackles in Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor. Harris has already shown me plenty, but I need to see more from both Tankersley and Asiata. As for Godchaux and Taylor, they have both had impressive camps with Godchaux spending the last two weeks lining up with the first team defense. At this point, what we’re looking for is a continuation of what we’ve already seen.

• What about the rushing defense? This was a huge theme entering training camp and it remains that way today. Up until now, we haven’t seen the first team defense together long enough to properly gauge improvement in the rushing defense. That should change against the Ravens, I’m especially interested to see how the three starting linebackers – Kiko Alonso, Lawrence Timmons and Mike Hull – work together in the base defense. They will have so much to do with improving a rushing defense that ranked 30th in the league a season ago.

• An impressive moment from Julius Thomas: It has been a relatively quiet preseason for the talented tight end, a free agent acquisition. While that’s no cause for concern for a veteran like Thomas, I wouldn’t mind seeing a one or two play reminder of how special he can be. Got a feeling we’ll see his number called at least a few times against the Ravens.

• More of Jakeem Grant: I know I mentioned him last week, but his continued progress is important to this team. He is so fast and so explosive that he can change the course of a game in less than seven or eight seconds. I’d like to see him cleanly field a few more punts and do something special with at least one of them. I also continue to be intrigued with his switch to wide receiver and, with some injuries at that position, I expect him to get a long look there tonight.

Laremy Tunsil looking comfortable: We haven’t heard much from Tunsil in training camp, but his successful switch to left tackle remains one of the keys to the success of this offense. He’ll get his first extended minutes tonight and his importance only increases with Cutler at quarterback, given that Cutler just isn’t as mobile as Ryan Tannehill. You expect the Ravens will challenge Tunsil with a variety of looks. Interested to see how he handles it.

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