This is when we need to see undeniable growth, when continuity and chemistry become paramount, when problems begin finding solutions and when the thinking changes from exploring the roster to finalizing it.
We have reached the crossroads of the preseason, the oh-so-important third game when the starters often play the entire first half and into the third quarter, when substitution patterns are refined and when things in general reach a level of intensity and preparation that screams the regular season is just about here.
Yes, Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Hard Rock Stadium, we figure to learn more about this team than we have at any point in the summer. The big question: Will we like what we learn?
We've seen bits and pieces of real promise over the first two preseason games. We have seen the emergence of undrafted rookie receiver Preston Williams, the instant impact of former CFL linebacker Sam Eguavoen, the building of a new-look offensive line with two rookie starters at guard and a variety of other positive changes implemented by this new coaching staff.
Now we need to see it all come together. That's what Thursday night is really all about. Get your starters all the work they need heading into the opener. Refine your substitution patterns. Locate your core special teams players. Build some momentum on offense and some consistency on defense. Get some of your injured back on the field. Most importantly, develop a sense of confidence and purpose heading into the season.
Indeed, there is a lot to accomplish against the Jaguars, certainly considering that most of the starters usually sit out the final preseason game to re-charge for the opener. This is a young team, as young as any team in the league, and because of that every opportunity is an important one; every game a learning experience.
"We have a lot of areas that need improvement," said coach Brian Flores. "That's going to be our focus."
In some ways, this third preseason game is unlike many others in past seasons because of the unsettled nature of this roster. It's one thing to play your starters the entire first half, but what if you have yet to finalize exactly who those starters are? That makes this game a proving ground as much as it does a final tune-up.
Look at this roster and you'll see what I'm talking about. The mantra of this coaching staff from Day One has been wide-open competition across the board. While that window has narrowed over the past two or three weeks, there still remains much to be determined. That could even conceivably carry over to the final preseason game when the starters usually rest. The roster itself remains fluid and I would imagine when the final cut down occurs on the last day of this month more shuffling will take place.
Until then, the focus is clearly on Thursday night and the most telling test of the summer. With that in mind, here are five of the things that warrant our closest attention.
Is it decision time at quarterback?
Flores said after last week's game that Ryan Fitzpatrick would "probably" get the start against Jacksonville and nothing seems to have happened this week to change that thinking. But Flores also said we should not read into this as a final determination, though it sure seems like a strong performance would solidify Fitzpatrick's status. "This is what I want to be and where I want to be," Fitzpatrick said of starting. As for Josh Rosen, he says he isn't focused on the competition, "it's all about getting better every day." I remain of the belief that clarity will come Thursday night.
Building trust on the offensive line
Barring something unforeseen, the five starters are set, which is one of the few areas of the team where a final determination has been made. Now it's about building a rapport, creating a chemistry and establishing a level of communication that is paramount for five to become one. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that two of the starters are rookie guards Michael Deiter and Shaq Calhoun and a third, right tackle Jesse Davis, is making the move from guard. A lot therefore will fall into the laps of a couple of veterans, center Daniel Kilgore and left tackle Laremy Tunsil. This group needs as much time together as possible, which is what Thursday night is all about.
Getting some of the injured back
Several of the injured returned to practice this week, most notably safety Reshad Jones and wide receiver Jakeem Grant. We may see a few more return for this game, though there are no guarantees. The bottom line is that this team not only needs to get healthier, but it also needs time for these previously injured players to get a feel for game action. Unfortunately time is rapidly running out, which is why we may see some of these players in the final preseason game.
Summer sensations continuing
Two of the biggest surprises up until now have been undrafted rookie receiver Preston Williams and former CFL linebacker Sam Eguavoen. In my view, both have already earned a spot on the roster, but what about more than that? What about significant playing time? As improbable as it may have sounded a month ago, both are well within reach of exactly that. What they need now is another strong performance against the Jaguars.
The many looks of this defense
No, we're not going to see the defensive playbook unloaded in one preseason game. But it shouldn't be as vanilla as it has been either. I expect we're going to see a variety of looks, formations and personnel groupings on defense and I'm interested to see how this plays out with the first group in the game. It's no secret that versatility and unpredictability are important parts of this new defensive look and while we won't see it unveiled in force until Sept. 8th against Baltimore, I anticipate somewhat of a sneak preview on Thursday night.