AC In The AM: Starters Face Most Telling Test

This is about gaining confidence, about seeing progress, about eliminating the mistakes that have come far too often in the first two preseason games. Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium provides an opportunity – the last opportunity for many of the starters -- to plant some seeds that can flourish when the regular season begins.

This third preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens is about as important as a summertime game can get. Important because the starters figure to play the entire first half and maybe into the third quarter and important because there are plenty of things to get right, plenty of areas that have justifiably caused some concern over the past month or so.

No, the events of Saturday night won't have season-defining implications. But it will serve as a good indication of where this team is and what it needs to emphasize in the days leading up to the Sept. 9th season opener against Tennessee at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Ravens would seem to be the ideal opponent to face at this point. They have always given the Dolphins trouble, or so it seems. They are physical on both sides of the ball. They will test the deep secondary with some Joe Flacco long balls. They will challenge Ryan Tannehill with their pass rush. They will try to control the ball on the ground. They will hit you hard and see how you respond. Keep in mind that it is also the most important preseason game for them and they figure to play like it.

The Dolphins went into their regular season mode this week. They game-planned for the Ravens. They adjusted their schedule. They prepared just as they would if this was mid-October and so much was on the line.

"It's a good dress rehearsal for us," said Tannehill. "I don't think either side is fully throwing all of the cards on the table, but it's as close to it as it's going to get.

There is a lot the Dolphins need to get right Saturday night, important facets of their game that has yet to produce the way they had hoped. But it's early. The starters have combined in two games to play just about a half. That's the significance of Saturday night. Give them a chance to make adjustments, to get into a rhythm, to feed off of one another and to see if they can build some momentum heading into the games that count.

The reviews so far have been mixed. We've seen how well the offensive line can protect Tannehill. We've seen some nice runs from Kenyan Drake, a few big sacks from Robert Quinn and some promising performances from some of the young players who will undoubtedly make up the core of this team. But now we need to see more. Here's my own personal 10-item checklist:

1. Tannehill leading a scoring drive: The first-team offense hasn't scored a touchdown in the preseason, only producing field goals. A major concern? Not at this point. But nothing quite builds confidence like a 10-play, 80-yard drive. "We need to get in the end zone," said Tannehill. "It's huge."

2. Better red zone offense: With an upgraded cast of offensive playmakers, this should be one of the strengths of this team, but so far the Dolphins have done very little inside the 20-yard line. Granted, Adam Gase isn't showing much of his red zone playbook. Still, you want to see something to build on.

3. Improvement against the run: The first-team defense has struggled against the run the first two games, clearly the low point that 71-yard touchdown run by Carolina's Christian McCaffrey. This needs to get fixed Saturday night or at least start trending in the right direction.

4. Continued growth of two young linebackers: Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker will be starting their second game together. They have each shown flashes. But it is imperative that both quickly develop a sense of confidence and comfort they can carry into the regular season.

5. Third down conversions: The Dolphins were 4 of 24 on third downs in their first two preseason games. Again, this is way too early to form any conclusions. But it's not too early to start getting it right.

6. A few carries for Frank Gore: It's time to get the old man (don't call him that to his face) more involved in this offense. He has had a productive training camp, but he has yet to play in the preseason. Gore has the skill set and the pedigree to help solve two of the above-mentioned concerns: red zone offense and third down conversions. Time to see more of Gore.

7. Reduce the penalties: This has been an issue all summer and it figures to stay that way until the drive-killing mistakes are significantly reduced. Patience in this area is clearly wearing thin. Let's see how strongly the players have gotten the message.

8. No major injuries: The Dolphins have been relatively fortunate this summer, unlike last summer, with no long-term injuries to any of their key starters. With this being the last preseason performance for most of the starters, wouldn't it be nice to enter the regular season with no significant injury concerns?

9. A Mike Gesicki moment: The rookie tight end has yet to catch a pass in the preseason and, while we've seen plenty of positives on the practice field, I wouldn't mind seeing Tannehill throw one up in the end zone to watch how big No. 86 responds.

10. How about a win? I'm well aware that preseason results mean very little, that the summer is all about improvement and getting ready for the regular season. But the Dolphins are 0-2 this preseason. A win, even in late August, is always welcome.

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