Lots to Learn from Tonight’s Preseason Opener at Atlanta

No more wondering what’s going to happen on the football field against a real opponent for the Miami Dolphins. Tonight’s 2011 preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons will provide important answers.

Head Coach Tony Sparano has to approach this game at the Georgia Dome differently than in years past because of the 136-day NFL lockout and the new training camp setup. Knowing that, he had to rethink how he delegates the playing time in between the veterans and the rookies.

“I think when you look at the first preseason game from other years you have a pretty good idea of how far down the road you were from an install standpoint,” Sparano said. “Going into this game it’s hard to be much more, I don’t want to use the term vanilla, but it’s kind of where you’re going to be. You’ve got to let these guys have a chance to play and I mean to put them out there and to ask them to do something that maybe they’ve only done once out here on the practice field right now doesn’t really give them a chance.

“I think you really got to just ask these guys to do minimal in this ball game and that’s where I think it gets graded a little bit differently, where going into this game you know a year ago you might have had 20 practices prior to this game. I mean we’re going to go into this game and we’re going have really 11 practices so that’s going to dictate it.”

Another factor in Sparano’s decision making will be the health of his players, particularly the projected starters. The lack of an offseason combined with the condensed schedule and in this case the playing surface (artificial turf) are all potential hazards.

Sparano acknowledged there would be a few players that might not play at all, with left tackle Jake Long the most obvious being as he is on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Other seasoned veterans that fall under the category of players Sparano already knows enough about include strong safety Yeremiah Bell, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, linebackers Karlos Dansby and Cameron Wake and defensive linemen Kendall Langford and Randy Starks.

“For the most part most guys will play but just not many. I can’t afford it,” said Sparano, who is beginning his fourth season as Miami’s head coach. “I have no gauge on how many plays we’re going to play. So in other words, I don’t know that our offense isn’t going to be out there for 40 plays and our defense out there for 70 or vice versa. So with that in mind I can’t afford to keep a group out there too long without getting some of these young players evaluated. I need to make sure these players get evaluated because as we get going here into the next couple weeks I really can’t waste that kind of time.”

This should be the kind of preseason game that allows both teams to work on important things and for the coaches to cooperate with each other in order to help each other get the looks they need on certain players. The Falcons, no doubt, will want to see what their first-round pick, Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones, can do against a talented Miami secondary led by third-year cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.

Meanwhile, Sparano is anxious to see his first-round pick, rookie center Mike Pouncey, in action against a speedy Atlanta defensive front. He’ll also try to showcase rookie running back Daniel Thomas, rookie halfback/tight end Charles Clay and rookie receiver Clyde Gates, as well as undrafted rookie running back Nic Grigsby and some of the other younger receiver like Julius Pruitt, Patrick Carter, Brooks Foster and Phillip Livas. One returning player excited to show what he can do is running back Kory Sheets, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in training camp.

“I’m too ready, I really am,” Sheets said. “I talked to my parents about that all the time and they were like, ‘It must feel like 10 years since you’ve carried the ball.’ From what I’ve been told they really want to see me play these first two games and see what I can do carrying the ball as well as pass blocking, mainly pass blocking because they know I can carry the ball.”

Sparano and his staff will be paying very close attention to every play against the Falcons and charting more information because they are less familiar with some of the young players than they normally would be at this time.

“Right now you’d have a lot more evidence out here on the practice field than you would any other time,” Sparano said. “In other words, if I had 15 or 16 practices I would know a lot more about some of these guys than I know right now.

Source: miamidolphins.com by Andy Kent