Today’s the day. Later this evening, the Falcons and Dolphins will kick off their respective preseasons, opening up three weeks of intensive competition before the franchises have to slash rosters from 90 players all the way down to 53. Each game will carry a lot of importance for those players hoping to stick, even if the second half of each preseason game tends to be a bit of a slog for the viewers at home.
As is custom, let’s look at what the stakes are for tonight, how the Dolphins have changed since the last time the Falcons saw them, and what you ought to expect from tonight. This will be a bit more freewheeling than usual because hey, it’s preseason.
This is one game in an extended three game audition for every roster hopeful, essentially. With one giant cutdown after the third preseason game, all but an unlucky handful of players who might be cut for purposes of shuffling the deck at the bottom of the roster will get a long look. The stakes for those roster hopefuls are therefore rather huge.
Winning or losing matters little. Ideally you’d like to see the starters out there playing well in their limited snaps, and you’d like to see at least the top reserves play well against Miami’s reserves so you can feel good about the depth. Given the not-for-regular-season scheming and experimentation on display in these games, though, as long as Atlanta isn’t embarrassed we’ll feel fine.
Oh, and avoiding injuries is key. I know it’s trite to say that at this point, but the recent (thankfully somewhat minor) injuries to Jeff Okudah and Clark Phillips are a reminder of how critical good health is to a team’s fortunes. The Falcons need to get out of preseason in good shape.
How the Dolphins have changed
The Falcons last saw Miami in October 2021, and it’s fair to say much has changed. Tua Tagovailoa is still under center, but the Dolphins have a new coaching staff with Mike McDaniel at the helm, have added Tyreek Hill, and turned over all but a small handful of their defensive starters. For all that, they had the same record last year as in 2021, so they’re hoping this offseason’s additions propel them past the above average-but-not-great spot they’ve been in since before they unjustly dumped Brian Flores.
Fundamentally this is a team built to beat you through the air and trouble your quarterback, which hasn’t really changed. They’re just better equipped to do both than they were when Atlanta last saw them.
Also, the last time the Falcons saw the Dolphins, Miami had Mack Hollins. Key difference, there.
What to expect
A few things.
A quick hook for the starters: Atlanta’s finally on the cusp of a successful season—yes, I really believe that—and they can ill afford to have that derailed by significant injuries to key starters. You might see a full half out of the starting lineup at some point, but it’s unlikely to be in this first game against a capable Miami squad. For those starters who do play, expect 1-2 drives at most.
Limited opportunities for roster hopefuls: The Falcons will try to divvy up snaps to give players a fair shot, but we should see some early signs of who is in the driver’s seat for certain roles, and their performance tonight may help determine how many snaps they get going forward.
What do I mean by that? You may see Josh Ali, Frank Darby, and Penny Hart up as the first reserves at receiver, but a superlative performance by one and middling performances from the others might see the team clearly favoring one more than the others going forward. That happened last year with KhaDarel Hodge, who ran with the starters owing to injury in preseason Week 1 and impressed, fared well in Week 2, and was parked for the preseason finale as a roster lock. The best impression is a good first impression.
Rugged defense: This week, the Falcons defense impressed Miami and observers both days, something we love to hear. That should translate over when the starters and top reserves are on the field for Atlanta, given their talent and enhanced depth, and we should get to see what that means for this team in (somewhat) real game action against a gifted offense. It’s going to be a point of pride for Ryan Nielsen to clamp down on the Dolphins early on in this one, and if nothing else, it’ll be a good sign if they do just that.
One or two players clearly dropping off the roster: This happens in nearly every preseason game, and it’s an unfortunate part of the summer. If your major mistake is from a starter, they’ll get a chance to shake it off and rebound next week. If it’s from a player way, way down on the depth chart, the Falcons might engage in one of their favorite pastimes and shuffle them out, adding an option they became interested in recently. You should fully expect to see a performance or two that will lead to a cut, or simply a couple of fourth-or-fifth stringers who simply don’t find the field and wind up looking for new homes.