Big Dress Rehearsal

The third preseason game always is the most significant because it's when a team's starters get their most playing time and there's more game-planning involved. For the Dolphins, Friday's game against the Atlanta Falcons has even more meaning than the typical third preseason outing.

The Dolphins lost their first two preseason games, but more troublesome than the 20-7 loss against Tampa Bay and the 23-17 loss at Carolina was the way their front-line players were handled.

In the preseason opener, the Dolphins watched Tampa Bay take a 14-0 lead into halftime. Last Friday night, it was 17-0 Carolina before the end of the first quarter.

The final score of the Atlanta game isn't overly significant, but the Dolphins really need to have a good showing in the first half and into the third quarter — for several reasons.

With most teams resting most or all of their front-line players in the preseason finale, it's the last chance for the Dolphins to build some momentum heading into the Sept. 9 regular season opener at Houston.

Yes, the idea of momentum often is overstated, but not for this Dolphins team. Remember, this is a team with a new head coach, and new systems on both offense and defense.

The Dolphins also need to see some positive things from rookie Ryan Tannehill in his first outing since it was announced that he's going to be the team's starting quarterback.

Tannehill doesn't need to throw five touchdown passes against the Falcons, but it also would be troubling to watch him struggle.

For example, the Dolphins want to see some improvement from his performance at Carolina when the offense went three-and-out on four of Tannehill's six series.

After focusing almost entirely on the passing game in the first two games, it is expected the Dolphins will show more balance offensively against Atlanta. Coach Joe Philbin said this week the reason the Dolphins threw the ball so often in the first two games was the need to evaluate all the young receivers on the roster.

On defense, the Dolphins have really struggled in the preseason, but they've also been missing some key players and haven't done a lot in terms of blitzing or showing new wrinkles.

Based on what we saw at practice this week, we would expect Cameron Wake to be back in the lineup against Atlanta, but it's likely that linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and top defensive line backup Tony McDaniel again will sit out.

With a short-handed lineup, the Dolphins are going to have their hands full trying to slow down an Atlanta offense that is among the best in the league.

So the Dolphins struggling on defense Friday night wouldn't be nearly as troublesome as another poor outing on offense.

That's where the focus should be, and not just because of Tannehill.

Follow Alain Poupart on Twitter @apoupartFins.

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