Dolphins vs. Cowboys, 2013 Hall of Fame Game: What to watch

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins and the Cowboys get the honor of kicking off the preseason on Sunday night. Here's what you should be watching for in the game.

Football is back. Kind of. The 2013 NFL preseason gets underway Sunday night with the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. This year's matchup features the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, though both take the field without some of their respective superstars.

It's only natural to be excited about Sunday's game. The last time we had football was February. Don't worry, by the second quarter, you'll be complaining that the regular season can't get here soon enough. But it's an important precursor to the year ahead for a pair of teams carrying big expectations. So what should we be watching for?

A new season means a fresh coat of Botox for Jerry Jones. For Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, this will be the first time he's seen his team play since training camp began. No, really.

Tannehill alone

Ryan Tannehill had a solid rookie season in 2012. Unfortunately for him, a trio of rookies overshadowed it with their outstanding play. He finished the season with 3,294 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Over his last five games, including a pair against the Patriots and one in San Francisco, he had five touchdowns to just one interception. And this was with a roster mostly bereft of receiving options; Brian Hartline was his No. 1.

This year the Dolphins spent big in the offseason on receivers, landing free agent prize Mike Wallace while rounding out the cast with Brandon Gibson as a capable third option. Through the last week of training camp, Tannehill has looked great by all accounts, not even throwing so much as a single interception in practice.

Wallace and Hartline are likely going to sit this one out, leaving Tannehill to do the heavy lifting on his own ... for the first quarter anyway. Even that small window of playing time will give us our first look at Tannehill's accuracy and an idea of what he's capable of in Year 2.

Tackle situation

The Dolphins tried to re-sign left tackle Jake Long. In a replay of their Jeff Fisher chase, they lost out to the St. Louis Rams. That leaves Jonathan Martin protecting Tannehill's blind side.

Martin's having a mixed start to camp. His run blocking has earned positive reviews. He's struggled in pass protection, getting beaten routinely by defensive end Olivier Vernon.

Pass rushing in the preseason is not quite as ferocious as it is in the regular season. That should help keep Tannehill from being broken in half, but it's a concern with hopes and expectations as high as they are for the Dolphins heading into the regular season.

Miami's front seven

For all the attention the Dolphins' expensive new wide receivers receive, the team's moves to improve the defense could have a larger impact overall. Miami traded up to the third spot in the draft to select Oregon pass rusher Dion Jordan. They also beefed up their linebackers by signing Ravens free agent Dannell Ellerbe to a five-year, $34.75 million deal.

Factor those additions into a group of defensive linemen led by sack artist Cameron Wake, and the Dolphins could make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

Life of Bryant

Dez Bryant's breakthrough season came last year, when he set new career highs with 92 receptions, 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. Could he be in for an even bigger season in 2013?

Anyone who has seen him play in training camp so far seems to think so. No catch has been uncatchable, and he and Tony Romo have been in sync throughout the team's offseason work. He's only 24, and entering his fourth season as a pro. Maturity issues and injuries have hamstrung the early part of his career.

But this is just training camp, and all those things sound like the typical buzz words of August. He is expected to play on Sunday night, so we should start to get a better picture of what's to come then.


Dez Bryant won't have Tony Romo throwing him the ball for this one. He had back surgery after last season, and the Cowboys want to take it easy with their investment.

No Romo means we won't get our first look at Dallas' play calling committee, led by Bill Callahan and an occasional dose of head coach Jason Garrett. It does mean we'll get to see lots of Kyle Orton, the quarterback who so loved the world he gave us Tim Tebow.

Orton's spot on the roster is secure, so this will be a good chance to watch Nick Stephens and Alex Tanney. And this is why we all groan about preseason football.

Defensive switch

With the offense missing it's most important piece, the real show for the Cowboys on Sunday night will be a first in-game look at Monte Kiffin's new 4-3, Tampa 2 defense.

One of the biggest question marks in making the switch was whether or not the defensive line was up to the task. Anthony Spencer was successful as an outside linebacker rushing the passer, but what would he do with his hand in the dirt? Unfortunately for Dallas, the team will have to wait until Spencer recovers from knee surgery to answer that question.

Safety is another area of concern. Will Allen and Barry Church, who work best as in-the-box types, have been the team's starters so far, but both look stretched in a defensive system that relies heavily on deep safety play.

Switching a defensive scheme always makes for some hiccups, but this team and its coach can't afford another disappointing season.

Now that we've ratcheted up the stakes way higher than they need to be, let's sit back and enjoy some preseason football.

More from SB Nation:

Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomes Class of 2013

Dolphins, Cowboys set for Hall of Fame game

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