On Thursday night, the most critical week of the preseason begins. Not only do coaches generally allow starters to get more playing time, but the first major cuts are due Tuesday, Aug. 30, when teams have to trim their rosters down to 75 players. Because of that, these Week 3 games should be moderately more exciting than what we've seen over the first two weeks.
With just two games, the schedule is light on Thursday night. First up, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the Miami Dolphins at a neutral site, Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., airing on NBC. After that, the Dallas Cowboys -- featuring the NFL debut of No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott -- will face the Seahawks, and NFL Network will air the game live in progress starting at 11 p.m. ET.
Once again, we're assigning watchability ratings to help you prepare for Thursday's slate of games. Both matchups are ranked on a scale of 1-5 based on how entertaining we expect them to be. For complete local listings, visit 506sports.com.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Miami Dolphins
8 p.m. ET
National broadcast: NBC
The Falcons looked absolutely abysmal when they lost to the Dolphins in Week 3 of the 2015 preseason, and they'll hope to put that ugly loss behind them with Thursday night's rematch.
After a lackluster 2015 season adapting to Kyle Shanahan's offense, the Falcons' starters will look to get off to a strong start in Orlando. The Falcons particularly struggled in the red zone in 2015, and Atlanta hasn't fared particularly well in the red zone to this point of the preseason either. Against Washington and the Browns in the first two preseason games, the Falcons have converted just three of six red zone trips into scores.
Head coach Dan Quinn said the red zone has been an emphasis for the team this week in practice, and that percentage is something the offense -- especially the starters -- will try to improve upon against the Dolphins.
So far through the preseason, the Falcons have managed to generate some pressure on opposing quarterbacks, sacking opponents five times in two games. That's a trend they want to continue against the Dolphins, a team that has allowed seven sacks on its quarterbacks through two games.
Pass protection may be a little more challenging for Miami, as the Dolphins will be missing starting center Mike Pouncey, who will be out for the remainder of the preseason with a hip injury. Anthony Steen, a former guard, will get his first NFL experience at center against the Falcons in Pouncey's place. He'll have to get on the same page as quarterback Ryan Tannehill, whose solid outing last week was overshadowed by a lousy performance from Miami's defense.
The Dolphins have had trouble tackling this preseason, particularly against the Cowboys in Week 2, and new head coach Adam Gase said he expects to see improvement in that area against the Falcons. It won't be an easy task for the Dolphins, with explosive players like Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman spending more time on the field.
Watchability: 4 -- Week 3 games are automatically more watchable based on the simple fact that starters will be on the field more. The fact that two of those starters are Jones and Freeman bump up the watchability a little more.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Seattle Seahawks
10 p.m. ET
National broadcast: NFL Network (joined live in progress at 11 p.m.)
Away: KTVT CBS/11, Home: KCPQ FOX/13
The biggest news for Cowboys fans as the clock ticks down to Thursday's game in Seattle is that running back Ezekiel Elliott is expected to play for the first time in a Dallas uniform. Elliott has been recovering from a hamstring injury, and the team has been understandably cautious with its top pick. Even though running back Alfred Morris has had an impressive preseason so far, Elliott should still factor heavily into the Dallas offense this season. The rookie probably won't get a full workload like other starters, but Thursday should provide a glimpse of how he may fit in this season.
The Cowboys are coming off of a strong performance last week, beating the Dolphins 41-14. Dallas had 300 yards going into the half, but it'll face a tougher test in Seattle, which has boasted one of the top defenses in the league for the past few seasons.
Like many other coaches around the league, Pete Carroll confirmed that he plans to play the Seahawks starters into the second half on Thursday. The offensive line will need to do a better job of protecting starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who was sacked four times against the Minnesota Vikings last week.
For the Seahawks, two big names -- running back Thomas Rawls and tight end Jimmy Graham -- will be out against the Cowboys. Safety Kam Chancellor has missed some time with a groin injury, but he has returned to practice and it's possible he will take the field against Dallas.
Watchability: 5 -- Elliott's NFL debut is the highlight of the night, and seeing Seattle's starters on the field into the second half makes this as close to a must-watch game as the preseason allows.
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