It’s been 248 days since the Miami Dolphins last played a meaningful football game. But it’s been years since they’ve played in a regular-season opener where a win was as demanded as it will be in Sunday’s showdown in Cleveland.
Given the gauntlet that awaits the Dolphins in Weeks 2 through 5, losing to the Browns would put Miami in a hole that may prove too difficult to dig out of. And for a franchise that has gone all-in to win in 2013, that’s something that just can’t happen.
But are the Dolphins really so much better than the Browns that losing should be deemed unacceptable? Let’s take a look at which team has the edge on paper heading into Sunday’s game.
Dolphins pass defense vs. Browns passing attack
The Dolphins possessed one of the league’s easiest secondaries to throw on in 2012, finishing a dreadful 27th against the pass. But Miami inked former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes during the offseason, who has shown no ill effects of the Achilles injury he suffered last season, and the pass rush looks more capable beyond All-Pro defensive end Cameron Wake with Dion Jordan and an improved Olivier Vernon in the mix.
I’m expecting an upgraded Dolphins pass defense this season, but there remains burning questions about the boundary spot opposite Brent Grimes and the team’s depth at cornerback. When there isn’t a consistent pass rush, I think we’ll see Dimitri Patterson, who will be the starting boundary corner in Miami’s base defense, and Nolan Carroll, who will take over that role from Patterson in nickel and dime packages, get picked on by some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks this season.
But Brandon Weeden is not one of the passers who should expose the two. Weeden is expected to improve in his second season with the Browns, but during the team’s third preseason game, which is considered to be the dress rehearsal and the most telling exhibition action, he completed under 50 percent of his passes and really struggled to move the Browns down the field on a less-than-stellar Colts defense.
It also doesn’t help that Weeden will be without his top receiver Josh Gordon, who is suspended for the first two games of the season. Former Dolphin Davone Bess, who is expected to start in place of Gordon, can be a handful for opposing defenses when operating out of the slot, but he lacks the speed to stretch the field on the perimeter.
I do think pressuring Weeden from the edge will be difficult, as the Browns have an outstanding left tackle in Joe Thomas and a solid right tackle in Mitchell Schwartz. But they’re hurting some on the interior, as right guard Shawn Lauvao will miss the game with a high ankle sprain. Expect blitz-happy defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to bring heat throughout with linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, and Miami’s dominant three-man rotation at defensive tackle should be able to provide some interior pressure.
Weeden’s offensive line will give him a chance to make plays down the field, but given his inconsistency and diminished wide receiver corps, the Dolphins’ secondary should hold its own.
Dolphins rushing attack vs. Browns run defense
The Dolphins will be facing one of the league’s most underrated front sevens on Sunday in Cleveland. Nose tackle Phil Taylor and defensive end Desmond Bryant make up an impressive defensive line, and the linebacker corps should be improved with the additions of Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo (status unknown for Sunday’s game) as edge rushers. Also, the Browns’ new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, brings an aggressive scheme to the table that could expose some of the Dolphins’ deficiencies along the offensive line.
With that said, I do think the Dolphins’ ground game has some upside this season. It’s unproven, but there is certainly some potential there. Starting running back Lamar Miller’s struggles during the preseason were overblown, as I saw a back with good vision, patience and burst on most runs. I do have concerns about the rest of Miami’s stable of backs, though. Daniel Thomas is expected to assume an expansive role this season, but hasn’t been able to prove he’s the short-yardage back this offense needs.
Four of the Dolphins’ five starting offensive linemen project to be satisfactory run blockers, however. John Jerry is the lone exception at right guard, but his pass protection prowess has earned him the starting job for now.
We should see some solid production from Miller and the Dolphins’ running game this season, but they’ll struggle to pick up tough yards on an underestimated Browns defense.
Dolphins run defense vs. Browns rushing attack
2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson is healthy and appears to be poised for a breakout season. But while providing a pass rush against a formidable Cleveland offensive line will prove difficult for Miami’s front seven, I’m expecting the Dolphins to handle the Browns in the trenches against the run.
Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are just too stout up front, and the team’s new starting linebacker tandem — Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler — play fast, physical and aggressive.
I will say that the Dolphins better be ready to gang tackle, as Richardson is a physical runner who can wear down a defense. But if they’re ready to hit and wrap up, there’s no reason why Richardson should average any more than the 3.6 yards per carry he managed as a rookie.
And given Cleveland’s pedestrian receiving corps, the Dolphins should be able to stack the box against the run, with safety Reshad Jones cleaning up any leakage from the front seven.
Dolphins passing attack vs. Browns pass defense
The Browns struggled against aerial attacks in 2012, finishing the year as the 25th ranked pass defense. But cornerback Joe Haden’s absence in five games certainly didn’t help. When healthy, Haden is a legitimate top-10 corner in the NFL with arguably a top-five ceiling. He’s given Dolphins speedster Mike Wallace fits in the past and could make getting Ryan Tannehill’s $60 million new toy heavily involved in the offense a difficult task.
On the opposite side of the field lies a huge opportunity for Ryan Tannehill, Brian Hartline and the offense, though. Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine was recently named the starter opposite Haden, despite getting torched in coverage on a regular basis in 2012. If Skrine hasn’t taken a big leap this season, Hartline should be in store for a big afternoon.
Keeping Tannehill upright will be key, however. While left tackle Jonathan Martin looked capable during the preseason, he still has much to prove. The Dolphins’ offensive line in general hasn’t benefited from many snaps together, and their lack of chemistry could be an issue against Ray Horton’s aggressive front seven. Tannehill has the ability to counter the potential issue by getting the football out quickly, which is something he continued to get better at as the preseason progressed.
I love the potential of the Dolphins’ passing game in Tannehill’s second season, but possible protection issues, no seam-stretching tight end and a lack of proven red-zone targets has me skeptical of how sharp it will be in the opener.
Cleveland enters the season with uncertainty in their kicking game. Spencer Lanning is a first-year punter and was recently pulling double-duty as the team’s starting kicker. The Browns agreed to a contract with Billy Cundiff this week, allowing Lanning to just focus on punting again.
But the Dolphins come to town with one of the league’s most powerful punters in Brandon Fields and a rookie kicker in Caleb Sturgis who has proven he has a fairly big boot himself. We’ll see how Sturgis holds up with the pressures of kicking in a meaningful NFL game, but he looks to be a nice addition to Miami’s special teams thus far.
Return-wise, the Browns don’t possess a proven kick returner, but Travis Benjamin is a threat returning punts after taking one 93 yards to the house in 2012. As for the Dolphins, Marcus Thigpen will look to pick up where he left off last season as one of the league’s most productive kick returners. He should still return punts as well, but the Dolphins are said to be searching for a couple more options to split those duties between.
Cutting down on mistakes will be essential for the Dolphins, though. Two fumbles on punt returns in the dress-rehearsal game vs. the Buccaneers were troubling plays.