Here we go. T-minus 48 hours until game day. A game day that has been heavily anticipated since March, when the Dolphins began an offseason renovation that must begin to pay dividends this weekend in Cleveland. Here are my five keys to victory for the opener:
1. Pressure, pressure, pressure
Brandon Weeden’s rookie season can be defined by two statistics: On plays in which the opposing defense blitzed, his quarterback rating dropped to a mediocre 67.3, but on plays in which those blitzes resulted in pressure or on plays when the defensive front was able to generate pressure on its own, his quarterback rating plummeted to a dreadful 27.0.
Needless to say, dialing up blitz after blitz should be in order for defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. And I don’t doubt that it will be. The Dolphins’ defense was more aggressive than we’ve seen them in quite some time during the preseason, and against a team with a pedestrian receiving corps like the Browns possess, pinning their ears back and bringing heat on most plays isn’t as much of a risk as it normally would be.
I expect Miami to crowd the line of scrimmage to pressure Weeden, as well as slow down running back Trent Richardson. And if Weeden hasn’t taken a big leap since his rookie year, he’ll likely struggle as a result.
2. Protection, protection, protection
As important as it will be to pressure Brandon Weeden, preventing pressure on the other side of the ball will be equally as vital. There are questions regarding the Dolphins’ offensive line, especially with Jonathan Martin manning the left tackle spot. And the Browns could have one of the league’s most underrated front sevens, with a pass rusher in Jabaal Sheard who has set his sights on 20.0 sacks this season.
It should be a great test for Martin and the rest of Miami’s offensive line, as they attempt to provide Ryan Tannehill will sufficient time to pick apart a Browns secondary that struggled a year ago. I expect running the football to be extremely difficult against the Cleveland front, so the onus will be on Tannehill, and in turn, the offensive line to move the ball and put points on the board. If protection is poor and Tannehill is never able to get into a rhythm with his receivers as a result, it could be a long opening day for the Dolphins’ offense.
3. Expose Browns starters, who probably shouldn’t be starters
There are two players in particular in the Browns’ starting lineup that the Dolphins should look to expose on Sunday afternoon. The first player is Cleveland cornerback Buster Skrine. Skrine was limited during Thursday’s practice with a shoulder injury, but he’s still expected to play vs. Miami. And that presents an opportunity for the Dolphins’ passing game.
Skrine will be matched up in coverage with 1,000-yard receiver from 2012, Brian Hartline, on many plays. While Skrine has been a solid nickel option, he really struggled when asked to cover the boundary in 2012, allowing 68 receptions and a 114.6 quarterback rating to receivers in his coverage. With No. 1 wideout Mike Wallace having a much more difficult task against Joe Haden, Tannehill should be looking Hartline’s way often.
The second player who the Dolphins should look to expose is starting right guard Oniel Cousins, who has been forced to convert inside from tackle after injuries to the Browns’ first two options at the position, Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston.
Cousins will be a favorable matchup to Miami’s penetrating defensive tackles Randy Starks and Jared Odrick, and to the run-stopping clog that is Paul Soliai. The Dolphins should also try to get Cameron Wake matched up with Cousins in pass rushing situations by blitzing a linebacker from Wake’s edge to engage right tackle Mitchell Schwartz.
4. No turnovers
I truly believe the Dolphins have a better offense and defense than the Browns. Thus, I believe they are and will be the superior team this season. But just being the better team doesn’t mean a win is imminent, especially playing on the road in a hostile environment. One sure way to level the playing field and allow the crowd to become a factor, is to turn the ball over.
Protecting the football should be priority number one for the Dolphins’ offense on Sunday. And their special-teams, if you recall the muffed punt and fumbled punt return during a preseason contest with Tampa Bay. Finishing the game with a goose egg in the turnover column will considerably amplify Miami’s prospects of getting off to a 1-0 start.
5. It’s clear which quarterback was drafted higher
Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden were both taken in the first round of the 2012 draft. However, only one was drafted in the top 10 picks at eighth overall. Which, of course, was Tannehill, who must show why he was selected higher than Weeden on Sunday afternoon.
Weeden may very well make Tannehill’s case for him if the Dolphins are able to successfully provide pressure throughout the game (see key No. 1). But a sharp performance from Tannehill will be essential, as the second-year passer looks to have a breakout season that begins to establish Miami as a perennial title contender.
Tannehill had some shaky moments during the first three exhibitions, but flashed some promise in the team’s mock game. He was 17 of 27 for 150 yards and a touchdown vs. Tampa Bay in preseason game No. 4, and could have easily completed four or five more passes and two more touchdowns if it weren’t for some unfortunate drops.
The point is, the last time Tannehill was on the field, he was as good as he’s ever been. If his momentum from that game carries over to Week 1, the Browns will be in trouble.