The Miami Dolphins are in Cleveland this afternoon and will work to win their first game of the year. After two tough losses at home to playoff contending teams, the Browns are still a mid-level team in search of their own identity. That won’t make it easier for Miami.
The game is not a season ending must win contest but a loss will send the fans to the exits, the media to the edge of insanity, and Stephen Ross to the drawing board as he looks for the answers. The Dolphins will travel to high powered San Diego next week before coming home for a bye week. Today’s game will provide the team an opportunity to find some cohesiveness, get themselves on the same page, and finally…win. In doing so they will end a five game losing streak. The longest in the NFL.
While the Browns may not be juggernauts of the NFL they did knock off the Dolphins last year in Miami on a late drive ending red-zone interception by Chad Henne. Henne has played far better than he did last year but he has still failed to win a game in 2011 and the longer the team goes without a win, the harder it will be for the coaches to keep the players from dissenting.
This is a team that is teetering on collapse…and it’s only week 3. The Miami Dolphins need more than just a win.
Rumblings have already begun to leak from the locker room and two factions are beginning to emerge. Those that support head coach Tony Sparano and those that are quietly moving away. It’s hard to pinpoint who is on what side of that alignment but a loss today in Cleveland may very well surface one or more of those players. For Sparano, his team is at stake. If the idle chatter about those factions are true, the Sparano needs to convince his team that he can lead them to wins.
Sparano has always been a well received coach by most of his players. For every Joey Porter and Ricky Williams who chastises him there are a dozen others who will tell you that he is one of the best coaches they have had. Limited by new CBA rules, Sparano has been forced to peel off some of his more rigorous contact drills in practices. He can only full pad practice his team 14 times in the entire season after training camp breaks and a limited number of times during camp. It’s no question that a young team is on display to the audience and their lack of conditioning and preparedness shows. Some of that is lockout, some CBA, and some on the coaches still trying to decipher what they can and can’t do.
A loss today will not likely cost Sparano his job but it will most assuredly put him on much thinner ice. Stephen Ross is not an owner who would likely fire a coach in week 3. There are very few owners who would do that. He will however evaluate every decision made and believe it or not, he does care what the fans think of his team, his coaching staff, and himself. Ross is feeling a lot of pressure to produce a winner on the field. He knows that. He also knows the rich traditions of this team that have vanished over the last decade. His task to turn it around has been met with skepticism and parody. From celebrity owners to Club Liv, Ross is working diligently on his end of the business trade and leaving football to the football people. That will change as the business end continues to lose money.
The Browns are not a pushover but they are a very beatable team. The Dolphins running backs will face a 24th ranked defense against the run. A good match-up for Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush. They will need to be able to move the ball through the air as well, not an easy task against the number 2 pass defense in the league. It should be noted however that the Browns have played Cincinnati who roster a young inexperienced receiver corp and the Indianapolis Colts who are starting a QB not named Peyton Manning. The Dolphins will be the first big test for the Browns secondary.
On paper the Dolphins offense should roll but it will once again come down to the offensive line for the Dolphins. Pressure has put a serious clamp on Brian Daboll’s offensive system and without protection up front, the Dolphins have not been able to move the ball consistently when playing from behind. Last week the team used OT/OG Nate Garner as a blocking TE to compensate for the play of RT Marc Colombo. They can not afford to play max protect again this week. Henne will need some time and Daniel Thomas will not find daylight like he did against Houston.
Defensively the Dolphins will actually get a break despite the fact Vontae’ Davis will be out. Will Allen is nursing an injury so his availability is questionable which puts recently signed Nate Jones and Nolan Carroll front and center. At safety the Dolphins will get back Chris Clemons who has been nursing an injury and not played the last two weeks. While that may seem like good news, remember it was Reshad Jones who beat Clemons out for the starting job in a very tight contest. Jones has played like Gibril Wilson the last two games. Behind youngster Colt McCoy the Browns are ranked 25th in league passing after two weeks.
Up front the Dolphins need to find a way to get players up field and collapse the pocket. Cameron Wake needs to have a big game and not allow another tackle to dictate his success. The Dolphins front 7 is supposed to be their bread and butter and yet the defense as a whole is ranked dead last statistically. For all the talent that the front line has, the continual rotation of players in and out keeps players fresh but at the same time keeps them from getting into a rhythm. Sparano and DC Mike Nolan need to allow their players to develop that in game rhythm.
The Browns will try and run the ball with Peyton Hillis who will be available today it will not be an easy task. McCoy has done well getting his TE’s involved and will try and expose that weakness on the Dolphins defense. The Dolphins should be able to handle that load. Should be.
Perhaps the biggest factor in today’s game will be the weather where it is expected to rain most of the game. This will take the game out of the air and place it on the field. Daniel Thomas needs to protect the football and if the storms are strong, expect Reggie Bush to be the primary receiver when they can throw. This is a must win for the Dolphins. From a standing stand point to confidence. How they come out and play today will be the biggest indication yet of what this team will and can do the rest of the year…or it will simply indicate what they can’t do.
Win or lose I don’t suspect Sparano will be fired and I fully expect the Dolphins to win this game. This is by far a better match-up for the Dolphins who need to find a way to not hurt themselves. We will find out if they are up to the task or have simply started folding up the tents.