The Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns are almost mirror images of each other. Both have young quarterbacks, tough aggressive defenses and a chip on their shoulder to prove the playoffs can be a reality.
While the Browns are just 1-13 in season openers since returning to the NFL, the Dolphins also lost in Week 1 last season—which snowballed into 1-3 after four weeks. They were never able to recover.
Week 1 can be the easiest or toughest game to plan for. A team can use its time wisely and have flawless execution or can overthink the plan, leaving it wondering how to bounce back after a loss.
The best way to approach Week 1 is to keep it simple. Focus on what you know your team does best, and don't get too fancy.
Here are some keys to a successful Browns game plan.
Get to the Quarterback Quickly
It is not a secret that a blitzing defense leaves holes in the secondary when it doesn't reach the quarterback. This is why it is imperative that the Browns limit the time Ryan Tannehill has to make decisions.
Last year, the Dolphins were 18th in the NFL, allowing 37 sacks, and 23rd in the NFL, allowing 66 QB hits.
Let's look at the difference two seconds can make with the Browns defense.
This is a look at Cleveland's pre-snap formation against the Indianapolis Colts. It is a 1st-and-10 around midfield, and the Colts have presented a three-wide receiver look.
In this formation, the Browns have traded a defensive lineman for an extra cornerback and will rush just four players, two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers.
As you can see, the remaining two linebackers, a safety and a corner will drop into zones spanning across the field. This is a basic nickel zone defense which forces quarterbacks to try to split the defenders with an intermediate route, dump off to a flat route or throw the ball deep downfield, testing the safeties.
The ball is snapped with 13 minutes and 30 seconds on the game clock. Even with a vanilla zone defense the line is able to create pressure from the outside. Both Quentin Groves and Paul Kruger get deep penetration into the pocket.
Despite Andrew Luck having a safety valve in the flat, the pressure comes too fast and Kruger gets the sack forcing a three-yard loss. The hit on Luck came at 13:28 on the game clock or two seconds after the snap. This is nowhere near enough time for Luck to get through his progressions.
This is a look at the very next play. It is a 2nd-and-13 scenario, and the Browns defense is still in nickel. This time, the formation is exactly the same except Craig Robertson is showing blitz on the near side.
Not only does Robertson not blitz but neither does Groves, both falling back into coverage. The blitz happens on the far side of the formation from the cornerback position. Buster Skrine, Kruger and both defensive linemen try to overload the right side of the line.
On the near side of the formation, Leon McFadden is giving tons of cushion to Reggie Wayne because he will have no safety help behind him. Both safeties will be helping on the blitzing side of the field, leaving McFadden on an island.
As Luck drops back to pass, the blitz is easily picked up. Luck sees D'Qwell Jackson moving into a zone to his right, both Robertson and Groves backpedaling into zones between five to 15 yards downfield, and McFadden's large cushion.
With plenty of time to read all these moving parts, he knows Wayne's crossing route will place him right in the middle of the field. He will be under McFadden and right in between Groves' and Robertson's zones.
This 14-yard first-down pass was a product of four whole seconds to decipher the defense. The snap was made at 12:53 and Luck got rid of the ball at 12:49 on the play clock. What a difference two extra seconds make.
Be Aggressive Even Without Josh Gordon
The suspension of Josh Gordon takes away a huge weapon on the outside of the field. Rob Chudzinski told reporters Friday that Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin would split reps in place of Gordon. Neither of them present the threat he does on the outside.
Both, however, present a threat from the inside, or slot, of the formation. Here is a play that went for 34 yards to Gordon but could easily work for Benjamin with his speed.
As you can see, the Browns have two wide receivers and a tight end overloading the right side, Gordon in the slot on the left and a running back to his outside. Brandon Weeden knows the running back is running a mock screen route, keeping his defender close. He also knows Gordon will be in man-to-man coverage because the lone deep safety will need to help the overloaded side of the field.
The protection on this play is perfect, and even though the safety (out of the screen) only takes two or three steps toward the overloaded side of the field, Weeden sees the one-on-one coverage to the other sideline.
With the safety cheating, he is unable to recover, and Weeden drops a perfect pass to Gordon for a 34-yard gain down the near sideline.
Similar plays will work using Benjamin's speed to go deep or Bess' precision routes to deliver a 10- to 20-yard pass to the sideline. I think Turner will remain aggressive downfield, and that is a good thing.
Know Your Assignment and Personnel
This is something the Browns may see pre-snap from the Dolphins. They love to use misdirection to give their pass-rushers an edge and allow their physical corners to bully receivers while the quarterback tries to figure things out.
The Dolphins are showing seven men at the line of scrimmage. They don't always use this formation, but they love to disguise their coverage on multiple levels of the defense.
Once the ball is snapped, two retreat into man coverage on receivers. The running back, expecting an overload of rushers up the middle, steps up to pick up a blitzer.
Matt Schaub's natural instinct is to step up in the pocket, which leads him right into danger. The center and right guard don't recognize personnel and choose to double-team the defensive tackle. This leaves two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Cameron Wake one-on-one with the right guard.
Easy matchups like this are exactly how he got 15 sacks last season.
Key Stats of the Game
When I look at what will decide whether or not the Browns will get their second opening win in the expansion era, three key stats come to mind: third-down conversion percentage, sacks and turnovers.
Here is how both teams did in those departments during the preseason:
|3rd Down %||41% (8th)||28% (30th)|
|Sacks||8 (22nd)||13 (6th)|
|Turnovers||+2 (9th)||+1 (12th)|
Third-down conversion percentage is always key because it keeps drives alive and wears down defenses. The Browns did very well this preseason on third downs and will need to continue that trend.
On the other hand, this is where the Dolphins struggled. Ray Horton and the defense need to make sure that struggle continues. Getting the defense off the field quicker will allow Weeden and Trent Richardson more scoring opportunities.
The Browns only managed eight sacks in the preseason while Miami got to the quarterback 13 times. Whichever team puts more pressure on the opponents' novice quarterback should win the third key stat—turnovers.
Both teams were very similar in this category. That is why sacks and sacks allowed will be so key. The running game on both sides is solid and shouldn't create many turnovers, but the passing attack is where a team can gain a distinct advantage.
We will see on Sunday if the Browns execute their game plan well or overthink it and fall to 1-14 in season-opening games.