Every team goes through some changes during the offseason. Whether those changes lead to growing pains, that is another story.
The Miami Dolphins made several key offensive additions, and Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns will mark the first true chemistry test for the team. They will field two new receivers, two new tight ends, a new starting running back and a shuffled offensive line.
Is quarterback Ryan Tannehill on the same page with wide receiver Mike Wallace and the other new skill-position players? Can the offensive line buy Tannehill extra time to read the defense? Can Lamar Miller go from flashes of brilliance to carrying the torch for the Dolphins backfield?
These are just some of the burning questions that face the Dolphins in Week 1 and for the 2013 season.
Here's what the Dolphins can do to make sure their offense starts hot in Cleveland.
Offensive Line Must Jell As Unit
If there's one position on offense that threatens to be the loose thread that unravels the whole sweater, it's the offensive line. They are a talented group, without question, featuring a former first-round pick, two second-round picks and two players signed in free agency.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman sounded less than confident in his group up front when asked about it on Monday.
"I still think it is a work in progress," he said. "John (Jerry) is coming off of an injury. Getting him back into the fold is going to be huge. He's been out for a little bit, but I'm excited about having him back. We certainly needed him back. I'm anxious for him to get more comfortable in there with the other guys and get more used to what we are doing."
The offensive line better hope it made a lot of progress between Monday and Sunday because it's going to have a tough test with a Cleveland defense that will probably bring exotic blitz packages with new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, formerly of the Steelers and Cardinals.
Specifically, center Mike Pouncey is going to have to get good pre-snap reads and make sound protection calls at the line to adjust for what he sees.
The Browns didn't unleash a full-on blitz-heavy approach this preseason, but we saw flashes of it, particularly in their game against the Colts.
On this play, the Browns secondary was in man coverage with a six-man rush including safety T.J. Ward coming with a well-timed blitz from the deep part of the secondary.
Three defenders got in the vicinity of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, tightening the space around him and limiting his movement.
Luck was still able to get the throw away, but he didn't get to step into the throw as much as he might have wanted. As a result, the ball was a little low and wide and fell incomplete when wide receiver Reggie Wayne couldn't corral it with one hand.
If the Dolphins offensive line is not able to buy Tannehill enough time in the pocket to make reads, Sherman may have to speed up the play call and start throwing quick-hitters—slants, curls, flats, drags, screens, etc. to keep the front seven honest.
Run Effectively Against Favorable Looks
The Browns identify as a 3-4 defense, but as pointed out by colleague Chris Kouffman, their personnel is structured around the nickel as its base front. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive end Desmond Bryant are prime examples of players who excelled as specialists in other places and were brought in as every-down players in Cleveland.
According to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), Kruger played 373 snaps in 2011, 260 of them as a pass-rusher. He was used in a more well-rounded manner in 2012, but that was partly due to an injury to Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs along with a slow start for then-rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw. PFF grades place Kruger as the league's 10th-worst 3-4 outside linebacker against the run in 2012.
The Browns may have built a defense that can stop the pass, but they've also built one that could be weak against teams who run the ball effectively when the Browns give them the opportunity to do so.
On 2nd-and-4 in the first quarter against the Colts, running back Vick Ballard was able to take a run for 15 yards off right tackle, in part because Kruger was washed out of the play and failed to set the edge in run defense.
Right tackle Gosder Cherilus has struggled in the past, but he showed no signs of struggle in using his 6'7", 314-pound frame to bowl over Kruger and spring Ballard for a long gain down the sideline.
The Browns went 2-8 in 2012 when giving up more than 100 yards on the ground and went 3-3 when they gave up less than 100 yards rushing. The Dolphins have an opportunity to run against the Browns' front, and they can use that to slow down the pass rush. Mixing in some draws might be another good way to get yards on the ground and keep the defense honest to the threat of the run.
Hit The Open Receiver
The Browns cornerback depth chart is spearheaded by Joe Haden, but behind him, things look a little bleak.
With a very similar unit in the secondary, the Browns gave up 63 percent completions in the passing game, the 10th-worst percentage in the NFL. According to PFF, their best cornerback, Joe Haden, gave up completions on 58.6 percent of throws in his direction. Thus, it could be the other cornerbacks who get tested.
The lack of depth could become an issue for the Browns. They put Haden on Mike Wallace in Week 12 of the 2012 season when Steelers receiver Antonio Brown missed the game, but in previous games against the Steelers, the Browns would line up cornerback Buster Skrine on Wallace and lock up Haden on Antonio Brown. This time, they'll be on the wrong side of the numbers game.
I asked Bleacher Report AFC North lead writer Andrea Hangst why the Browns would elect to go with this matchup.
Skrine is really physical and fast, he's just a little undersized. The Browns probably wanted to put their best cornerback on someone who can make a difference in shorter distances. Plus, in the Todd Haley era, deep shots don't happen too often.
Skrine has the skill set to match up with Wallace. He can use his strength to get a good jam on Wallace at the line of scrimmage when in press coverage, but more frequently, Skrine would line up in off coverage on Wallace about seven to 10 yards away from the line. He would be bracketed underneath by a linebacker and over the top by a safety.
At times, though, they just left Skrine in coverage on Wallace. On this particular play in the final game of the 2011 regular season, the Steelers would fake the screen on the backside of the play and go deep to Wallace.
Skrine was able to make a play on a ball that got caught in the Cleveland wind. He would have been able to make a play on the ball either way.
Skrine is currently listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, though, so Wallace could victimize Skrine if he can't play or is less than 100 percent.
If that's the case, Chris Owens and Leon McFadden could see more playing time than the Browns would like. The Dolphins are not particularly deep at receiver, with just four on the active roster, but there could be some favorable matchups in the Dolphins' future.
Brian Hartline was the receiver who saw the most targets in the Dolphins offense last year. Tannehill could look to Hartline early and often if the Browns' depth is not up to the challenge. This could also be a good game for Brandon Gibson, the third receiver on the Dolphins roster.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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