The Miami Dolphins beat the Cleveland Browns this afternoon in an ugly, but convincing, victory. The Miami defense completely dominated, and the offense came through with two key touchdowns in the second half to pull away from a toothless Browns offense.
Though a plurality of prognosticators and fans inexplicably picked the Cleveland Browns to win this game, which resulted in the Las Vegas line moving from a straight pick all the way to the Browns favored by two points, this convincing victory by the Miami Dolphins should not come as any great surprise.
The Cleveland Browns were forced to play without the team’s most dynamic offensive playmaker, wide receiver Josh Gordon. They also had an even bigger hole at the right guard position than the Dolphins, due to injuries taken during the preseason. The Dolphins were not nearly as short-handed, and they were able to leverage their advantages into a two-touchdown margin of victory.
Many of my key takeaways from this game are going to reference things that I took note of during my live blog of the event. If, in the words of "The Dude" himself, “if you’re not into the whole brevity thing” then I recommend stopping in on the live blog and reading the blog entries from bottom-to-top for a good perspective on how the game unfolded.
Prior to the game, I flagged Cleveland’s offensive line in my live blog as one of the key areas of observation. The reason was simple: There were elements of Cleveland’s offensive line that might be exploited, and the Dolphins have the horses to make that happen. The Browns offensive line had exactly the problems I anticipated.
The biggest problem on the offensive line was at right guard where reserve tackle Oniel Cousins was forced to play out of position in place of the injured Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston.
The Dolphins absolutely destroyed Cousins in both phases of the game. Cousins was also flagged a staggering four times. He had a false start, two holding penalties and one illegal use of hands. Several of the penalties negated big plays by the Browns.
We know that Cameron Wake is very good. There was never any question about that. However, it is still nice to be reminded of how good he is, and this game served that function beautifully.
Even before the Dolphins went ahead by two scores, which resulted in Miami’s defensive line teeing off on Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden play after play, Cameron Wake was dominating at key moments with his pass rush. In the first three quarters of the game, Wake notched 1.5 sacks on Brandon Weeden as well as two hits on the quarterback.
I feel it is important to delineate pressures and sacks that happened prior to the Dolphins’ final touchdown from sacks and pressures that happened after that score. When the Dolphins went up, 20-10, with only six minutes remaining in the game, the Browns had to go into a passing mode.
This allowed Miami’s pass rush to tee off on an immobile Weeden in the pocket. The Dolphins tallied three sacks prior to going up two scores and another three sacks in the final six minutes of the game, as the Browns were put under such strain.
The Dolphins' defensive front also dominated against the Cleveland Browns’ ground attack. Defensive tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks in particular had excellent games, and the linebackers backed then up nicely.
I was initially surprised by some of the Browns’ positive runs at the beginning of the first quarter, as they found some soft edges along the Dolphins’ defensive front by taking advantage of Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. This did not last long, as Trent Richardson tallied only 3.6 yards per carry for the game and was lucky to get that much.
There was a sense heading into the fourth quarter that the Cleveland Browns might begin running Trent Richardson more. The team was at home, and sometimes those two- and three-yard gains in the first three quarters of the game can turn into four- and five-yard gains in the fourth quarter, especially at home.
On the last play before the end of the third quarter, the Browns ran the football on 1st-and-10. Richardson gained seven yards on the play, and I noted in my live blog that now may be a time when you see offensive coordinator Norv Turner try and pound the Dolphins defense with running in the fourth quarter.
Very strangely, the Cleveland Browns did the opposite. They literally did not call a single run play in the fourth quarter, after that seven-yard gain by Richardson to close out the third quarter.
In their defense, much of the final quarter was spent in come-from-behind mode, as the Browns went down by 10 points with less than seven minutes remaining.
However even prior to that score, the Browns called six straight pass plays to start the fourth quarter, while only trailing by three points on the scoreboard. I feel this was a critical mistake for new head coach Rob Chudzinksi.
I also flagged Miami’s offensive line for close observation prior to the game. I was not wholly confident in their ability to establish the ground game against Cleveland’s defensive front or in their ability to pass protect for quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Unfortunately, those fears came to life this afternoon. Unlike the Browns, the Dolphins got their starting right guard John Jerry back from injury in time for this game.
However, Jerry is still clearly affected by the injury that caused him to miss much of the preseason. I had him allowing at least one sack as well as a number of pressures in the game. He was a consistent weakness in both phases.
I was also concerned about left tackle Jonathan Martin. Martin had a decent preseason which seemed to inspire confidence from his coaches. I believed the coaches could consider John Jerry such a weakness in the game that they would slide their protections in his direction at times, allowing center Mike Pouncey to babysit him on pass downs.
This would in turn put a lot of pressure on left tackle Jonathan Martin, who would not have left guard Richie Incognito protecting his inside shoulder as consistently as he did in the preseason.
Sunday afternoon, this fear also sprang to life, as I noted Jonathan Martin failing in his pass-protection duties in my live blog on at least six pass snaps, producing pressures and hits on Tannehill and even allowing a sack to reserve pass-rusher Quentin Groves.
I feel it is important to note that, prior to the point in the game where the Dolphins went ahead of the Browns by two scores and the Dolphins defensive line, therefore, opened the floodgates on a one-dimensional Browns offense, Tannehill was actually sacked more times (four) than Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden (three).
In fact, Tannehill had been sacked three times in the game by the time Weeden took even one sack. This was something of a group effort on the part of the Miami offensive line.
As I explained, left tackle Jonathan Martin and right guard John Jerry were consistent weaknesses, but right tackle Tyson Clabo also chipped in by allowing a sack to Cleveland pass-rusher Paul Kruger.
The Dolphins' tailbacks ran the ball 18 times for 17 yards. This is atrociously bad. It is somewhat amazing that Tannehill was able to produce 23 points with such poor support from the ground game.
The tailbacks certainly did not help the effort. Lamar Miller did not have a strong game. Daniel Thomas did what he always does: run blindly into a pile of bodies. However, most of the blame for the lack of ground support falls on the shoulders of the offensive line.
The blocking for the running game was terrible. I expected the Dolphins to find establishing a ground game difficult, but not impossible. Prior to the game, I had Browns pass-rusher Paul Kruger flagged as a weakness on the edge against the run.
The Dolphins’ blockers managed to make Kruger look like an animal against the run. He was consistently shedding blocks and containing the Dolphins’ tailbacks. At one point, he even drew a holding penalty from tight end Charles Clay.
The disturbing part of the Browns’ success defending against Miami’s running game is that Browns defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin sat out the game. This was a surprising development which was announced very late.
With him out of the game, Miami players and coaches could not simply take solace in the notion that the Browns’ defensive front was just that good. Without Rubin, they were not supposed to be this dominant against Miami’s running game. The Dolphins’ offensive line was just that much more worse than the Browns’ run defense was that good.
Say what you want about Dolphins corner Dimitri Patterson being a little shaky in coverage from the perimeters of the field, but he clearly has more in the way of ball skills than the Miami Dolphins have seen in their secondary in some time.
He had a couple of opportunities to pick up tip drill interceptions as the Browns’ woeful receiving unit popped them up in the air, and he came down with two of those balls. Neither interception came easy.
Corner Nolan Carroll got into the action, as well, when he found himself one-on-one with the diminutive receiver Travis Benjamin in the deep section of the field. He out-muscled Benjamin for the deep pickoff. Miami Dolphins fans have not grown accustomed to members of the secondary picking off three passes in a single game.
The ball skills the players showed were very encouraging.
This game showed that, thus far with the real bullets firing, the chemistry between quarterback Ryan Tannehill and wide receiver Mike Wallace is not what it was in the preseason.
Tannehill did not even target Mike Wallace once in the first half of the ball game. Because of the $60 million contract given to Wallace, there was clearly more pressure to get Wallace involved in the second half of the game. However, the results were poor. Tannehill targeted Wallace five times in the second half and was rewarded with one catch for 15 yards.
A few of the incomplete passes showed a lack of chemistry. This was the case on the first attempt in Wallace’s direction toward the beginning of the second half, which felt like a forced attempt to get Wallace more involved after noticing he had not been targeted a single time in the first half.
Tannehill’s ball was underthrown. too far to the inside and should have been picked off by Browns corner Joe Haden, who dropped the football. Two more deep balls fell incomplete, overthrown as Wallace had trouble getting cleanly into his route due to the coverage. Another ball was dropped by Wallace.
It is not surprising that Tannehill and Wallace would take some time to get their chemistry with one another during real-game conditions. In my experience, high-end free-agent acquisitions often take a year to fully assimilate into their unit. What is a little bit concerning is the pressure everyone from top-down may feel to get Wallace more involved.
The contract Wallace signed makes everyone from head coach Joe Philbin, to offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and receiver Mike Wallace himself feel pressure to feed him the football. Yet, as I stated many times during the free-agent period, there were reasons to believe that chemistry would come along slowly.
Wallace himself is unaccustomed to being a top-tier receiving target, as he never really played that role in Pittsburgh, except, arguably, in his most disappointing, least efficient year. Tannehill’s history at Texas A&M and Miami never involved the use of a Wallace-type receiver as the top option in the offense.
Head coach Joe Philbin very famously stated many times that he disagrees with the concept of a No. 1 receiver. All of these elements make for a long road before everything truly clicks on a consistent basis, and the pressure that comes with a $60 million contract does not help that process happen.
This is probably why, after the game, according to Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Wallace told reporters to “ask coach about the game plan” as he refused to comment further on his one-catch, 15-yard performance in a two-touchdown win by his team.
The Dolphins need to be proactive in getting control of this situation because they specifically traded one of the top receivers in the game currently, Brandon Marshall, because of this kind of behavior.
Meanwhile, the chemistry between Tannehill and Brian Hartline was deadly and spoke well for the Dolphins’ front office’s decision to retain Hartline during the offseason. Tannehill’s deep throw to Hartline on an out-and-up route was perfect.
Several other comebacks and out-route throws were right on the money. You could hear the ball pop the mitt on these throws. Hartline converted first down after first down in key situations, and even did what he found impossible to do more than once in 2012: He found the end zone.
What is interesting to note about this success is that one year ago, Hartline and Tannehill enjoyed success of this level only a few times during the season. One such occasion came against defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s coverage scheme. Hartline had over 200 yards receiving along with his only touchdown of the season in that game.
Tannehill was one yard shy of tying a record for most passing yards in a single game by a rookie quarterback. The two players, once again, torched defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s coverage scheme to the tune of nine catches for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Prior to the game, I had Browns tight end Jordan Cameron flagged as one of the few mismatch advantages Cleveland may have going in their favor, with wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended. I put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, by picking up Jordan Cameron in fantasy football and starting him.
Cameron found plenty of room in the middle of the field against Miami’s aggressive defense. He beat linebacker Phil Wheeler on a touchdown pass in the second quarter and walked out of the game with nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Perhaps more disturbing than Cameron’s production was the fact that Miami nearly allowed a second touchdown to a tight end in the fourth quarter while trying to protect their lead. Weeden found reserve tight end Gary Barnidge in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown with about two minutes remaining in the ballgame.
Barnidge was covered on the play by Dolphins’ standout strong safety Reshad Jones. This would have given the Browns a chance at recovering the onside kick and winning the football game. The play was called back because of holding by right guard Oniel Cousins; however, the Dolphins would do well to take note of what happened on the play regardless.
If you include the play called back by holding, the Browns completed 11 passes to their tight ends for a total of 137 yards and two touchdowns. That is a serious potential weakness against athletic tight ends.
That's especially true, considering the Dolphins will face the likes of Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham, Antonio Gates, Greg Olsen and Heath Miller.
Interestingly, the Dolphins may have a related problem covering slot receivers. I say the problem is related because slot receivers often face combination coverage from linebackers, safeties and corners, similar to tight ends.
Browns slot receiver Davone Bess played very sparingly during the preseason and only had one catch for seven yards. He should not have had any chemistry with quarterback Brandon Weeden to start out the game, but the two found their chemistry quickly starting in the second quarter. Bess had five catches for 47 yards.
Additionally, the Dolphins were lucky to have a 23-yard catch by fellow slot receiver Josh Cooper called back in the fourth quarter as Jared Odrick had crossed into the neutral zone, which, in turn, drew a response by the offense. This created a dead-ball situation, even though the referees never blew the whistle and play went on live.