Atlanta and Miami were two of the NFL's Cinderella teams in 2008. They both had new Head Coaches, new starting quarterbacks and were both coming off awful seasons.
So what has changed in one years time? Miami has improved their team in a more complete fashion while Atlanta's off season may have been a little one sided.
The Falcon lost four defensive starters. Domonique Foxworth, Michael Boley, Keith Brooking and Grady Jackson all defected in free agency. The defensive unit ranked 24th in 2008 and had it's share of problems. John Abraham was the bright spot on defense and finished 3rd in the NFL with 16.5 sacks (one sack behind Miami's Joey Porter).
Perria Jerry was added to fill the vacancy left by Grady Jackson but those are big pants to fill. Jackson is a 350 pound space eater while Jerry is more of a one gap penetrator at 299 pounds. Atlanta finished 2008 as the 25th ranked rushing defense.
Jerry teams up with the similarly undersized, 289 pound Jordan Babineaux as the starting defensive tackles. This is assuming Jerry can overcome reoccurring knee injuries and win a starting job as a rookie. He is currently nursing a sprained knee in mini-camp after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on the same knee last August to repair a torn meniscus.
Adding to the defensive problems is a struggling secondary and an inexperienced line backing crew. Michael Peterson was signed in the off-season to replace Boley but he is a declining player who spent last year in Jack Del Rio's dog house.
Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff did a great job in last years draft but may have trouble duplicating that effort in 2009. Like Miami, the Falcons drafted two cornerbacks in this years draft.
Chris Owens from San Jose State was selected 90th overall (3rd round) and small school project William Middleton was selected in the 5th round. Both players will provide depth as unheralded Von Hutchins and Chris Houston are projected to start the season at cornerback.
Atlanta finished the 2008 season ranked 21st defending the pass and will enter this season believing no replacement is needed for the talented Foxworth who signed a large contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
The highly touted safety, William Moore was selected by Atlanta with the 55th draft pick. Williams, once thought to be a first round talent, saw his stock slip after poor workouts prior to the draft. He will compete with Thomas DeCoud for the starting strong safety spot. The serviceable but unspectacular former Jet, Erik Coleman, will remain at free safety after snagging 3 interceptions in 2008.
The Falcons look to get better on offense after adding the leagues best tight end in Tony Gonzales. They already possess one of the best offensive lines in the league, a Pro Bowl wide receiver and Pro Bowl running back. Matt Ryan will try to avoid the sophomore slump and should prevail after an impressive rookie season.
The Dolphins finished with the 10 ranked rushing defense in 2008 and did little to improve on the front seven in the off season. The biggest change will come in the secondary where the Dolphins struggled in the beginning of the season last year. The unit played much better as the season progressed but will field two new starters on the right side.
Eric Green will compete with Vontae Davis for the starting role at weak side cornerback while Gibril Wilson provides a noticeable upgrade at free safety. Wilson was the only defensive back in the NFL to have more tackles than Yeremiah Bell, who will look to improve on an impressive 2008 season. They replace Andre Goodman and Renaldo Hill who both signed big contracts with the Denver Broncos.
The keys to the game will be the the ability to contain the Falcon's powerful running game and to neutralize John Abraham with the Pro Bowl, rookie left tackle, Jake Long.
The Dolphins will field the NFL's most prolific pass rush duo in the NFL and should be able to keep pressure on young Matt Ryan with Joey Porter and Jason Taylor. If Will Allen can lock down Roddy White, Ryan should be in for a long day.
The Dolphins should be also able to take advantage of the Falcon's suspect secondary. My prediction for player of the game is Ted Ginn Jr. September 13th will be his coming out party as he serves notice to the league that he has finally arrived and teams can no longer overlook this former underachiever.
Eight catches for 130 yards and 1 touchdown would be a great way to kick off the season and put some fear into the hearts of upcoming secondaries. Cornerbacks, Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson from the Indianapolis Colts will be coming to Miami in week 2.