The Dolphins definitely don’t find themselves in an ideal situation, having already lost control of their own destiny with five games still remaining. Every game is a must win for them from here on out, but at the very least, we should be in for an exciting December of football if the Dolphins can string together a nice little winning streak. With such a talented team coming to town this week, though, the Dolphins can ill afford to focus their attention on anything but the Cleveland Browns.
Before you bring up their 4-7 record, look no further than their impressive, to say the least, double digit wins over the Super Bowl champion Saints and 9-2 New England Patriots. Don’t forget that they probably should have beaten the Jets too, if it weren’t for a costly fumble in field goal range in overtime.
Dolphins running game (19th) vs. the Browns run defense (21st)
For the second straight week, the Dolphins aren’t facing a very a good run defense. But even though it may have appeared like the Dolphins exposed a weak Raiders’ front seven a week ago on paper, if it wasn’t for Ricky’s 45 yard touchdown run in the game’s final minutes, both Ronnie and Ricky would have averaged well short of the four yards per carry benchmark. Having said that, a running game with minimal success is better than no running game at all, so you have to credit the Dolphins for staying patient and disciplined by continuing to pound the rock even though they were being handled up front early on.
For this offense to be at its best, they are going to have to make a concentrated effort to stay balanced. Not only does this keep the defense on its toes, but it also helps the play action passing game open up, which Dan Henning loves to employ on just about any down and distance. The Browns rank in the bottom half of the league against the run, but judging by the amount of yards per carry they are currently conceding, they are probably a little stouter against the run than it may appear. The Browns defense actually ranks 12th in the league in yards per carry, allowing only 4.1 yards per attempt, so the Dolphins may have a harder time avoiding becoming one-dimensional than it originally looks.
Browns running game (12th) vs. Dolphins run defense (14th)
How will the Dolphins follow up one of the most dominating run defense performances of the 2010 NFL season? Well, they better bring their “A” game once again, or Peyton Hillis could run all over them on Sunday. Hillis is having an incredible breakout year, as he is now only 95 yards away from the 1,000 yard plateau and has already crossed the goal-line 11 times. In his most memorable performance of the season so far, Hillis ran for 184 yards on 6.3 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns against the Patriots in a 34-14 rout. If you haven’t seen the kid play yet this season, he may be the closest thing to Larry Csonka in the modern age. That is a little concerning when you think about how many tackles the Dolphins have missed in recent weeks.
Having said that, though, I think the Dolphins match up best with a power running game. We’ve seen them struggle to contain speed backs at times this season, even though they decisively shut down Darren McFadden last week. But if the Dolphins can simply stay disciplined, wrap up, and gang tackle against Hillis, they have a big, strong front seven that is more than capable of having another dominate week. Edge: Push
Dolphins passing attack (14th) vs. Browns pass defense (19th)
If you watched the Browns and Jets do battle a few weeks ago, then you would already know that their secondary isn’t one of their strong suits. And if you’ve watched how well Chad Henne has performed in his last two games, then you would know that he could be in for another big day. We have seen him go off for big games in the past, though, now it’s time to see it on a consistent basis. Having back-to-back solid games is all well and good, but in order for Henne to become the franchise quarterback he is capable of being, he’s going to need to avoid hitting the valleys every two or three weeks. Consistency is what separates decent NFL starters from the greats, and now is the time to see it from Chad Henne.
It shouldn’t hurt that he is likely to get his go-to receiver back this week. But then again, the Dolphins did have their best offensive outing of the season without Brandon Marshall last week against the Raiders. Personally, I think they were poised for a big day offensively regardless if Marshall was able to go or not. But I could see how Marshall’s presence could be detrimental to this offense if Henne feels the need to try to force feed him the football. Marshall may get frustrated from time to time, but Henne should solely focus on hitting the open man regardless of who that is. If Henne can develop the right mindset, Marshall can only completely open up this offense, as the one player who defenses are forced to scheme around.
Browns passing attack (19th) vs. Dolphins pass defense (4th)
It looks like Colt McCoy still isn’t healthy enough to go for the Browns, so Jake Delhomme will get his second start in a row. Delhomme threw for nearly 250 yards against his former team in a Browns’ one-point win over the Panthers, but he still turns the ball over at an alarming rate. His two picks last week now leave him with six in the three games in which he’s played compared to only one touchdown. Being the accomplished veteran that he is, though, he’s no quarterback to take lightly. He’s certainly capable of putting together a solid game any given Sunday, but if the Dolphins’ can shutdown Peyton Hillis and the running game and force Delhomme to make plays, they should get plenty of opportunities to force turnovers.
Vontae Davis and Sean Smith shouldn’t have much to worry about on Sunday, as the Browns don’t have a wide receiver with over 300 yards so far this season. However, tight end Benjamin Watson and running back Peyton Hillis are closing in on the 500 yards receiving mark. That means the Dolphins’ linebackers and safeties could play a bigger role in shutting down the Browns’ passing attack than Smith, Davis, and Sapp. Karlos Dansby saw limited action against the Raiders and has been limited in practice this week with an injured wrist, but the Dolphins will need him on Sunday, because he is clearly their best cover linebacker. As far as the pass rush goes, or should I say Cameron Wake, the Browns have given up the 12th most sacks in the league with 25.
After seemingly making steady improvement every week since their special-teams disaster against New England, the Dolphins reverted back to their old ways by letting Jacoby Ford take the opening kickoff back to the house and almost allowing yet another blocked punt. While the Browns certainly haven’t been having a great season on special-teams, they do have arguably the best kick returner the league has ever seen. Some fans may breathe a little easier knowing that Cribbs has yet to return a kick for a touchdown this season and his long so far is only 36 yards, but that just tells me he’s due. The Dolphins can’t afford to miss any more tackles and they better stay disciplined and in their lanes. Just one mistake in the kicking game is all it could take to spoil the Dolphins’ first back-to-back winning streak since Week 2.