3TFO: Dolphins @ Browns, Week 1
What a difference August makes. A few weeks ago, the Miami Dolphins faithful were giddy to see their haul of free agents in action. However, a fumbled handoff on their first preseason offensive snap portended a team which may not add up to the sum of its parts. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Browns seemed to be in full rebuilding mode, with a new coaching staff and a sophomore quarterback left for dead. But a few impressive performances by Brandon Weeden has everyone wondering if there’s a sleeper playoff contender in Ohio.
Neither of these conclusions are wise, of course. You just need to look at the Atlanta Falcons’ 1-3 record or Sam Bradford’s 116.3 quarterback rating in the 2012 preseason to know that it’s foolish to read too much into August football. What we do know is that both these teams are hoping their sophomore quarterbacks can lead them out of the NFL desert. Will Miami’s new pieces fit together to lead them to the playoffs, or will they be just the latest team whose desperate GM dragged them into salary cap doom? Will Cleveland’s injection of young talent blossom, or will they play down to their inexperience? Here are three matchups that could decide which of these two teams starts the 2013 season on the right foot.
As I was typing this preview, I saw the news that Mike Wallace promises to bring his swag versus Joe Haden this Sunday. Some storylines just write themselves. There’s good reason to doubt Wallace will play up to his brash words and big contract in Miami. After establishing himself as one of the NFL’s premier home run threats with 571 yards on Deep Passes in 2010, that number dropped to 263 in 2012. After forcing 13 missed tackles in 2011, he managed just two last season. And of the three targets Wallace saw when Haden was covering him in Week 12 last season, he dropped one and watched the other two get intercepted by the Browns.
However, Wallace isn’t completely to blame for his misfortunes. Note that in that game against Cleveland it was Charlie Batch delivering the ball for the Steelers. Haden’s interception came on a woefully underthrown go route after Wallace got a step on him. Wallace’s catchable target rate as a whole dropped to 60.3% in 2012, from 67.3% in 2011. And his rate of accurate deep targets plummeted even further, down to 25.8% from 45.8% the season before. By comparison, Ryan Tannehill’s 43.1 Accuracy Percentage on deep passes in 2012 was 10th among quarterbacks with more than 10 deep throws. Despite his pedigree, Haden’s 169 yards allowed on deep passes last season was more than you’d like from a cornerback of his caliber. If Wallace is going to back up his contract, and his words, he’ll have some chances this week.
Norv Turner plans to run the ball early and often with sophomore running back Trent Richardson, and I would too if I had one of the NFL’s best offensive lines leading the way. Joe Thomas gets all the publicity for his pristine pass protection, but the meat of Cleveland’s run blocking lies in its interior. John Greco was the Browns’ Secret Superstar last season, earning the fourth-highest run block grade of any left guard and a five-year contract extension in the process. Alex Mack anchored the middle with the sixth-highest run block grade of any center. Throw in Richardson’s relentlessly punishing style, and you can see why Cleveland gained 4.1 yards per carry and nine touchdowns inside the tackles versus 3.5 and three touchdowns when running to the outside.
When the Browns attack the Dolphins inside, Miami may not have the muscle to stop them. Randy Starks is an accomplished pass rusher, but his 3.9 Run Stop Percentage was among the lowest marks of any defensive tackle. After moving inside from defensive end, Jared Odrick’s negative run defense grade this preseason shows the transition may not be going smoothly. After another middling campaign, Paul Soliai’s productive 2010 season is looking more and more like an outlier. If Miami’s line lets Richardson past them, it will be up to the Dolphins’ new middle linebacker to step up. Dannell Ellerbe led the Baltimore Ravens in defensive stops last season and earned four run stops in a Week 9 victory in Cleveland. He is adjusting smoothly to his new role in Miami, posting a sparkling 26.9 Run Stop Percentage this preseason. The success or failure of Cleveland’s ground game will likely depend upon who wins when Ellerbe and Richardson meet in the middle.
Mitchell Schwartz vs. Cameron Wake
There was plenty of attention heaped on Cleveland’s rookie offensive trio of Weeden, Richardson, and Josh Gordon last season, but the Browns’ best 2012 pick so far has been their second-round right tackle. Playing on every single Browns offensive snap as a rookie, Mitchell Schwartz earned the third-highest pass block grade at his position and formed a reliable pair of bookends with Thomas. He got better as the season went along — after surrendering 23 quarterback pressures in his first eight games, he allowed just 10 in his last eight. However, he will face the toughest challenge of his young career this Sunday.
Across from Schwartz will be the incomparable Cameron Wake, the best 4-3 defensive end in the league last season. With 86 QB pressures in 2012, he tied Von Miller for the most in the NFL. He regularly schooled even the league’s best tackles, notching six pressures against Sebastian Vollmer in Week 13 and adding two sacks off Anthony Davis the next week. Schwartz’s weakness last season came on his outside pass blocking, where he allowed 61% of his pressures. Wake in turn is one of the most devastating outside rushers in the league, converting 49% of his outside pressures last season into sacks. And as good as Weeden looked this preseason, he still had a 39.6 passer rating when pressured. If Schwartz isn’t up to the task, Wake could single-handedly deflate Cleveland’s air attack.
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