Keys to Victory: A formula for beating the Browns

Tony Sparano is now only three days away from arguably the biggest make or break game in his coaching career.

A win will keep hope alive in Miami and temporarily take some heat off of Sparano’s seat. If the Dolphins fall to the Browns a 0-5 start to the season will become likely and Sparano’s fate will be all but sealed.

Fortunately for Sparano and the Dolphins, however, Sunday is surely a winnable game and on paper they are probably a better team than the Browns.

But in order to preserve the season these Dolphins are going to have to dial up that “road warrior” mentality that enabled them to go 6-2 away from Sun Life in 2010.

Here’s what needs to happen for the Dolphins to earn their first victory of the season.

Contain Josh Cribbs

It’s no secret that poor special-teams play has haunted this regime over the past couple years. It hasn’t gotten any better this season as Dan Carpenter missed two “gimme” field goals last week and returners have been a block away from taking one back to the house on more than one occasion through two weeks.

Enter the second most feared kick returner in football, Joshua Cribbs. The Dolphins may outperform the Browns on both sides of the ball on Sunday, but if they concede a big return they could easily still fall to 0-3.

The Dolphins’ coverage teams need to stay disciplined in their assignments and fly to the football. Of course, if Dan Carpenter could just utilize the new kickoff rule and boom some footballs out of the endzone like many kickers have been able to do consistently, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

Time for the run defense to step up

The run defense that was nothing short of dominant at the tail end of 2010 is nowhere to be found. It’s only been two games, but the Patriots and Texans were able to find enough success on the ground that the Dolphins now rank 22nd in the league stopping the run.

And in last week’s game in particular, the Texans were basically able to put the nail in the coffin late in the fourth quarter by picking up a few first downs with three straight runs. Not being able to stop the run when you know its coming is a cause for concern.

Maybe Channing Crowder’s ability to fill running lanes was severely underappreciated. Maybe Paul Soliai was a one-year wonder a year ago. Whatever the case, the Dolphins need to right the ship in a hurry.

It doesn’t get any easier this week, as Peyton Hillis may be the toughest man to bring down in all of football. I think the Dolphins matchup better against more of a power running game than speedier, shiftier backs, but then again that was in the past.

Time for the offense to find an identity

In Week 1, Chad Henne was the quarterback we always hoped he’d be, tossing for more yards than any quarterback in Dolphins’ history not named Dan Marino. In Week 2, Henne didn’t even complete 50% of his passes and rookie running back Daniel Thomas was a fumble away from stealing the show with a 100-yard performance in his NFL debut.

The Browns haven’t exactly been stout against the run in the first two weeks of the season, so I expect Brian Daboll to give his old team a heavy dose of Daniel Thomas with a little Reggie Bush sprinkled in early on.

If an attempt to establish the run is stuffed by the Browns’ front seven, all the pressure will once again be placed on Henne’s shoulders. The picture is somewhat murky now, but it shouldn’t take long to finally figure out if Henne is really a different quarterback in this new system. 

Keys to Victory: A Formula for Beating the Browns

We are about 24 hours away from the Dolphins putting their season on the line for the second consecutive week. It is a little nerve racking knowing that the Dolphins can essentially be eliminated from playoff contention in any of their next five games, but it definitely adds a little more excitement to the equation.

At the very least, Dolphin fans should hope to witness some meaningful December football, which is about as close to playoffs as you can get, without actually going to the playoffs. The Dolphins are just one win away from getting a chance to play in a big December football game with playoff implications. Their game in the Meadowlands next week will be beefed up even more if the Jets can drop Monday night’s battle in New England, but for now, all the Dolphins need to do is worry about getting to 7-5 and letting the rest take care of itself.

Contain Peyton Hillis
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Peyton Hillis is the Cleveland Browns’ offense. He is closing in on 1,000 yards on a very productive 4.5 yards per carry and he leads the Browns with 46 receptions and is second on the team with 414 receiving yards. Heck, he even completed a pass earlier in the season. While Hillis gives the Browns’ offense the firepower to come down to Miami and spoil the Dolphins’ season, there isn’t much to this Cleveland offense if the Dolphins can stop or even contain the mighty Hillis.

To do so, I expect Mike Nolan to load up the box with eight man fronts in order to stop the running game and force the turnover prone Jake Delhomme to make plays for the Browns to move the ball. Unlike some of the speedsters Miami has lined up against in weeks past, Hillis is going to come right at the middle of the defense all game long.

So far, nose tackle Paul Soliai is putting together a breakthrough season, but his biggest test will come on Sunday. Soliai will be key if the Dolphins are going to shutdown Hillis, because if he can take on two blockers at once, unblocked linebackers will then be able to fill running lanes.

Speaking of linebackers, though, Channing Crowder is listed as doubtful. Crowder has been far from brilliant this season, but filling run lanes is one thing he can handle. That means the Dolphins’ defense will be counting on another solid performance from Tim Dobbins.

Keep the ball rolling Henne
We’ve now seen back-to-back very solid performances from Chad Henne. Of course, he missed the Bears’ game in between of those solid outings with a knee injury, but the point is, the guy finally appears to be coming into his own after being benched. One bad game against an inferior team, though, is all it would take for those doubts to start creeping back in.

The standard for franchise quarterbacks in this league is consistency. We’ve seen some very good flashes from Henne at times, but he’s yet to string together three or four straight solid weeks of football. This late season stretch with the Dolphins’ season on the line gives him the chance to do just that. Maybe the Dolphins don’t make the playoffs this year, but if Henne can lead them to nine or ten wins and solidify himself as the franchise quarterback, you have to consider this season a success.

Establish the mediocre running game
Fans that think the Dolphins ran the ball great last week are mistaken. The interior offensive line still struggled to create any push and outside of Ricky’s 45-yard touchdown run near the end of the game, the Dolphins were averaging well below four yards per carry. Having said that, their commitment to the ground game was a big factor into why they finally topped 30 points. They stayed balanced and less predictable and they did so by avoiding the negative, drive killing runs we have seen in weeks past.

Even though throwing early and often on the Browns’ secondary will be tempting for Dan Henning with Brandon Marshall likely returning to the lineup, last week’s formula of staying committed to running the football needs to be applied against the Browns and every week from here on out. I don’t expect Ronnie and Ricky to combine for over 40 carries every game, but just mixing it up every few plays with a three to four yard run should be all the help Chad Henne needs.