Every Friday during the regular season, I will hit on five key storylines for the team the Cleveland Browns are facing that week to highlight things that fans should be aware of or that the team can take advantage of during the game. We begin with our Week 1 opponent, the Miami Dolphins.
#1 - Longing For Offensive Line Stability: Kevin Nogle from The Phinsider told us that the concerns the media have been making about the Dolphins' anticipated struggles on the offensive line are overrated. To an extent, I agree with him -- I don't think they will be some in-cohesive unit acting as a revolving door for defenders to plant Ryan Tannehill on his back all day long. However, with the departure of left tackle Jake Long this offseason, there are some question marks about just how stable the line will be without him.
LT Jonathan Martin
LG Richie Incognito
C Mike Pouncey
RG John Jerry
RT Tyson Clabo
Martin, a second-round pick in 2012, began as the team's starting right tackle last year, but started the final five games of the season at left tackle. During that stretch, that was a significant dropoff in pass protection for Miami, with Martin being responsible. This preseason, Martin has reportedly made progress at left tackle, which makes sense -- you're going to learn the tricks of the trade over time. Is he good enough to hold off the likes of Desmond Bryant and Jabaal Sheard, though?
Taking Martin's spot on the right side of the line is Clabo, who was a fairly big signing coming over from the Atlanta Falcons. He, along with Incognito and Pouncey, should fare pretty well. Jerry is the other area of concern on the line at right guard (the same position Cleveland has concerns at). He suffered a knee injury early in camp, but returned for the final couple of weeks of camp. He should be close to game-shape by now, but he's also a lineman the Dolphins have been trying to replace for a couple of years because they're not completely satisfied with his production.
#2 -: Dolphins fans seem content with their wide receiver situation, perhaps a little more than they should be, in my opinion. Their biggest acquisition this offseason was Mike Wallace, who signed a massive 5-year, $60 million deal.
I thought a lot of Wallace's success in Pittsburgh came from Ben Roethlisberger extending plays and being able to find him deep. If Haden can eliminate him from the game like he has the past three times he's gone up against him, it will be a major plus for a Browns secondary that might be without Buster Skrine on Sunday.
The Dolphins' lost tight end Dustin Keller to an injury, and are replacing him with the not-too-threatening Charles Clay. Miami also added a decent receiver in former Ram Brandon Gibson, to go along with Brian Hartline being the lone holdover from a season ago. The Dolphins lost the reliable Davone Bess to Cleveland in the offseason. Bess had 61 catches for 778 yards during Ryan Tannahill's rookie season. You can see where Miami tried to make improvements at the receiver position, but with Keller out and Wallace being a tad one-dimensional in my book, this group of receivers is rather underwhelming compared to some other teams we'll be facing.
#3 - Dimitri Patterson as a Starter: The Dolphins went out and took a flier on cornerback Brent Grimes this offseason, and it looks like the move will pay dividends, as he is expected to start on Sunday and probably go up against Greg Little. The Dolphins' other starting cornerback? Former Brown Dimitri Patterson.
When the Browns signed Patterson in 2011 at the beginning of the season, I thought, "why did we get this guy who struggled in Philadelphia?" I was pleasantly surprised with how good of a slot player he was, though. Patterson was a stout nickelback for almost two years, but out of the blue, the Browns released him in mid-December season.
To this day, we still don't know the real reason why. At the time, Jon Stinchcomb had a few theories -- that with the looming departure of Tom Heckert, the contract that Patterson received wasn't thought highly of. There were also rumors that Patterson, who missed a lot of games with an ankle injury, fell out of favor with people because "his contract changed him."
The real thing that matters is the fact that Patterson is starting, not playing the nickel position. Back in his Philadelphia days, Patterson was not thought highly of as a starter. When Patterson filled in as a starter for the Browns, I wanted to gouge me eyes out watching him play -- how could a guy who plays so aggressive as a nickelback look so passive as an outside cornerback? It's a shame the Browns don't have Josh Gordon this week, because this is a match-up they could take advantage of. Instead Patterson will be guarding a rotation of Davone Bess and Travis Benjamin.
The Phinsider tells us that Patterson will play the slot in nickel situations, similar to how the Browns plan on utilizing Buster Skrine now. With Gordon out, though, I expect the Browns to feature more two tight end sets, so Patterson should see a lot of work on the outside.
#4 - Effective Flurry of Pass-Rushers: Just like Browns fans are confident right now in the pass-rushing abilities of Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo (who may not play this Sunday as he recovers from a bruised lung), and Quentin Groves, Dolphins fans are confident in the players they have too. Mitchell Schwartz will have his hands full with defensive end Cameron Wake, who had 15 sacks and 3 forced fumbles last year.
On the other side, the Dolphins have the up-and-coming Olivier Vernon, a third-round pick from a year ago. While Browns fans will be confident in Joe Thomas' abilities to stop him, you have to remember that Miami has a beast in defensive tackle Paul Soliai up front, and the team added inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe from the Ravens this season. That doesn't even cover the fact that the Dolphins will use the third overall pick of the draft, Dion Jordan, in situational pass drills. Both teams have intriguing front sevens, using different defensive alignments (Miami operates from the 4-3, Cleveland the 3-4), but something has to give this Sunday.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Why couldn't Cleveland find someone like Caleb Sturgis this offseason? OK, well, the Dolphins did make a decent investment in Sturgis, when they took him in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Sturgis was an impressive 9-of-9 this preseason, including a 58-yard field goal he made against the Jaguars. His performance was good enough to beat out veteran kicker Dan Carpenter, who was cut from the team. Can Sturgis deliver during the regular season too?
The Dolphins are solid at the punter position; Brandon Fields led the NFL with a 50.2 yard average in 2012, and his net average of 41.2 yards was ranked 6th in the NFL. In the return game, Marcus Thigpen had a punt and a kick return for a touchdown last year. The Browns need to be aware of him, but I haven't seen enough of his returns to know if he's a dynamic threat on every touch.