Dolphins’ defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is a Yale grad and he’s rightfully very proud of that. But he doesn’t need that level of education this Sunday to figure out how to slow down a Cleveland Browns offense that features more dynamic playmakers than perhaps any other team in the league.
In fact, he has no trouble putting it in its simplest terms.
“We need to tackle,” he says.
No doubt I still expect to see some exotic looks from this defense, at times playing as many as seven defensive backs, to slow down an offense that features two of the best running backs in the league and two of the best receivers. But truth is Graham is on to something here. They’ll get their carries. They’ll get their receptions. They always do.
“The main thing I’m focusing on,” said Graham, “is getting them to the ground.”
In the two victories this season, the Dolphins have been pretty good at that. But in the eight losses, well, not so much. Last week against the Bills may have best one of this defense’s poorest tackling games of the season. Two of the Buffalo’s touchdowns, for instance, were aided by missed tackles inside the 10-yard line.
That can’t happen against Odell Beckham Jr. Or Jarvis Landry. Or Nick Chubb. Or Kareem Hunt. That’s Cleveland’s modern day version of the fearsome foursome. Then when you throw in, or throw at, talented tight end David Njoku who may return Sunday from a wrist injury, you see what kind of challenge this Dolphins’ defense will be facing.
“They’re everywhere,” said coach Brian Flores of this group of Cleveland playmakers. “Yeah, we’re going to have to play very good team defense to stop this high-powered offense.”
Stopping them may be too much to ask. Slowing them down may be more like it.
“Those guys are just so tough,” said linebacker Jerome Baker. “Our job is to limit them as much as possible. As for me, I’m just going to go out there embrace the challenge and have fun.”
Even the Patriots don’t have as much star power as this Browns team. I mean any one of those players can beat you by themselves. Put them all together, now that Hunt has returned from an 8-game suspension, and you can you better understand how the Browns have won two in a row, in the process beating a couple of pretty good teams in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
We have documented in this space the season-long struggles of this defense to generate much of a pass rush, to be consistently good against the run and to make things more palatable with some game-turning takeaways. The Dolphins need all of that, and probably a little bit more, against an offense that starts with quarterback Baker Mayfield and can come at you so many different ways.
Having said all of that, the Dolphins can win this game. But they need to play the way they did in those two straight victories. That means keeping Ryan Fitzpatrick in an upright position, getting some big plays in the passing game and prolonging drives with third down conversions. It means getting an early lead and feeding off that momentum. It means finishing strong and coming up with difference-making plays with the game on the line.
It would be one thing if we hadn’t seen it before. But we know what this team is capable of doing, yes even with all the injuries, the trades and the weekly comings and goings on the roster.
“We’ve got a resilient group here,” said Fitzpatrick. “We know how talented the Browns are. But like all season, it’s more about us and how we play than our opponent.”
With that in mind, my five keys to the game:
- Young secondary can’t play like a young secondary: The challenge is even more imposing now that two of the most experienced players, safeties Bobby McCain and Reshad Jones, have been placed on injured reserve. That leaves a secondary with only one remaining player, safety Walt Aikens, from a season ago and seven of the 12 defensive backs on the roster in the first or second season. I expect we’ll see different combinations, some double teams on Beckham Jr. and a whole lot of respect paid to those other playmakers. The bottom line they can’t afford to give up big plays.
- Got to see an improved rushing defense: The Dolphins have struggled against the run much of this season and they have yet to face a duo as talented as Chubb and Hunt. I mean Chubb by himself can take over a game. He’s already rushed for more than 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. Now that Hunt has returned from his suspension and the Browns are sometimes using both in the backfield together, it’s a scary one-two punch to try and defend, certainly for a defense that has been far too charitable against the run. It’s got to start up front with a strong game from defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Davon Godchaux.
- Don’t let Baker Mayfield make plays with his feet: It’s difficult enough covering those two wide receivers without allowing Mayfield to buy extra time with his ability to improvise. The Dolphins’ pass rush has been inconsistent at best this season and somehow they’ve got to figure out how to force Mayfield into some errant throws. You don’t have to necessarily bring him down you just have to make him feel uncomfortable.
- Some balance on offense is imperative: I understand this is an every week challenge but the importance of this can’t be overstated. The Dolphins have to gain some yards on the ground, have to at least take some of the pressure of Fitzpatrick and the passing game. Averaging less than two yards a carry has to change for Kalen Ballage. I expect that Patrick Laird and Myles Gaskin will get some carries as well. It is incumbent, though, on the offensive line to set the tone with some better blocking.
- More of the same from DeVante Parker: Coming off the most productive game of his career against the Bills, Parker has evolved into this team’s best down-the-field option. His game-to-game consistency is what I believe separates this season from what he has done in the past. Parker needs another huge game. It’s hard to envision the Dolphins winning without it.