Skyrocket or Plummet: Can Miami Start 2015 6-0?

By: Justin Porreca
            Flashy new signings, question marks at key positions and the hottest coaching seat in the NFL will headline the Miami Dolphins 2015 campaign. The 2014 season was marred with inconsistency, injuries and horrendous coaching decisions. However, all of the red flags that surround the Dolphins can temporarily disappear if they can dominate the first half of the season. Plus, judging by the talent level on the roster and the schedule, it’s feasible for Miami to get off to a solid start.
            Miami has one of the toughest schedules in the NFL, but if the schedule is thoroughly dissected, they have the easiest first half and the hardest second half. The combined record of Miami’s first six opponents is 31-65, a .322 winning percentage, however the second half tells a much different story. Miami’s final 10 opponents have a combined record of 95-65, a .594 winning percentage. The Jets and Giants are the only two teams Miami faces in the second half that had below .500 records in 2014. It would be an understatement to say Miami needs to capitalize on their first six games.
            Here’s a look at Miami’s first six opponents, how they fared in 2014 and how they look in 2015:
Week One: Washington Redskins
            The Redskins aren’t good, let alone average. Washington finished their 2014 campaign a dismal 4-12 with plenty of red flags at key positions, including quarterback. The Skins’ had the 13th ranked offense and 20th ranked defense in 2014, however those rankings are deceiving.
            The Redskins gave up the second-most sacks last season, 58, and were tied for the fourth-most interceptions thrown, 18. In addition to that, the Redskins started three different quarterbacks in 2014: Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy.
            As for the Redskins defense, it didn’t get any better during the offseason. They loss Pro-Bowl edge-rusher, Brian Orakpo, and failed to replace him in free agency or through the draft. Washington now lacks a pass rush that last season failed to provide consistent pressure. In addition to that, Washington gave up the fourth-most points per game last season, 27.4, and was one of the worst pass defenses in the league.
            The quarterback carousel is still continuing in the nation’s capital, but it’s likely Miami will face the self-proclaimed “best quarterback in the NFL,” Griffin III. RG III in his nine games played last season was sacked 33 times and threw more picks than touchdowns. He still holds onto the ball too long, is unable to read the field, read the blitz and lacks the ability to step up in the pocket and extend plays. Even with another offseason to improve, Griffin III still looks the same, taking six hits on eight-drop backs Thursday night versus the Detroit Lions. Despite Redskins management using a high draft choice to bolster the offensive line to protect Griffin III, it’s still not enough.
            The fifth-pick in the 2015 NFL draft, Brandon Scherff, looked overwhelmed in pass-protection at right guard and was often overpowered at times. Miami should be looking at this and preparing to dominate the line of scrimmage. With RG III’s decision-making still incredibly slow and the Redskins offensive line still weak, the Dolphins should tee off and have a “sack-a-palooza.” Miami’s defense alone should win them this game at Washington week one.
Week Two: Jacksonville Jaguars
            Another pathetic organization, that continues to be embarrassing and shows no glimpses of potential or promise. Jacksonville finished their 2014 campaign a measly 3-13 with no real signs of improvement. The Jaguars finished as the second-worst offense (31st) and the seventh-worst defense (26th) in the league last season, and the Jaguars are relying on the arm of Blake Bortles to turn the franchise around.
            Jacksonville went out and spent big in free agency this offseason with the signings of tackle Jeremy Parnell, defensive tackle Jared Odrick and tight end Julius Thomas. However, the Jags need more than that to help their dismal offense and defense. The Jaguars gave up a league-high, 71 sacks and were also tied for the fourth-most interceptions thrown, 18.
            Jacksonville started the 2014 season with Chad Henne under-center and transitioned to their third-overall draft choice, Bortles. However, he struggled mightily, showed some glimpses, but for the most part failed to catch up with the NFL game speed. Now with more weapons, particularly healthier weapons, Bortles should be improved, but he’s still raw and inconsistent.
            Bortles, like RG III, is another quarterback that gets pummeled. Last season, he was sacked 55 times. Half of those sacks were because of a porous offensive line, but a lot of the sacks emanate from Bortles inability to make quick decisions in the pocket. Bortles will still, at the beginning of the season, be playing at a rookie level, making rookie mistakes, struggling with making decisions in the pocket and reading the blitz.
            The game against Jacksonville is another game where Miami’s above average defense should dominate and win it for them. Miami should steamroll a young and inexperienced Jaguars squad.
Week Three: Buffalo Bills
            The Bills have been the thorn in Miami’s side for the past two seasons, despite lacking a real threat at quarterback. Far and away the best defense in the division, with the best defensive line in the league, Buffalo is nothing but headaches for Miami. The Buffalo Bills finished the 2014 season 9-7 with serious playoff potential if they had a franchise quarterback, or even a quarterback that could be a game-manager. The Bills finished as the seventh-worst offense in the league (26th) and the number four-ranked defense in 2014. Again in 2015, the Bills will be relying solely on their defense to win them low-scoring ball games.
            The Bills brought back Pro Bowl edge-rusher, Jerry Hughes, to keep their dominate defensive line in tact, added a massive offensive threat in LeSean McCoy and bolstered their offensive line with the signing of troublemaker, Richie Incognito. Last season, Buffalo gave up 39 sacks and still have quite a few question marks on the offensive line. It’s still unknown if there will be any running lanes for McCoy and if he can replicate the same success he had in Philadelphia. McCoy will be shouldering a heavy load for the Bills and will be essentially carrying the entire offense on his back.
            As for the quarterback position, it’s still up in the air in Buffalo. It could be veteran Matt Cassel or relative unknown, Tyrod Taylor. Taylor has been eye-popping this preseason and looks to be winning the quarterback battle over Cassel, but with a solid defense carrying the offense Rex Ryan may look to a game-manager than a playmaker. If it’s Cassel, it’s a quarterback that’s slowing down, coming off a season-ending ankle injury, lacks accuracy and good decision-making skills.
            If Miami’s run defense has improved like it should have with the acquisition of Ndamukong Suh then they should be able to contain McCoy and force Cassel to try and make plays. This is where the pass-rush can tee off on Buffalo’s weak offensive line and force turnovers. However, the offense is not the threat, its Buffalo’s defensive line.
            Miami’s offensive line has been manhandled by Buffalo’s four-man front two seasons in a row. If Miami’s offensive line fails to stand its ground, gets over-powered and lets Tannehill get hurried and hit, it will result in another early season loss for Miami versus Buffalo. This will be Miami’s second hardest game among their first six based on Buffalo’s defense alone and may end up being a low-scoring defensive duel.
Week Four: New York Jets
            The new-look Jets, who still don’t look all that new, are now a huge divisional threat. This is also the same team that has spoiled Miami’s playoff aspirations two seasons in a row. The Jets were an abomination last year, finishing 2014 an embarrassing 4-12. New York finished with the 22nd ranked offense and the sixth-ranked defense. With the offense still pitiful, the Jets will again be relying on their stingy defense to win them ball games.
            The Jets had a drastic face-lift during the offseason. A new general manager, a new head coach and an overhaul of talented players via free agency headline the New York Jets 2015 campaign. Revis Island has comeback to the Big Apple, along with Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine to bolster a secondary that was atrocious last season. The Jets also added to their star-studded defensive line with the selection of Leonard Williams with the sixth pick in the draft. Despite the Jets having an anemic pass defense last season, their real issue was the offense.
            The Jets gave up the ninth-most sacks last season, 47, and only put up 17.7 points per game, fifth-worst in the league. Relying heavily on a ground-and-pound offensive attack, they had a putrid passing attack that hasn’t gotten any better through the offseason. Despite the addition of Brandon Marshall, the Jets still have Geno Smith at the helm. However, due to Smith’s broken jaw, Miami may end up playing back up, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Regardless, it’s not an upgrade to a position they’ve lacked stability at since the days of Chad Pennington, when he was healthy.
            With the potential of Fitzpatrick starting versus Miami, it’s unknown which side of him they will see. The consistent game-manager that can push the ball down the field without any turnovers or the inaccurate, turnover machine; it’s Jekyll and Hyde with Fitzpatrick. However, Miami needs to be more wary of the Jets running back by committee, ground-and-pound offensive style. The Jets running game chewed the Dolphins rush defense apart last season. With a vastly improved defensive front and a more tenacious attitude toward stopping the running, Miami should be able to shut down Chris Ivory and the Jets three-headed rushing attack. If they can manage that, the pass rush should be able to dominate the Jets shaky offensive line and create endless pressure on Fitzpatrick to force him into bad decisions.
            With Todd Bowles at the helm for the Jets now, the Dolphins will see a relatively similar defensive scheme that Rex Ryan had been running previously. However, Bowles changes up his defensive scheme week by week to accommodate each opponent. Also, the Jets secondary will be vastly improved under Bowles. Running an aggressive blitz scheme with man-to-man coverage, Miami will need to find ways to break the Jets defense down. This means that Tannehill will need to be better at reading the blitz at the line of scrimmage to change the play to avoid the all-out rush Bowles sends.
            This will easily be the Dolphins toughest test among their first six games. The Jets defense is up there with the Seattle Seahawks in terms of overall talent and skill and could end up being number one once the season is over. This game will most likely come down to the play of the defenses and which one can force turnovers and hold their ground.
Week Six: Tennessee Titans
            The Titans are young, raw and inexperienced and come into the season with a rookie quarterback leading the charge. The Titans finished the 2014 season with a 2-14 record, tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the worst in the league. Tennessee’s offense, along with their defense, was an abomination last year finishing as the fourth-worst offense (29th) and the sixth-worst defense (27th). With rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota under center this season, there aren’t high expectations in the Music City.
            The Titans upgraded the most important position on the field this offseason, quarterback, with the selection of Mariota with the number two pick. They also bolstered their running game with the selection of David Cobb in the fifth round and their pass-rush with the signing of Pro Bowl outside linebacker, Brian Orakpo. However, the Titans lost the anchor of their offensive line, All-Pro tackle Michael Roos, to retirement. Tennessee is relying on Taylor Lewan to come around this season to be a dominant blind-side protector for Mariota. The Titans gave up 50 sacks last season, sixth most in the league, and with a rookie quarterback the offensive line will need to play superbly to keep him from being flustered and making bad decisions.
            Despite Mariota not fitting the type of quarterback head coach Ken Whisenhunt desires, a statuesque figure in the pocket, he will likely be thrust into the starting role by week six. How well he will be performing by then is unknown, but it’s likely he’ll be playing like any other rookie quarterback, especially one that’s been coddled in a system for four years in Oregon.
            Mariota will likely deal with the same issues Bortles encountered last season: a porous offensive line, holding onto the ball too long, trouble reading the blitz and failing to adjust to the NFL game speed. Playing a rookie quarterback means blood in the water for Miami’s defense. The Dolphins defense should capitalize on Mariota’s rookie mistakes and with their anemic running game, led by Bishop Sankey, the Titans offense is not a threat to put up points. This is another game where Miami can rely solely on their defense to win them this game. The pass-rush should overwhelm Mariota and force him into decisions he will regret when he watches film the next day.
Week Seven: Houston Texans
            Oh the Houston Texans, the team Miami cannot seem to figure out. A whopping 0-7 versus Houston since the franchises inception in 2002, the Dolphins this time around should be able to crack the Texans code. On the back of the best defensive player in the league, JJ Watt, the Texans almost reached the playoffs last season after going 2-14 the season prior. Houston finished 2014 with a 9-7 record and the 17th best offense and 16th ranked defense. Houston may just be an average team that overachieved last season and judging by their predicament at quarterback that just might be the case.
            Houston mainly upgraded on defense in the offseason bringing in New England castaway Vince Wilfork, safety Rahim Moore and using their first round draft choice on Wake Forest cornerback, Kevin Johnson. However with the talent overhaul on the defense, the offense was left almost unscathed. Houston let All-Pro wide receiver, Andre Johnson, go to division-rival, the Indianapolis Colts, and they failed to address their glaring quarterback dilemma. Like the Redskins, the Texans also started three different quarterbacks last season: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett.
            Houston lost Fitzpatrick to the Jets in the offseason and signed Brian Hoyer in the process, whose just another glorified back-up quarterback. It’s still unknown as to who will be starting by week one and if that same guy will be starting by week seven, but what’s known is that they’re no threat. Luckily, the quarterback that is chosen to lead the Texans will be well protected. Houston gave up the fourth-fewest sacks last season (29). Houston was also the fifth-ranked rush offense last season, relying heavily on Arian Foster. However, Foster is out with a hamstring injury and is unlikely to play versus Miami, leaving Alfred Blue to take the majority of the carries.
            It’s still unknown as to what Ryan Mallett can offer as a starting quarterback, but it’s well known what Brian Hoyer is, a game-manager. Miami would be fortunate to have Hoyer starting at quarterback over Mallett come week seven. Hoyer doesn’t take risks, doesn’t push the ball down the field, is not a vertical passing threat and opts to put the ball in the gut of his running back than in the air. Hoyer is a “safety first” quarterback, playing not to make a mistake, yet still makes poor decisions. With Arian Foster likely still out by then and the Texans having no real, viable threat at quarterback, Miami’s defense should capitalize on Houston’s offensive misfortunes.
            The Texans are fortunate to have a defense that can carry them which will be Miami’s biggest concern. Scoring points on a defense that has improved talent-wise compared to last season and has a solid defensive front that will pose problems for Miami’s below-average offensive line will be the main issue. In addition to that, Houston will also have a healthy Jadeveon Clowney to play opposite JJ Watt to increase the pass-rush. This is another game where Miami’s defense will have to be on it’s A-game to dominate a weak, under-manned offense. If the defense is stout, Miami can come away with another win and go into their week eight Thursday night showdown, versus the New England Patriots, 6-0 and play for AFC East supremacy.
            If Miami wants to make the playoffs this season and if Joe Philbin wants to keep his job the team needs to dominate this weak, early schedule. With four of Miami’s last ten games coming against playoff teams, Patriots (twice), Cowboys and Ravens, the Dolphins will need to win their first six games. Going 5-1 is still good and 4-2 is okay, but if Miami goes 3-3 it will be disappointing and pit them in a hole they may not be able to recover from.

            Miami’s going through the 2015 season with the title of “mediocre” being held over their head, but if they can dominate their early schedule and win some tough games in the back half, it could result in the franchises first playoff appearance since the beginning of the Sparano era in 2008.