NFL Preview - Miami (0-2) at Cleveland (1-1)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Given their results in the first two weeks of the 2011 NFL season, it'd be hard to believe the Miami Dolphins are excited about Sunday's business trip to Cleveland for a battle with the Browns.
Then again, given what's progressed in South Florida so far, staying home might be worse.
The Dolphins have reeled their way through two games at Sun Life Stadium, giving up 61 points and 967 total yards in losses to New England and Houston while quickly plummeting to the bottom of the pack in the so-far successful AFC East.
Head coach Tony Sparano's team is the only division member to lose this season, having already fallen two games behind both the Patriots and New York Jets, but also two in back of the league's biggest early turnaround, Buffalo.
The defense's struggles have been particularly unexpected after the Dolphins were 14th in points allowed and sixth-best among the NFL's 32 teams in total yardage surrendered last season.
"It's baffling to me," Sparano said following last Sunday's 23-13 loss to Houston. "It really is. I don't have any answers for it. We've got to do a better job."
Not surprisingly, the tone of surrender has drawn the ire of beat columnists. In fact, the local media got things started toward that end earlier in the week.
"If the Dolphins are 0-4 entering their bye week, the clock should stop ticking on coach Tony Sparano," wrote the Palm Beach Post's Greg Stoda on Wednesday. "The firing alarm should ring. That means Sparano's job might be on the line Sunday in Cleveland when Miami visits the Browns, because winning at San Diego the next weekend figures to be more than a bit problematic. It's a desperate time calling for a desperate measure kind of thing."
Miami has been 0-2 five times in the past six years. The trip to Cleveland is the Dolphins' first road outing of the season and the team's first of three straight away from home before they return to Sun Life Stadium against Denver on Oct. 23.
"Us being in an 0-2 hole, it's kind of like a must-win," safety Yeremiah Bell said. "We've got to turn this thing around. It's on the players."
Cleveland beat the Dolphins, 13-10, in Miami last December when Phil Dawson hit a 23-yard field as time expired.
A win Sunday gets the 1-1 Browns above .500 through three games for the first time in nine years. They bounced back from a season-opening 27-17 loss to Cincinnati -- largely due to a defensive miscue that led to the Bengals' decisive touchdown -- with a 27-19 win at Indianapolis this past weekend, where they forced the Colts' offense to go three-and-out three times while also coming up with an interception and a fumble in the second half.
Rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor, the 21st overall pick in the 2011 draft, is second on the team with 11 tackles, behind only middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. End Jabaal Sheard, a second-round choice back in April, had a fumble recovery and a sack to go with five tackles against the Colts.
"I think they did a good job," Cleveland head coach Pat Shurmur said of the young defenders. "And they're getting better. I'm seeing improvement each week."
Cleveland last started 2-1 in 2002, its only playoff season since 1999, and has had just one winning campaign in the past eight years.
"Players just taking our own initiative and put our foot down, we're not going to take this anymore," Browns safety T.J. Ward said. "We're not going to be run-of-the-mill and accept these losses."
These teams have split 14 lifetime regular-season matchups, with Cleveland evening the series with the previously-noted 13-10 triumph at Sun Life Stadium during Week 13 of last season. The Browns won have three straight meetings with the Dolphins as well, having posted home triumphs in both 2005 (22-0) and 2007 (41-31). Miami last emerged victorious in Cleveland during the 1993 season, rallying for a 24-14 decision after Scott Mitchell replaced an injured Dan Marino at quarterback.
The Dolphins have prevailed in each of their two postseason encounters with the Browns, recording AFC Divisional Playoff wins at home in both 1972 and 1985.
Sparano lost his only previous encounter with the Browns as a head coach, which took place last season, while Cleveland's Shurmur will be facing both the Dolphins and Sparano for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami quarterback Chad Henne has a 9-5 road record as a starter and ranks second among NFL signal-caller in 2011 with 85 rushing yards, trailing only Michael Vick's 122. This will be his 30th career start. In his only meeting against the Browns, which took place while with New Orleans in 2006, running back Reggie Bush totaled 119 yards from scrimmage (67 rushing, 52 receiving). Rookie running back Daniel Thomas, a second-round selection in the most recent draft, gained 107 yards on 18 carries against Houston in his NFL debut last week. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has five receptions of 20-plus yards this season, tied with the Texans' Andre Johnson for best in the AFC, and has a touchdown catch in two of his past three games against the Browns. Tight end Anthony Fasano scored Miami's only touchdown in last December's loss to Cleveland, while Sunday's contest will be a homecoming for wide receiver Brian Hartline, a native of North Canton, Ohio who attended Ohio State.
Cleveland's defense had three interceptions of Henne in last year's meeting with Miami, including one from standout cornerback Joe Haden. Safety Usama Young, a free-agent addition during the offseason, recorded his first interception with the Browns last week, while Sheard registered his first career sack in the win. Jackson leads the team with 19 tackles.
Miami is tied for 25th in scoring (18.5 ppg) and is 10th in total yardage (397.0 ypg), while Cleveland is tied for 16th in scoring defense (23.0 ppg) and sixth in yards allowed (289.5 ypg).
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy had a 97.3 passer rating versus Indianapolis last week, and the Browns are 2-1 when he posts a number of 90 or better over his young career. Running back Peyton Hillis totaled 117 yards from scrimmage last week (94 rushing, 23 receiving) and has 13 rushing touchdowns in his past 18 games. He tied a career-high with seven receptions in each of his past two games against Miami, including a personal-best 116 receiving yards against the Dolphins while with the Broncos in 2008. Tight end Benjamin Watson had a career-high 10 receptions in last year's win over Miami and has four career touchdown catches versus the Dolphins, tied for his most against any opponent. He also needs 74 receiving yards to reach 3,000 for his career. Tight end Evan Moore aims for a third straight game with a touchdown reception this week, while all six of wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi's catches this season have been for first downs.
Since 2010, Miami linebacker Cameron Wake has 16 sacks, the second-most in the NFL (DeMarcus Ware, 19.5) over that span. He had 1 1/2 sacks in last December's loss to the Browns. Veteran linebacker Jason Taylor posted his first sack of season last week and has 133 1/2 in his career, the most among active players and seventh-most in the league since 1982. Taylor has three sacks in five career games against Cleveland as well. Bell and free safety Reshad Jones share the team lead with 18 tackles apiece through two games.
Cleveland is tied for 18th in scoring (22.0 ppg) and is 26th in total yardage (294.0 ypg), while Miami is tied for 29th in scoring defense (30.5 ppg) and dead last among the 32 teams in yards allowed (483.5 ppg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
It's simple, but Miami's got to stop someone. Allowing 1,000 yards in two weeks won't win much without talent like Tom Brady at quarterback. In his absence, the Dolphins' defense needs to pick it up.
McCoy was a bright light in a pseudo-Cleveland resurgence at the end of last season, but he's been inconsistent so far. A revved-up Dolphins' defense will be a challenge if the youngster's not on point this week.
It's no wonder Henne has become a scapegoat for Miami's struggles. He's got talent on the outside in Marshall and a dynamic presence in the backfield in Bush. Getting both of them on track is vital for not only the Dolphins' quarterback, but Sparano's future as well.
Maybe they weren't bound for the Super Bowl, but at least some thought going into the season that the Dolphins would at least be respectable. Falling to 0-3 would write off that possibility. Call it a referendum on Sparano, but Miami's players should be riled up on Sunday in a first-month must-win scenario. Unless they completely blow up, a first win of the season is a predictable result against a Cleveland team that's still rebuilding.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 21, Browns 10
09/22 09:51:23 ET