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NFL Preview - Miami (0-0) at Atlanta (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - In 2008, the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons each revealed the blueprint for turning a seemingly hopeless non-contender into a playoff team in only a year's worth of time. Both teams now have designs on taking further steps forward in the process to becoming a championship outfit during this upcoming season.
The Dolphins and Falcons, who will square off this Sunday at the Georgia Dome in an intriguing Week 1 interconference matchup, combined for a mere four victories between them in 2007 and were supposed to be at the onset of a painfully-long rebuilding process a year ago. But after making all the right moves in 2008, the squads begin this season-opening showdown in the envious position of seeking a repeat visit to the postseason.
Miami engineered the biggest one-year about-face in the history of the NFL last year, going from a franchise-worst 1-15 in 2007 to an 11-win regular season that culminated in the organization's first AFC East title since 2000. The new front-office regime headed by two-time Super Bowl champion coach Bill Parcells brought in a tough-minded first-year sideline boss in Tony Sparano, a capable seasoned quarterback in Jets castoff Chad Pennington, and a dramatic change in culture that served as the impetus for the Dolphins' ending of a seven-year postseason drought.
Atlanta's reversal of fortune may have been even more impressive, considering the circumstances that led to the team's torturous 3-13 campaign of 2007. Desperately seeking a fresh new start in the aftermath of the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and former coach Bobby Petrino's nearly-as-disgraceful bailing out on his players with three games still to go in the season, the Falcons also hired a new general manager (ex-Patriots scouting director Thomas Dimitroff) and a relatively unknown rookie head coach with similar old-school values as Sparano in Jacksonville defensive coordinator Mike Smith. Much like the Dolphins' braintrust, the duo was able to cultivate a positive new attitude that carried Atlanta to an 11-5 record and an appearance in the NFC Playoffs as a wild card.
The Falcons' turnaround was also sparked by a changing of the guard at the all-important quarterback position, only theirs came from a fresh-faced 23- year-old straight out of the college ranks. Matt Ryan turned Dimitroff's first draft choice as a general manager into pure gold, as the former Boston College star started all 16 games and displayed the poise of a 10-year veteran en route to earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors at season's end.
Ryan did have plenty of help along the way, with offseason free-agent acquisition Michael Turner piling up 1,699 rushing yards and a team-record 17 scores on the ground and big-play wide receiver Roddy White setting a club single-year mark with 1,382 receiving yards. The young signal-caller will have another explosive weapon at his disposal in 2009, with the Falcons landing 10- time Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez in a trade with Kansas City just prior to this past April's draft.
Miami's marquee move of the offseason involved a very familiar face. After an injury-plagued and ill-fated one-year stint with Washington, pass-rush specialist and Dolphins' all-time sack leader Jason Taylor returned to his roots shortly after being released by the Redskins. The 35-year-old will be used as a stand-up outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 look opposite 2008 All-Pro Joey Porter, whose 17 1/2 sacks led the AFC last season.
Miami has a 7-3 lead in its all-time series with Atlanta, but was a 17-10 home loser when the clubs last met, during the 2005 season. The Dolphins won the previous meeting, a 21-14 home affair in 2001. The Falcons were 38-16 victors when the teams last faced off in Atlanta, in 1998, and Miami won the two other series games played in the city, in 1970 and 1980.
The Falcons' Smith and the Dolphins' Sparano will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
While Miami doesn't possess a wealth of playmakers on the offensive side, it's a very efficient unit that did a terrific job of keeping mistakes to a minimum in 2008. The team's 13 giveaways were tied for the fewest in the league last season, in no small part due to having the cerebral Pennington (3653 passing yards, 19 TD, 7 INT in '08) at the controls. The NFL's career leader in completion percentage connected on over 67 percent of his attempts and finished his first season with the Dolphins with a personal high for passing yards, despite working with a rather nondescript corps of receivers headlined by overachiever Greg Camarillo (55 receptions, 2 TD), third-year speedster Ted Ginn Jr. (56 receptions, 2 TD) and sophomore slotman Davone Bess (54 receptions, 1 TD). Tight end Anthony Fasano (34 receptions), a Parcells favorite who came over in a trade with the Cowboys, emerged as a formidable red-zone threat by hauling in a team-best seven touchdown passes. The Notre Dame product may become more of a factor in the overall game plan as well, with No. 2 tight end David Martin (31 receptions, 3 TD) placed on injured reserve this week due to a troublesome knee. Even without a true go-to receiver, Miami averaged a solid 227 yards per game (10th overall) through the air last year.
Another big contributor to the Dolphins' 2008 success was running back Ronnie Brown (916 rushing yards, 10 TD, 33 receptions), who made a successful comeback from a serious knee injury that limited him to seven games the previous season. Miami will use the versatile former No. 2 overall draft choice in a variety of ways, often lining him up behind the center in the team's often-imitated "Wildcat" formation and utilizing his good hands out of the backfield as well. Brown will once again split duties with the now 32- year-old Ricky Williams (659 rushing yards, 29 receptions), who came through with a respectable year in his first extensive action in the NFL since 2005. The duo combined for a shade under 100 rushing yards per game for an offense that ranked 11th overall in that department (118.6 ypg) last season.
Brown and Williams will be attacking an Atlanta defense that yielded an unhealthy 127.5 yards per week on the ground (25th overall) and nearly five yards per carry in 2008, a showing that sparked some significant offseason changes along the front seven. The Falcons bid adieu to a pair of declining veterans in nose tackle Grady Jackson and weakside linebacker Keith Brooking and used their first-round pick to select Ole Miss lineman Peria Jerry, a quicker and more athletic performer than Jackson who will step in and start immediately. Brooking's spot will be filled by free-agent signee Mike Peterson (84 tackles, 1 sack), a player well-versed in Smith's scheme from his six-year tenure in Jacksonville. The 33-year-old is counted on to be a stabilizing force to an otherwise young linebacking corps that also contains second-year man Curtis Lofton (94 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle and the untested Stephen Nicholas (20 tackles, 1 sack) on the strong side.
One of the pivotal individual battles that will take place on Sunday will be between Falcons' standout end John Abraham (38 tackles, 4 forced fumbles) and Miami left offensive tackle Jake Long, last year's top overall draft pick who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. The disruptive Abraham finished third in the league with a career-best 16 1/2 sacks last season, and Atlanta needs him to apply pressure to protect a suspect secondary that lost its best cover corner, Domonique Foxworth, to Baltimore via free agency. The Falcons will also be breaking in a new free safety in second-year pro Thomas DeCoud (6 tackles), whose contributions in his debut season were limited strictly to special teams. Atlanta was vulnerable to the pass in 2008, surrendering over 220 yards per game (21st overall) and picking off only 10 throws over the 16-game schedule.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta's objective on offense is to wear down the opposition with a punishing ground attack featuring the physical Turner (1699 rushing yards, 17 TD, 6 receptions), a 244-pound battering ram who delivered eight games of over 100 rushing yards last season, with the Falcons winning every one of those contests. Although there's some concern that the 27-year-old could be adversely affected after toting the ball a league-high 388 times (including playoffs) in 2008, he eased those fears somewhat with a strong preseason. The team will look to spell Turner a bit more with the fleet-footed Jerious Norwood (489 rushing yards, 6 total TD), who's averaged a robust 5.8 yards per carry in three seasons as a change-of-pace back. He can also make an impact as a return man and receiver, having made 36 grabs totaling 338 yards when used in the third-down role. Atlanta ended last year's memorable campaign ranked second in the league in both rushing yards (152.7 ypg) and attempts (560).
The Dolphins were adequate in defending the run a year ago, finishing 10th overall in rushing yards allowed (101.3 ypg) and permitting a so-so 4.2 yards per carry. However, Miami was bullied for 151 yards on the ground by a Baltimore squad that also likes to play smash-mouth in last January's AFC Wild Card Playoffs, and will be fielding most of the same personnel that was present from that loss. The team did manage to re-sign two of its top stoppers in hard-hitting strong safety Yeremiah Bell (120 tackles, 1 sack, 10 PD), the Fins' leading tackler in 2008, and inside linebacker Channing Crowder (113 tackles) during the spring.
Miami did a good job of pressuring enemy quarterbacks during its rise back to the top of the AFC East heap, compiling 40 sacks as a team and getting an unexpected dominant year out of Porter (47 tackles, 17.5 sacks), whose 17 1/2 sacks were seven more than any other of his previous nine seasons. The Dolphins are hoping for a similar resurgence from Taylor (29 tackles, 3.5 sacks) after the six-time Pro Bowl participant produced his lowest total since 1999 and never seemed to appear comfortable in the Redskins' defense. He'll occupy the outside linebacker spot held last year by Matt Roth (53 tackles, 5 sacks), who'll miss at least the season's first six weeks after landing on the physically unable to perform list with a groin problem. A re-tooled secondary will have a pair of new starters in ex-Raider Gibril Wilson (134 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) at the free safety spot and rookie cornerback Sean Smith, a 6- foot-3, 210-pound specimen taken in the second round in April's draft. Further talent was added to a defense that gave up the eighth-most passing yards in the league with the first-round selection of Illinois corner Vontae Davis, an elite athlete who'll step right into the fray in nickel situations.
The Falcons ranked in the middle of the pack in passing offense last year, partially because of their prowess in running the ball, but those numbers could very well increase with Ryan (3440 passing yards, 16 TD, 11 INT) no longer a rookie and the addition of the ultra-consistent Gonzalez (96 receptions, 1058 yards, 10 TD) to a receiving corps that already has an outstanding field-stretcher in White (88 receptions, 1382 yards, 7 TD), who racked up seven games of over 100 receiving yards on the year. Gonzalez turned 33 in February but has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down, as the 13th- year vet compiled the third-most catches of his prolific career last season and eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second straight time. Big-bodied wideout Michael Jenkins (50 receptions, 3 TD), an asset in the running game due to his blocking skills, is back to complement White outside, but Atlanta will have to find an adequate replacement for expected No. 3 receiver Harry Douglas (23 receptions, 1 TD), lost for the year after tearing his ACL early in camp.
As a first-round pick in virtually every fantasy draft that took place over the past month, it goes without saying that Turner should be starting this and every week. The Falcons' focal point did his best work at home last season, averaging 129 rushing yards and scoring 14 touchdowns in his eight games inside the Georgia Dome. White and Gonzalez are also lineup mainstays as key components in a potentially-devastating Atlanta offense, which makes both Ryan and ageless kicker Jason Elam pretty good options as well. Brown owners shouldn't have to deliberate too much when deciding whether Miami's top back should be used against a defense with a host of question marks, while Fasano's red-zone accomplishments of last year make him a worthwhile starter as a low- end No. 1 tight end. One can do worse than Pennington at the quarterback position as well, especially in what looks to be a favorable matchup. Avoid using either team defense this week, as this one has the makings of being a high-scoring affair.
Only time will tell whether either of these 2008 revelations was simply a one- year wonder that benefited greatly from a softer last-place schedule, but the Falcons are less likely to have to answer those types of questions come Monday. The way to beat Atlanta is to stop Turner, and the jury's out as to whether a Miami defense that wasn't anything special in that aspect last season can effectively get that done, especially now that teams will have to account for Gonzalez's downfield abilities and may have a tougher time stacking the box. The Dolphins will make some plays on offense and Pennington's good enough to keep them in any game, but going into the Georgia Dome -- a place where the Falcons were almost unbeatable a year ago -- and coming out a winner might simply be too tall an order.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 31, Dolphins 24
09/10 13:50:13 ET