Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sizing Up the Dolphins’ AFC East Rivals

The Miami Dolphins surprised everyone by going 11-5 and winning the AFC East in 2008, just one year removed from a franchise-worst 1-15 campaign.

It's safe to say the Dolphins snuck up on people a bit, and any level-headed thinker knows that a significantly weak schedule down the stretch, coupled with the season-long absence of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, certainly helped Miami on its path.

The Dolphins won't have those advantage this year (after all, Bernard Pollard is a free agent), and the path to success will be significantly tougher than it was in 2008.

I'll be taking a thorough look at the 2009 Dolphins team and its prospects for the upcoming season in the days ahead, but for now I thought it would be a good time to examine the Dolphins' three division opponents.

I'm going to look at each team's strengths and weaknesses, seeing where Miami might have trouble with them and where they should have success.

Buffalo Bills

Miami recorded eight sacks in their preseason finale last week, and that is exactly where the Dolphins will need to get at the Bills in order to be successful. The Bills' offensive line is extremely inexperienced with an average age of 24.8 years among starters.

Replacing Jason Peters in protecting Trent Edwards' will be Demetrius Bell—a 2008 seventh-rounder who's more famous for being Karl Malone's illegitimate child than he is his football prowess. Bell is one of three starting Bills offensive linemen—joining rookie guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood—that has never started an NFL regular season game.

Miami had great success pressuring the Bills' quarterbacks last year, which was a key part of their success against them. With a revived Jason Taylor in the mix and a shaky, inexperienced Buffalo offensive line, the Dolphins should continue to be successful in that department.

As scary as the tandem of Terrell Owens and Lee Evans is, their effectiveness will be offset by the above offensive line problems. What scares me about Buffalo is their special teams. It is an area where Miami has struggled in recent years, and where the Bills absolutely excel.

Brian Moorman has consistently been one of the best punters in the NFL. Couple that with a complete lack of explosion in Miami's return game (Davone Bess is penciled in as the punt returner once again) and you have a significant advantage in Buffalo's favor when it comes to the field position game.

The Dolphins' special teams coverage units are also suspect, and this is where Buffalo can really hurt people. Leodis McKelvin on kickoffs and Roscoe Parrish on punts are both home-run threats and will go a long way in helping Buffalo's offense secure consistently good field position. Unlike someone like Bess, both of those players also have the ability to take one back for a touchdown at any moment, which can drastically change a game in a matter of seconds.

Is Miami a better team than Buffalo? I don't think there is any doubt that the answer is 'yes.' Still, Buffalo does have their strengths, and when some of those strengths happen to coincide with Miami's weaknesses, the outcome of a game is never a sure thing.

New England Patriots

Dolphins fans everywhereand even head coach Tony Sparano a little bitcelebrated when the Patriots shipped perennial all-pro defensive end Richard Seymour out of the division to the Oakland Raiders over the weekend. While there is no doubt the Patriots' 2009 defense would be better off with Seymour than without him, I wasn't so quick to express my elation at the move.

Like him or not, Bill Belichick is the best at what he does. I think there is a strong argument for him being the best head coach in NFL history, and in my 22 years of living (a good bit of it spent following the league) I have never seen such a masterfully-run organization in any of the major sports.

So while trading Seymour might hurt them in the short term, I've simply observed Belichick for too long to make a movie that will sabotage his team. He knows what he's going and he is just too good at what he does.

The Dolphins may being reigning AFC East champs, but I think fans are fooling themselves if they consider Miami the favorite to win the division crown again this year. After just missing out on the playoffs with their backup quarterback, the Patriots are back on top and ready to dominate for a reason that can be summed up in five words: Tom Brady and Randy Moss.

We all saw what that duo did in 2007, with Moss scoring a ridiculous 23 touchdowns and Brady posting one of the single greatest seasons by a quarterback in NFL history. Brady is back healthy now and should have no problems with picking up right where he left off.

(By the way, keep in mind that the guy who just acquired Seymour from the Patriots also gave them Moss in exchange for a fourth-round pick. The jury's still out on Raiders cornerback John Bowie—the player Oakland selected with that pick who has one tackle in two career games played—but I'm thinking the Patriots got the better end of the deal. Keep this trade in mind every time Al Davis does a deal with Belichick.)

The Patriot' offense simply should have no problems returning to their previous level of production, and Miami might not be in position to match them. Chad Pennington, while a smart quarterback who limits mistakes and doesn't ever give the game away, just isn't the kind of guy who can keep up with Tom Brady in a shootout.

Furthermore, the Dolphins' secondary is somewhat suspect to say the least. As good as Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are as prospects, they're still rookies and are going to have their ups and downs in 2009.

Beyond that, the Dolphins have two starting safeties –Yeremiah Bell and Gibril Wilson—that both fit that "hard-hitting, run-stopping, in-the-box"mold and have their struggles in coverage. Teams like New England are going to test Miami deep, and they are going to succeed at times.

The Dolphins have shown they can beat good New England teams in the past. Even when Miami isn't having its best season, they always seem to elevate their level of play to match the Patriots' and give them a competitive game. Still, there's no denying that the Patriots are a force to be reckoned with, and Miami might not be entirely equipped to handle them.

New York Jets

The most glaring change with the Jets this season is at quarterback, where fifth overall pick Mark Sanchez has already been named the starter. Playing a rookie quarterback is always an adventure, and while you have your occasional Dan Marino or Matt Ryan, typically players in such a position don't fare well out of the gate.

Sanchez's youth and inexperience is key for the Dolphins, who will have to use their strong pass rush to disrupt and rattle the young quarterback. While he does have a better offensive line than the Bills' mess described above, Sanchez is going to make rookie mistakes and might even give a game or two away because of them.

Stopping Sanchez won't necessarily stop the Jets, however. The Jets will focus heavily on the run and have a stable of backs at their disposable. Thomas Jones isn't flashy, but he's workhorse who always gains solid yardage. Shonn Green is an up-and-coming talent capable of contributing as well, and we've already seen the kind of explosive player Leon Washington is.

In addition to Washington's contributions on offense, he's also one of the league's best kickoff returners. As already discussed, special teams coverage is a weak spot for Miami, and if Washington can break off some long returns and consistently give the Jets good field position, it will go a long way in taking the pressure of Sanchez and helping score points.

The Jets also already had a strong defense before the arrival of head coach Rex Ryan, who is undoubtedly one of the best minds in the business when it comes to that side of the ball. They have an anchor of a nose tackle in Kris Jenkins, a young stud linebacker in David Harris, a play-maker on the outside in Bart Scott, and an improved secondary with the addition of Lito Sheppard and the progression of budding star Darrelle Revis.

I don't expect the Jets to win a whole lot of games in 2009 under a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. Still, there is talent littered throughout the roster and wins against them won't come easily.