The Browns are riding high after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-7, last week at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Browns have won two in a row for the first time this year and are now looking to go 1-0, as coach Freddie Kitchens likes to say, for the third straight week.
Their opponent this week is the 2-8 Miami Dolphins, who have the always dangerous and longtime Browns nemesis Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. With Fitzmagic back there slinging the ball, the Fins have actually won two of their last three games, just like the Browns. To overlook the Dolphins, whom many believe are implementing an asset accumulation strategy like the Browns did a few years ago, would be a major mistake at such a critical juncture in the 2019 season. Every game needs to feel like a playoff game to the Orange and Brown, and this one is no exception.
The Fins do not feature a lot of household names, and those that they have, such as Reshad Jones, Bobby McCain and Xavien Howard, are all on IR. In fact, 41 of the 53 men on the Miami roster this season were either fourth round picks or lower, with 31 of those coming from the sixth round, seventh round or undrafted free agents.
Still, the Fins have found a way to win games this November, so the Browns must be careful not to fall into the trap of looking ahead to the potentially explosive rematch with the Steelers next Sunday. With that being said, let's take a look at three important factors to the Winning Mix against Miami.
1) Continue to play clean games
When you are the biggest favorite in the NFL for Week 12, doing your job and avoiding catastrophic self-inflicted wounds should be the first order of business for securing a win. The Browns find themselves in this very position against the Dolphins on Sunday, and a continuation of recent trends should absolutely do the trick.
You have to give Kitchens a lot of credit for laying down the law following the team's self-inflicted loss to the Patriots back in Week 8. He declared that the team would eliminate turnovers and penalties so many times that it became a mantra in Berea.
Over the last three weeks, the Browns have not turned the ball over at all and are one of just three teams to have a clean slate during that span. The Dolphins in the same span have averaged one giveaway per game, but still average two giveaways per game for the season. In fact, the Dolphins have the worst turnover differential in the NFL at -13 through the first 10 games of the season.
When it comes to penalties, the Browns have gone from being the most penalized team in the NFL to the seventh-least penalized team over the last three games. During that span, the Browns have been flagged just 5.7 times per game, down three penalties per contest from their season average. It will be critical to avoid the flags this week because no team has been flagged less this year than the Dolphins, who have been hit with just 5.5 flags per game.
Let's circle back to the turnovers and their extreme importance this week with one final fact. The Dolphins are 2-0 when they win the turnover battle and 0-8 when they don't. The Browns absolutely need to win the turnover battle this week and if they do, they should win the game.
Check out photos of the Browns preparing for their game against the Dolphins Sunday by team photographer Matt Starkey
2) Offensive Explosion
When the Browns assembled the squad of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and David Njoku this offseason, I think we all expected the kind of weekly offensive fireworks typically associated with Madden games. Unfortunately, the Browns offense has struggled to find its footing outside of a couple of big games, but that should all change this week against Miami.
First of all, this will be the first time all season we will finally see all of those names on the same field at the same time in 2019. Hunt has been a revelation since joining the team two games ago, and this could be the return to action for Njoku, who has been out since Week 2.
The Dolphins defense has offered little resistance this year and could be the perfect recipe for an offensive breakout for a Browns team that has not eclipsed 21 points in four straight games. Miami is allowing 30.5 points per game and 6.1 yards per play this year, both second-most in the NFL. Six teams have all topped the 30-point mark, including the Buffalo Bills, who just dropped 37 on them last week. As a point of reference, the Bills were held to just 16 points by the Browns two weeks ago.
We all know how good Chubb has been and just how dangerous the Browns have been with both Chubb and Hunt, but this week can and should be a passing game bonanza. The Dolphins have allowed at least one passing touchdown in every game this year and multiple passing touchdowns in eight games, all of which they lost. Mayfield has thrown for multiple scores in each of his last two starts and should stay hot against a Miami team that is allowing an opposing QB Rating of 105.6 this year, third-highest in the NFL.
As for Beckham, Landry (facing his former team for the first time), and Rashard Higgins, they should feast as well. Receivers are averaging 1.6 touchdowns per game against the Fins this year and have hauled in multiple scores in four of the last six games alone.
While those numbers tell a story, a quick update on the Fins secondary will tell another. Their Pro Bowl CB Howard has been on IR for a few weeks and was just joined on IR this week by both starting safeties, Jones (2X Pro Bowler) and McCain. The starting back end of the secondary for the Dolphins this week will feature Eric Rowe, who had never played safety before in his five-year career, alongside 2018 UDFA Steven Parker, who made his NFL debut in Week 1 of the 2019 season. The cornerbacks will be some combination of Ken Webster (rookie seventh-round pick with three career starts), UDFA rookie Nik Needham, Ken Crawley (acquired off of waivers in October), and 2017 UDFA Jomal Wiltz, who has been on practice squads for two years and finally made his NFL debut this year.
The Dolphins rank last in the NFL with just 13 sacks on the season. In other words, everything points to an air raid for the Browns on Sunday, and perhaps the most explosive offensive performance of the season.
3) New-look Browns DL controls the line of scrimmage
Sheldon Richardson is the only opening day starter along the defensive line who will be active against Miami. Richardson has been a force for the Browns all season long and has really been on a tear since the bye week. Over the last four games, Richardson has been one of the top-graded DT's in the NFL per Pro Football Focus and has generated a whopping 13 QB pressures.
Joining Richardson will be Devaroe Lawrence, who had an incredible offseason and has already been involved in two takeaways this year with an interception and a fumble recovery. Rounding out the DT rotation at the time of writing is recently acquired Eli Ankou, who has played 26 snaps since joining the Browns in Week 9.
Miami has already allowed a league-high 42 sacks this year and has had serious line issues all season long. According to Pro Football Focus, the Dolphins rank dead last in pass blocking efficiency and they have allowed 152 total pressures, second-most in the NFL. They have already benched one tackle (J'Marcus Webb) and traded the other (Laremy Tunsil) before the season. Starting at LT this week will be Julien Davenport, who has allowed two sacks and nine total pressures in his two starts so far this year. At the other tackle is Jesse Davis, a former UDFA who has allowed three sacks and 28 pressures in his nine starts this year.
Davenport and Davis will be matched up with Thomas and Smith for the majority of the game on Sunday. Thomas had been thrust into the starting lineup the last two games with Vernon out and responded with the two best games of his career, totaling two sacks, one hurry and a batted pass. He played 54 and 56 snaps respectively, which were by far the most of his young NFL career, so he is ready for another heavy workload.
Smith is coming off a 28-snap game against the Steelers, his highest snap count of the year. He had two QB pressures in that game and will need to keep that going this Sunday against Miami.
When you know that the Fins struggle to run the ball, as the fact that their leading rusher Kalen Ballage is averaging just 1.9 yards per carry can attest, this is a game for the new-look Browns defensive line to pin their ears back and control the point of attack. Doing that should slow down Fitzpatrick, who has a QB Rating of 56, a completion percentage of 51 and a three-to-one interception-to-touchdown ratio when under pressure.
The stage is set for the kind of explosive win we have been wanting to see from the Browns all season long and now they just have to go out and execute Sunday to make it a reality.