AFC East preview (cont.)
What the Dolphins do best: Play quietly effective defense.
Casual observers almost certainly know the name of veteran Jason Taylor, returning for his third stint in Miami after a season with the Jets, and they might know that of Cameron Wake, the former CFL-er who broke out with 14 sacks last season, but they would likely be hard-pressed to identify any other members of the Dolphins' defense.
"Not so many of those big, huge names, but we've got a lot of blue-collar guys who are hard-working," says Wake. "Let's keep that a secret. Come in the back door." Miami ranked sixth in total defense last season, allowing 309.3 yards per game, and returns 11 of 12 starters, the only addition being inside linebacker Kevin Burnett. Even though it lacks star power, Mike Nolan's unit -- which swirls around nose tackle Paul Soliai, now the highest paid defender in franchise history -- has a chance to become one of the NFL's true elite.
What the Dolphins need to improve: Offensive focus.
Last season's offense was generally scattershot, and particularly tended to fall apart late in games, posting the fourth-most fourth-quarter interceptions (9) and ranking 25th in yards (1,360) and 27th in points (68). To bring some stability to the offense, Miami traded for a player whose NFL career thus far has been rather unstable: Reggie Bush, acquired from the Saints in July for backup safety Jonathon Amaya and an undisclosed draft pick.
The Dolphins believe that Bush, still just 26, can become something close to an every-down back, including downs that come late in games, and to help him become that they've decided to strip him of the punt-returning responsibilities at which he used to excel. "I enjoy returning punts and doing the special teams thing, but now I get a chance to just be a dynamic offensive player," says Bush. They are also counting on a significant maturation of beleaguered quarterback Chad Henne, who threw just three fourth-quarter TDs and had a rating in the period of 55.6.
Which Dolphin needs to step up: Henne.
Henne has one more year -- or, perhaps, the early portion of one more year -- to prove he can be an effective NFL quarterback, as, although his problems last season were most acute late in games, they extended earlier. "I think overall I came out a better person and a better player, going through that, being criticized and living through that whole year," says Henne, whose overall quarterback rating of 75.4 was actually very slightly better than that of the similarly experienced, if far less censured, Sanchez (75.3).
"We just need to make some more plays down the field." says Sparano, who over the offseason went through the indignity of watching his owner fly to California to unsuccessfully woo another coach, Jim Harbaugh, to take Sparano's job.
The Dolphins hired new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll with the idea that he would be able to shake up an offense that tended toward the conservative, and would help Henne take advantage of his deep threats, most notably receiver Brandon Marshall. Henne, indeed, was impressive in the first three preseason games, compiling 446 yards (second-best in the league) with a 93.6 rating, and connecting with Marshall for a 60-yard touchdown against the Bucs, longer than any catch Marshall had last year. It was, of course, only the preseason.
Predicted record: 5-11
The fate of the Dolphins is the most difficult to predict among the teams in the AFC East. If the defense is as advertised, if Bush really can finally make good on his talents and if Henne succeeds in making the leap at which his exhibition season has hinted, then they could, despite a difficult schedule, challenge for a Wild Card berth. Those seem, however, to amount to a lot of 'ifs.'
What the Bills do best: Present a versatile offense.
Even after trading longtime star Lee Evans to the Ravens, Buffalo has its share of offensive playmakers. That includes, most notably, wide receiver Stevie Johnson, running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and former Jet Brad Smith, the free-agent signee who will play a little quarterback, a little running back and a little wideout. Versatility, however, does not always equal success, as Johnson -- the Kentucky product who had 12 catches for 112 yards in his first two seasons, but 82 catches for 1,073 yards last year -- knows. "You can say I got 1,000 yards in a season and whatnot, but we only got four wins," Johnsons says. "Now it's more about trying to get wins and having big production at the same time."
What the Bills need to improve: Stopping the run.
No matter what the offense did last season -- and after Ryan Fitzpatrick became the starting quarterback in Week 3, it wasn't entirely awful, scoring 19.9 points per game -- the Bills would have had trouble accumulating wins due to their feeble run defense. No defense in a decade faced as many rushing attempts as did the Bills, and Buffalo allowed an NFL-high nine separate running backs -- including three individual Jets -- to produce 100-yard games against them.
Shoring up the run defense was the front office's top offseason priority, and to that end they drafted mammoth Alabama tackle Marcell Dareus with the third overall pick, and then signed veteran inside linebacker Nick Barnett, the former Packer. While the result shouldn't be one of the league's best run-stopping units, it should be improved, and that will allow a skilled secondary -- and a pass rush bolstered by a rejuvenated Shawne Merriman -- to have a greater impact. "That's what you hope, that's what you plan on," says head coach Chan Gailey. "That's what we're practicing for, to not let those guys run through us like they did last year."
Which Bill needs to step up: Left tackle Demetrius Bell.
The 6'5", 316-pound Bell is now entering his fourth season, and it will be a critical one. The former project out of Northwestern State made 16 starts at left tackle last season, and is now the most athletically gifted member of a line that has been shaky for years. "Demetrius really made strides from two years ago to last year," says Fitzpatrick, "and we're expecting the same strides out of him this year." Bell's preseason, though, got off to a rocky start, and he particularly struggled against Broncos' end Elvis Dumervil. If Bell can't serve as the cornerstone of a line that ranks as the league's shallowest, Buffalo's offense won't improve on last season's 25th ranking.
Predicted record: 5-11
Last season, Buffalo faced what turned out to be the league's most difficult schedule, and they started things off by losing eight straight games. Things don't look much easier in 2011, as the Bills will have to contend with what is projected to be the NFL's second-most-formidable slate. That will likely mean that even if they win more games than the four they managed in 2010, they won't win many more.