With the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns preparing to face off on Sunday in the NFL's opening weekend, it's time to get some more information on the Dolphins' Week 1 opponents. What better way to do that than to turn to SB Nation's Dawgs by Nature? Executive editor Chris Pokorny was kind enough to answer my questions about the Browns (and I got to slide a sixth question into our five question interview).
Kevin Nogle (KN): In 2012, the Dolphins conducted a head coach search, eventually landing on Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. One of the names a lot of Dolphins fans were interested in pursuing was Browns new head coach Rob Chudzinski, although he never seemed to gain much traction with the Dolphins themselves. What has Chudzinski brought to the Browns, and how is the fit? Is the team looking more like the 2007 10-6 Browns, when Chudzinski was their offensive coordinator?
Chris Pokorny (CP): When the Browns first hired Chudzinski, I think the impression was, "huh?" We were familiar with Chudzinski from his days as our tight ends coach and offensive coordinator, but it seemed like a dropoff from the innovative Chip Kelly, who we at one point thought was a "done deal" in coming to Cleveland.
The hiring of Chudzinski started to make sense when we saw the All-Star cast of assistant coaches he was able to assemble in Norv Turner (offensive coordinator) and Ray Horton (defensive coordinator). All three of those guys -- Chudzinski, Turner, and Horton -- have used words like "attacking" and "aggressive" when describing the type of approach they'll have to calling a game. Those are more than just buzz words; these are coaches who have delivered with their respective teams in the past.
Our successful 2007 season seems like an aberration, but offensively, Chudzinski did play a significant part in that when it came to utilizing the team's offensive personnel. After all, how in the world do you get Derek Anderson to throw 29 touchdown passes in a single season? Chudzinski has a better defense to work with this time around too. Reaching 10 wins is still hard to justify, but I think Chudzinski will prove to have been a wise hire when it's all said and done.
KN: Obviously, Dolphins fans are interested in Davone Bess, both because he used to be in Miami and because we know that he can be very dangerous if he is used correctly. How will the Browns use him this week, and is that different than how he will be used when Josh Gordon comes off suspension?
CP: When the Browns have both Greg Little and Josh Gordon on the field as their starting receivers, they will be the outside receivers, and Davone Bess will play the slot. That is set in stone. As you alluded to, though, Gordon is suspended for the first two games of the regular season. Browns fans have been wondering what the team will do with Bess during that stretch.
Personally, I think it makes sense to elevate speedster wide receiver Travis Benjamin to the outside, so that you keep Bess in his niche role. We don't have any evidence of what the Browns will actually do since Gordon played the entire preseason. When the Browns released their depth chart on Tuesday, it listed Bess as the No. 2 receiver. I think he may end up playing the outside in two-receiver sets, but when three receivers are in the game, he'll work from the slot.
KN: What young players should Dolphins fans watch for on Sunday, players who could make a name for themselves this year?
CP: Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson are both in their second year, but I think Dolphins fans are well aware of them. Offensively, the person who may turn heads is wide receiver Travis Benjamin. Entering his second year, he could be one of the fastest players in the NFL and will help Cleveland stretch the field. His presence will be felt more on punt returns, where he has had an incredible amount of success in limited action. Last year, he got one opportunity late in the season and returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown. In the first preseason game this year, he returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown. The following week, he had another punt return for a touchdown (which was nullified by an "iffy" penalty). Miami should kick the ball away from him on Sunday.
Defensively, there are two players: inside linebacker Craig Robertson and free safety Tashaun Gipson. Both players are entering their second year as starters and originated as undrafted free agents. Gipson's skills are still a bit questionable, but Robertson seems like a gem -- not a guy who is going to physically blow plays up or anything, but a sound player who can cover and tackle well.
KN: Looking at two younger players with recognizable names, how has Brandon Weeden looked in camp and is he ready to take the next step? And, what's going on with Barkevious Mingo's bruised lung? Should we expect to see him on Sunday?
CP: Weeden had a solid camp; there was never a doubt he was going to be the starter over Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. One of the things he tried to work on this offseason was reducing the number of tipped passes opposing teams' front sevens have against him. We've seen some speedup in his delivery, but we won't know the results of that for certain until all guns are blazing during the regular season.
Weeden's footwork during the preseason games has seem much improved, though, which is something that one would expect to carry over into the regular season. I think he is ready to take the next step forward -- this offensive system is catered specifically to him, a sharp contrast from 2012. If Weeden does not succeed, it will be a really bad sign for his future as a starting quarterback.
A couple weeks ago, ESPN reported that Mingo would probably miss Week 1 as he recovers from a bruised lung, but that's not confirmed yet. Mingo has been starting to work back into practice drills this week on a limited basis, and is scheduled to get an opinion later this week to determine if he can play in the opener against Miami or not. Stay tuned!
KN: If you are designing a game plan to attack the Browns offense, how do you do it? The defense?
CP: To attack the Browns' offense, try to anticipate tendencies. The Browns might be running all the time when they are under center, and throwing from Shotgun. That's what happened during the preseason, but it could have been a tactic to throw teams off in the regular season. I think zone defenses work better against Weeden, as he'll throw to the check down player a bit too much. Getting players' arms up in his throwing lane is a good idea, given Weeden's aforementioned batted passes as a rookie.
To attack the Browns' defense, be prepared for third-down blitzes in passing situations and try to figure out who cornerback Buster Skrine is matched up against. Skrine has looked really good this preseason, but it still lingers in my head that he really struggled as a starter in 2012, often getting beat by receivers or getting pass interference flags thrown against him. The Browns' safeties are also a bit questionable and haven't played much together this preseason due to health issues. They are both fine now, but whether the chemistry is there remains to be seen.
KN: Federal authorities are currently investigating Pilot Flying J truck stops, and CEO Jimmy Haslam, for rebate fraud. Haslam is also the owner of the Browns. How much of an impact on the team has/will the investigation have?
CP: It won't have any impact on the team itself. Fortunately, Haslam seems to have hired a bunch of savvy business people to help run the Browns, and with the coaching staff being highly respected and the players all being too young (and perhaps naive) to worry about what the owner is doing outside the organization, nothing that happens to Haslam is really going to change what is already in place.
A big thanks to Pokorny for taking the time to answer my questions. You can check out all their coverage on the Browns over at Dawgs by Nature. You can also check out my answers to his questions about the Dolphins.