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Defense leads the way as Dolphins leave Buffalo with a win

Koa Misi was one of many who helped this Miami defense dominate on Sunday.
Koa Misi was one of many who helped this Miami defense dominate on Sunday.

Heading into Sunday's season opener, most Dolphin fans agreed that this game in Buffalo was really a "must win" for the Dolphins. They have a very tough first nine games of the season and have been notoriously slow starters under head coach Tony Sparano. Sparano himself was clearly emphasizing how important it was for his team to get off to a fast start when he left most of his starters in for an extended period of time a week ago in Dallas in the preseason finale.

Well it wasn't a very "pretty" win for the Dolphins on Sunday. But the NFL doesn't give style points - a win is a win. And considering the Dolphins have not won a road opener since 2003 nor have they won in Buffalo since '03, I can live with Sunday's "ugly" win. After the game, Sparano said it best:

"It feels great to be 1-0. Great. First step. A good first step. Validates some of the things that we've been talking about."

Nolan's defense makes a statement
I'm aware that you have to preface this by remembering that this performance was against a below-average offense. Still, we got our first glimpse of the "real" Mike Nolan defense on Sunday. And you have to be impressed by what you saw.

For those of us who got to see the game, it was clear how dominant (and that's not a word I throw around lightly) Miami's defense was against Buffalo's mostly inept offense. But if you're someone who likes stats, then here are a few I have for you to drill home this point. The Bills ran 54 plays and gained 166 yards, a paltry 3.07 yard-per-play average. But if you take away the one no-huddle scoring drive the Bills put together, the Dolphins allowed the Bills to gain just 81 yards on 44 total plays combined over those other 11 possessions - an average of just 1.84 yards per play. And Buffalo failed to pick up a first down on 8 of their 12 possessions.

That's dominance on defense. Or total ineptitude by the offense. Or some combination of the two.

However you want to classify it, there is one thing that you can call Sunday's performance by this Dolphin defense: a statement. For the first time, we saw the kind of defense that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan likes to employ - a physical, aggressive, attacking defense - a far cry from Paul Pasqualoni's passive defense these past two seasons.

We saw a front seven totally dominate Buffalo's offensive line. They were all over when any of Buffalo's three talented backs touched the football - holding Buffalo's big three to just 38 yards rushing on 13 carries. And when Trent Edwards dropped back, this Miami front seven was relentless in getting to him, clearly never letting Edwards get comfortable back there in the pocket.

A number of defensive performances deserve to be quickly highlighted:

  • Making his debut as a Dolphin, it's clear to see why the Dolphins paid Karlos Dansby big money to come to Miami. He's the kind of linebacker that this franchise hasn't had in some time. His versatility is really remarkable and will be a huge asset to Mike Nolan as he develops this defense. He was tied for the team lead with 8 tackles, was able to drop into coverage when asked, and totaled 3 hits on Trent Edwards - including a vicious sack on Edwards that set the tone for the entire game. Expect this to become a trend.
  • Yeremiah Bell is the other key cog in Mike Nolan's defense. Nolan used him in a variety of ways on Sunday, lining him up all over the field. Bell ended the day with 8 tackles, a quarterback hit, and a tackle for a loss. After Dansby, Bell is probably the most important player to this defense and I expect to see these kinds of performances regularly from Yeremiah.
  • Cameron Wake and Koa Misi quickly made us all forget about those two "old" outside linebackers that were here last year. These two were consistently disruptive all game long. Each got their first sack of 2010. Misi added another QB hit to go with 4 tackles while Wake added another tackle for loss and QB hit to go with 3 tackles. Perhaps more impressive, though, was the ability of both outside linebackers to set the edge - something that has been a major question mark this offseason.
  • Chris Clemons finally flashed after doing very little in four preseason games. He was physical and made sure he got the ball carrier down. I wonder how many of those tackles made by Clemons would have resulted in big plays for Buffalo if Gibril Wilson was still back there for this team. Of the five tackles made by Clemons, two were made behind the line of scrimmage - an impressive figure for a free safety like Clemons.

Offense is sluggish but does "enough"
Sluggish may have been putting it mildly. There's no arguing that this Dolphins' offense did not look very good on Sunday against a defense that isn't exactly among the NFL's best. And I agree that if this offense performs similarly next weekend in Minnesota, we are all probably in for a long afternoon.

Chad Henne said after the game that though the offense wasn't firing on all cylinders, they did "enough" to win. But I found myself wondering why, for example, Henne attempted very few passes over 10 yards. It seemed like Henne was tentative all game long. A number of times, Henne was given time to throw, scanned the field, and seemingly took the check down rather than going for the big play. Was that by design? Did the coaches tell him to avoid any risky throws at all costs? Or were there simply no receivers open down field?

We probably won't know for sure. What many fans want to do is criticize the play-calling of Dan Henning. Personally I'm not one to criticize play-calling - at least not at this point in the season. It's a tricky thing to do. After all, if the play works, then it's not a bad play call. So I'm not going to sit here and pick apart Henning's play-calling on Sunday.

What I will say is that I was disappointed in how conservative the offense was. However, for all we know, that might ave been the plan all along - to play conservative on offense in a windy stadium and a hostile environment. I'll take a "wait-and-see" approach before I jump on the Fire Henning bandwagon that continues to grow.

Some more quick thoughts on Sunday's win:

  • Did anyone else think Chad Henne looked very uncomfortable on Sunday? On some plays, it seemed like he went through his progressions and settled for the check down too quickly. On other plays, it seemed like he locked onto the primary receiver for far too long. Then he'd make a beautiful pass like the perfectly placed and well timed touch pass to Anthony Fasano that set up Ronnie Brown's touchdown. Then he'd underthrow an open Brandon Marshall on a would-be long TD pass. Inconsistency. It's all part of the maturation process of a young quarterback. Regardless, I'm still firmly in Henne's corner - unlike some around these parts.
  • The offensive line remains a work in progress. I think communication remains an issue, with blitz pick-ups not being executed very well at times. But on the plus side, I saw a number of outstanding blocks in the running game as well as a number of plays where Henne had more than enough time to throw. Next week against that Viking defensive line, though, will be a very good barometer to judge where this unit is right now. That front four in Minnesota is among the NFL's best. I hope this unit is up to the challenge.
  • Ronnie Brown looked like his old self. And while I'm not going to say Ricky Williams looked bad, I was disappointed that Brown only got 2 of the 10 fourth quarter rushing attempts by the Dolphins. Most Dolphin fans are well aware of Ronnie's history of getting better as the game goes on. And he had just gained 17 yards on the first rushing attempt of the fourth quarter. Why then does Ricky get eight of the final nine carries of the game? Just wondering, that's all.
  • Brandon Marshall's 8 for 53 stat line is odd, isn't it? He sure does look good with the ball in his hands, though. I just wish he was catching passes a little bit farther down the field. But I'm assuming that will come in time. He's sure fun to watch after the catch, though, isn't he?
  • Davone Bess picked up right where he left off in 2009, converting two third downs - part of his 6 catch, 51 yard performance. He led the AFC in 3rd down conversion receptions a year ago and it's likely the addition of Marshall could make Bess even more effective on third down.
  • Brian Hartline didn't exactly have his best game, did he? But I'm not ready to throw in the towel on him right now. There's a reason he led this team in yards-per-catch and TD receptions last year.
  • Can we get these defensive backs on the JUGS machine a little bit more often? Please? No excuse for dropping easy interceptions. I'm looking at you, Benny Sapp and Jason Allen.
  • Sean Smith didn't play a single snap. Hmmm.
  • Jared Odrick was playing well - highlighted by that tackle of C.J. Spiller behind the line of scrimmage. But he left the game with a leg injury. After the game, it was revealed that he suffered a bone bruise to his right leg and was "limping badly" though he "managed to make it up a set of steep stairs on the way to the team bus." So we'll have to wait and see how much Odrick participates this week. Regardless, I'll be looking to see if the Dolphins decide to bring back one of the two veteran defensive linemen they released last week.
  • Brandon Fields redeemed himself for having a bad day by making the play of the game - a 48 yard punt that was downed at the one inch line. That punt pretty much did Buffalo in.
  • Miami only committed three penalties - still three too many in Tony Sparano's eyes.

Quote of the Day

"Better to learn from a win than to learn from a loss." - Center Joe Berger

I can't argue that. It wasn't an efficient win by any means. But it's a win.