The Miami Dolphins boast the league's fastest offense and will test the Cleveland Browns defensive identity this week. Led by wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Browns will have an opportunity to not simply prove they are headed in the right direction on the defensive side of the ball, but that their concept on defense is indeed the right one to contend for a Super Bowl in a league full of explosive offenses.
Last week in his press conference, Browns general manager Andrew Berry was asked about the identity of the defense.
“I think that it is no secret that our scheme and our defensive philosophy in how this system is designed is more predicated on speed than size and largely because of what we will ask the defensive line or the second level to do in coverage or how we really kind of move the front."
The Browns defense may not be done being built but it is fully operational. Especially in the secondary, the Browns have the pieces necessary to defend what the Dolphins are going to throw at them.
The biggest question facing the secondary is the status of Denzel Ward. He does appear to be on track to play in this game having recovered from his concussion, but will he be truly ready? To this point, Ward has had the worst season of his young career. He's certainly capable of turning it around with a strong second half, but Hill and Waddle are already operating at full speed and Ward is trying to catch up, as if he's Willie Mays Hays in the movie Major League having woken up late when everyone else is already up and running.
Ward is a critical element because he is fast enough and quick enough to compete with the Dolphins speed. At full capacity, the Browns might be inclined to have Ward shade Waddle and double Hill consistently. Ward's situation likely means the Browns will play sides as they traditionally do.
Greg Newsome had some difficulty making the adjustment to playing both the slot as well as playing on the outside earlier in the year, but he looks more comfortable and confident in recent weeks. That versatility is important as the Dolphins won't be afraid to line up Hill and Waddle anywhere on the field in an effort to create favorable matchups.
If there was ever a week for Greedy Williams to showcase the talent he showed throughout the 2021 season, this is it. His speed and length could be major assets this week. After missing time on injured reserve with a hamstring, Williams was barely able to contribute against the Bengals due to bad seafood. If the two weeks leading up to this game prove productive for Williams, he could make a major impact in this game.
Keep an eye on how the Browns employ rookie corner M.J. Emerson this week. The Dolphins are not a great matchup for him. He was drafted for his size and physicality which is great for defending receivers like Tee Higgins of the Cincinnati Bengals. There is nothing corners like Emerson hate more than to face shorter receivers with outstanding agility and speed.
However, if he is in the game, he may be utilized almost exclusively in press coverage. If he's able to get a a jam on Waddle or Hill, he may be able to take them of the play. At the very least, he can disrupt timing which can be critical for a quarterback like Tua Tagovailoa. The only way they are able to do that is if the Browns provide safety help over the top in case he's unsuccessful.
The Browns may employ what amounts to be a speed package with Ward, Newsome and Williams and then bring in Emerson to try to switch things up and try to pound on the Dolphins receivers.
Speaking of the safeties, they are going to be key in this game. Presumably, the Browns are going to take a similar approach as they did against the Cincinnati Bengals, operating largely out of a 2-high look with the goal of keeping everything in front of them while also providing extra help for when the Dolphins try to stretch the field.
It was extremely effective against the Jamar Chase-less Bengals. It's a much taller task against the Dolphins because poor eye discipline or false steps could be more than enough to allow an explosive play and potentially a touchdown. If they can keep everything in front of them, it affords them the ability to play downhill. This has been where Grant Delpit has been at his best this season and he's played better in the past two games. John Johnson III will have a chance to redeem himself against Tyreek Hill after misplaying a ball in the regular season opener in 2021, which enabled Hill to score a 75-yard touchdown when he was a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
If Tagovailoa sees one-high, he's going attack it, trying to stretch the field. The Browns may try to use that against him, disguising coverages to make him think they are one-high only to drop a second safety back post snap. It's a risky play given just how fast the Dolphins are but if it produces a turnover, it might be worth it. The inverse is much easier to do. Present two-high, then convert to a something like Cover-3 robber look in an attempt to switch up the look and cause confusion in the middle of the field.
The Dolphins have a highly talented tight end in Mike Gesicki the Browns will have to account for, but he's not utilized as much as one might think. In nine games, he has just 22 receptions for 238 yards. Contrast that against Browns tight end David Njoku who has 34 receptions for 418 yards in seven.
Gesicki may not have as much production as maybe he should have, but he is second on the team in touchdowns with four. Hill and Waddle are great in between the twenties, accounting for an absurd 69.4 percent of the team's receiving yards, but Gesicki's size becomes valuable for the Dolphins in the red zone.
So if the Browns can limit the production of Hill and Waddle, forcing Tagovailoa to go to options like Trent Sheffield, Cedric Wilson and their backs, it should at least string out the drives of the Dolphins, providing the defense more chances to get off the field. Additionally, it may provide time for the pass rush to get home.
The Browns will not be afraid to line up Myles Garrett against Terron Armstead, but not only is the right tackle position much more welcoming, it's also the lefty's blind side. Brandon Shell has been in there, but Austin Jackson may be returning to the lineup after a stint on injured reserve. Neither one is likely to enjoy success against Garrett who has been on a tear and has had more time to rest his ailing shoulder.
The Browns need Jadeveon Clowney's knee and ankle to feel much better this week, so if he is spending most of his time across from Armstead, he can try to keep Tagovailoa in the pocket. This could be a week where the Browns defensive line emphasizes getting their hands up to try to deflect passes as Tagovailoa tends to get the ball out quickly.
As for the Dolphins running game, the Browns are likely in favor of it. The Dolphins are not a great rushing team. Nick Chubb has more rushing yards in eight games than the entire Dolphins team does in nine. The Browns would like to shut it down and force the Dolphins into obvious passing situations, but for every time the Dolphins hand the ball off, it's a play where Hill and Waddle aren't catching it.
If the Browns defense is what the players believe it is, they should be excited for this matchup. They've shown what they are capable of when they put in the necessary preparation and play up to their ability. Even if they lose, they should go down playing with the same level of speed and intensity they showed against the Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. If they can do that for a full four quarters, the Browns might be able to come away with a big win and more reason to believe this defense needs a few tweaks in order to contend for the next few seasons.