Week 1 Blognosticator: Boone
Every year as NFL games loom, pundits and experts seem to hone in on a handful of teams as this year’s Cinderella story, teams that have proven nothing but are chock full of tantalizing promise and potential. This year, one of those teams is the Miami Dolphins.
One has to wonder WHY?
Sure – the Dolphins have a solid QB starter in Ryan Tannehill, one of those 2012 draft picks that didn’t turn out to be a disaster. And of course, the Dolphins broke the bank in acquiring DT Ndamukong Suh in the off season. But all of the supposed talent on this Dolphins team hasn’t resulted in anything better than a .500 record since 2008 when they went 11-5. Over the past 10 years, the Miami Dolphins have looked a lot like, well, the Washington Redskins. And that’s not really anything to hang one’s hat on.
This is a big season for the Dolphins. A year ago, their franchise was under intense scrutiny due to the Jonathan Martin – Richie Incognito 'bullying’ scandal. Joe Philbin somehow managed to keep his job during that embarrassing episode, but he won’t keep it much longer if the Dolphins don’t post a winning record and make the playoffs. But wanting and needing it so, don’t make it so.
The Dolphins have added talent and they have a likely franchise QB in Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill’s done what the Redskins Griffin could not – he’s improved every single season since being drafted 6 picks after RG3 in 2012. Tannehill has thrown over 3,000 yards in each of his first 3 seasons, throwing for over 4,000 last year. His completion % has improved from a low of 58.3% in his rookie season to a solid 66.4% in 2014, including 27 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. It’s Tannehill that our Redskins will have to worry about most on Sunday when the Redskins take on the Dolphins in their 2015 home opener, not Suh, the vaunted Miami defense, or anyone else.
And that’s why the outcome of this game will turn on how much pressure the Redskins defense can put on him.
The 2015 Redskins? Let’s be honest. None of us know what to expect from this team on Sunday or beyond. What we do know is that the Jim Haslett era mercifully ended in the offseason, and the Joe Barry era has begun. We know that, on defense, the coaching staff and roster has seen major overhaul. What we don’t know is how well that defense will perform. We also know that the Redskins have gotten bigger, tougher, and meaner, adding talent at a number of positions. The Redskins went lunch pail on us in the NFL draft, selecting working man’s favorite Brandon Scherff to bolster an underperforming and undersized OL, and adding a physical brawler in Matt Jones at running back. They’ve also promoted 2nd year man, Morgan Moses, to right tackle. Whomever might be under center this season, they’re going to get better protection than they did in 2014. The Skins added some heft to the DL, adding to some already serious talent there by bringing in Terrance Knighton.
There’s no debating it – the 2015 rendition of the Redskins is bigger, tougher, and more talented than the one we cheered on in 2014. But how much better will they be?
A lot of that is going to depend on how well newly-named starter Kirk Cousins performs.
No one questions Cousins talent level. He’s a smart, accurate, natural passer who has all the physical tools necessary. But given the chance in 2014 to seize the starter reins for good in DC, he floundered, collapsing under the pressure of expectations that he could be DC’s savior. So far, in 2015, Cousins looks solid and confident. Only time will tell if Cousins will hold up under real game pressure, and be able to rebound effectively after the inevitable misstep.
We’ll start to answer some of our questions about Cousins on Sunday.
So what of Sunday? What’s going to happen and who will prevail?
It’s hard to make positive predictions when you’ve survived the past twenty years of Redskins fandom But it’s opening day on Sunday, at home. That ought to generate some positive energy. In fact, and perhaps surprisingly, the Redskins have won 11 of their opening games over the past 20 years. In home openers, the Redskins have been even better, going 8-5 at Fed Ex Field to start the season during that 20 year stretch. When it comes to winning home openers, the odds are with us.
But I believe the outcome is going to hinge on three key challenges. If the Redskins are to pull off an 'upset’ of the visiting Dolphins (and yes, sadly, when you’re coming off a 4-12 season, any win is an 'upset’) they’ll have to win in these three areas:
1) Stay committed to the run game. It will be tempting to abandon the run game if the Redskins get down early. We saw a lot of this in 2014. But Jay Gruden and company need to stick to the game plan and run, run, run. The Skins are loaded at running back. Matt Jones will be the breakout player for this team in 2015, and giving both Alfred Morris and Jones plenty of opportunities is crucial.
2) Kirk Cousins needs to get rid of the ball on time. Suh is overrated as is the Miami defense in general, but the Dolphins DL is talented. I believe the Redskins OL will be much improved this year, but it will take time for the revamped line to find its way. That means pressure will be coming at Cousins early and often. Cousins needs to fire the ball on cue, getting rid of it to live for another play when necessary. The Redskins are loaded at WR as well, and there will be open receivers to hit. The key for Cousins is to pick and choose his opportunities and not wait for WRs to come open.
3) The Redskins DL needs to tee off on Ryan Tannehill. The Skins DL is much, much better than most realize. Ryan Kerrigan is a perennial Pro Bowl talent just coming into his own. He enters this game coming off a knee scope, but he will have a major impact. Add to that a healthy Jason Hatcher, underrated 2nd year man Trent Murphy, and newcomers Knighton, Jackson Jeffcoat, Ricky Jean Francois, and Preston Smith, and the Redskins should be able to put significant pressure on Tannehill. If they do, he becomes an average QB. If they don’t, the Redskins will be in trouble.
The trump card on Sunday is how aggressively Joe Barry attacks the Dolphins offense. Shrink back, play conservatively, and the Dolphins have a major advantage. The Redskins secondary isn’t in shambles, but with Baushad Breeland suspended for the game, Deangelo Hall coming off major surgery, no proven starters behind them, and serious questions at safety, pressure on Tannehill is critical. Whether Barry has the guts to send major pressure at Tannehill will be a huge factor.
I see the Redskins running a lot on Sunday. But I also believe Jay Gruden will give Kirk Cousins lots of first down passing opportunities. Cousins will target a healthy Jordan Reed frequently and the Redskins will take the opening kickoff all the way down the field for a rare opening touchdown. This will be a back and forth, tit-for-tat game with no less than 5 lead changes, but it will be the Redskins who prevail, by a nose hair, on a game-ending Kai Forbath 45 yard FG. Ryan Kerrigan will have 3 sacks, Chris Culliver will have an INT with a long return, and Matt Jones will score his first NFL touchdown run on a 25 yard screen pass play.
Ndamukong will curse and spit, and even sack Kirk Cousins once. But he won’t be a major factor.