First-year head coach Rob Chudzinski will try to get a new era of Cleveland Browns football off to a winning start on Sunday when his new-look club plays host to the up-and-coming Miami Dolphins at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Following their fifth straight season of five wins or fewer, the Browns fired head coach Pat Shurmur and brought in Chudzinski, who had served the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. He wasted no time altering the look of the Browns, bringing in the established Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator while adding Ray Horton and his 3-4 scheme to run the defense.
Chudzinski wants his club to have more of an attacking style of play, so Cleveland was busy in free agency, signing pass-rushing linebacker Paul Kruger as well as fellow LB Quentin Groves and defensive tackle Desmond Bryant.
Bryant and Kruger will both start, while the offense returns nearly the same starting 11 from last year. That includes second-year players in quarterback Brandon Weeden and running back Trent Richardson.
The Browns began last season with five losses in a row, but Chudzinski isn't putting any special emphasis on the opener.
"Every game in this league is important," said the rookie head coach. "We approach this game just like we do any other game. That's how we'll go in. This week, we will go into this game and think, 'This is the most important game we play this week.' Once we're past that and moving on through the course of the season, we're going to approach every week the same way."
The Dolphins' defense will see one familiar face in wide receiver Davone Bess, who was acquired from Miami this past offseason.
Sunday is also unlikely to feature the debut of Browns linebacker Barkevious Mingo, who was selected with the sixth overall pick of the 2013 draft but is recovering from a bruised lung suffered during the preseason that has his status in doubt.
Miami, meanwhile, has not made the postseason in four straight years, but improved by a game to 7-9 last year under its own new head coach in Joe Philbin and were in playoff contention until late in the season.
Like the Browns, Philbin has a second-year quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and he has a new receiver to target in Mike Wallace, signed to a five-year, $60 million deal this offseason.
The wideout has plenty of experience playing the Browns, having battled them many times as a member of the division-rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's gonna be kind of funny to go out there and play Cleveland in a Dolphins uniform with new teammates. It's gonna be fun, but different," said Wallace. "I'm excited to go out and show everybody why I'm here, the impact I expect to make week in and week out."
The Dolphins' defense is led by sack machine Cameron Wake and, like the Browns, features a new look at linebacker following the offseason acquisitions of Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler.
While Miami holds a 9-8 edge in the all-time series, the Browns have won four straight since their last setback to the Dolphins in 2004.
The Dolphins are looking for their first victory in Miami since Oct. 10, 1993.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both Tannehill and Weeden will look to take steps forward in 2013 after solid rookie seasons.
Tannehill set Dolphin rookie records a year ago with 3,294 passing yards and 282 completions, but had just 12 touchdown passes with 13 interceptions. He was sacked 35 times, but lost star left tackle Jake Long to St. Louis this past summer in free agency. Jonathan Martin, a 2012 second-round pick, will replace him after starting all 16 games a year ago at right tackle, while offseason addition Tyson Clabo takes over on the right side.
"It's very important as we put together the passing game," said Philbin. "Obviously, the passing game again starts with protection No. 1. But then No. 2, what kind of pass concepts are you going to use, and No. 3, how are they going to match up to your formations, your personnel groupings and how we could potentially take advantage of that. It's a very big part of it."
Bess caught 61 passes with the Dolphins last year, second only to Brain Hartline, who led the club with career highs of 74 receptions and 1,083 yards.
Miami also lost its leading rusher from last year, Reggie Bush, to free agency, but made a big splash of its own with the signing of Wallace. The former Steeler has twice gone over 1,000 yards receiving in his four-year career and has totaled 32 touchdown receptions.
Weeden also set franchise rookie records in 2012 with 3,385 yards and five wins, starting 15 games. He would also like to improve his TD/INT ratio after getting picked off 17 times to 14 scoring throws.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him," Chudzinski said of Weeden. "I think he's come a long way and really improving as a player. He's grabbed a hold of the offense. I'm really looking forward to seeing him out there on Sunday."
Cleveland is also looking for big things from Richardson, who broke six team rookie records last year despite missing most of training camp and the preseason while recovering from knee surgery. He also battled a rib injury throughout the campaign, but his 950 rushing yards bested Browns legend Jim Brown's previous rookie mark of 942, and the former's 11 touchdowns broke the Hall-of-Famer's mark of nine.
Richardson was also a threat in the receiving game, finishing second on the club with 51 receptions
Bess mentors a young receiving group that includes Greg Little and Josh Cooper, as well as tight end Jordan Cameron. Josh Gordon is also a part of that group, but was suspended for the first two games of the regular season for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.
With a young core on offense, the Browns drafted Mingo and signed Kruger, who had a career-high nine sacks last year with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. He highlights the new group at linebacker that will also feature Jabaal Sheard and his 15 1/2 career sacks dropping back in the 3-4 scheme.
Wake is one of the top pass rushers in the game, with the end having notched a career-high 15 sacks last year. His 43 career sacks are the fourth most by any player from 2009-12.
The Dolphins lost Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, their two leading tacklers from a season ago, in the offseason and replaced them with former Raven Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, who spent the 2012 campaign with Oakland.
Defensive end Dion Jordan, whom the Dolphins traded up to select third overall in the most recent draft, is also expected to debut this weekend after missing the last three preseason games due to a shoulder injury.
Philbin noted earlier in the week it is still unknown how Jordan will figure into the mix.
"That's to be determined," the coach said. "We take the week to evaluate. We have a plan in place. We've been game planning Cleveland since we saw the schedule."
All eyes will be on the two inexperienced quarterbacks as both franchise's success depends on Tannehill and Weeden taking steps forward.
Tannehill is already being projected to improve this year and having a target like Wallace will certainly make things easier. Running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas will have to do their part in replacing Bush as well.
Cleveland and Miami can both bring heat in the backfield, so Tannehill and Weeden will be tested. Richardson should also see a big role to keep some pressure of Richardson, but the Dolphins may be too much to overcome in Week 1.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 17, Browns 10