The defense, as usual, did its part. But it did its part plenty a year ago, and all that got the Dolphins was a fourth- consecutive losing season.
No, if the Dolphins hope to end their playoff drought, the offense is going to need to hold up its end of the bargain — a challenge that began Sunday in Northeast Ohio.
The Dolphins clung to a tenuous three-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but with the running game comatose, Ryan Tannehill was going to have to win it.
He did in impressive fashion. Tannehill directed an 85-yard touchdown drive — capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Daniel Thomas — to help seal a 23-10 road victory over the Browns.
“We knew it was big,” said Tannehill, who dusted Brandon Weeden in game billed as a battle of up-and-coming quarterbacks.
“I told them when we got in the huddle, this is a big-time drive for us. If we go put points on the board, we have a good chance to win the game."
Tannehill was nearly flawless on the drive, completing six of seven passes for 78 yards.
And on the afternoon, the second-year triggerman was an efficient 24 of 38 for 272 yards, a touchdown and an interception — despite spotty, at best, pass protection.
The Browns sacked Tannehill on four occasions Sunday and hit him three other times. But the blocking improved in the second half, and when given time to throw, Tannehill was excellent.
“We obviously have to keep our quarterback on his feet,” said center Mike Pouncey. “We can’t give up those kind of sacks. We have to play better up front.”
When asked whether Tannehill carried the team late, Pouncey added: “He really did. That’s his job. He’s the quarterback of our football team.”
Tannehill had similar opportunities in 2012, but by and large fell short in crunch time. The team would have had at least four more wins if Tannehill was able to lead late touchdown drives. He didn’t then, but did Sunday.
“It is something we have talked about,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “We need to play well in the fourth quarter.”
As for the defense? The group deserve to talk plenty. The Dolphins (1-0) sacked Weeden six times (2.5 by Cameron Wake) and intercepted him thrice (including two by Dimitri Patterson in his return to Cleveland).
The Dolphins held Cleveland (0-1) to 291 yards of total offense and allowed the Browns to convert just 1-of-14 third-down situations.
But even after forcing three first-half turnovers, the Dolphins still trailed 7-6 at the break because their offense was so ineffective. The Browns, who weren’t much better, did punch in a touchdown late in the half when Weeden found tight end Jordan Cameron for a 7-yard score.
But after halftime, the Dolphins took over — even without any semblance of a running game.
As a team, the Dolphins managed just 20 yards on the ground Sunday — on 23 carries. Both Tannehill and Pouncey said the struggles were due, at least in part, to Cleveland’s decision to stay in its base defense, even when Miami went three-wide.
That heavy front seven roughed up the Dolphins’ offensive line, forcing Miami to attack almost exclusively through the air.
Finally, on their ninth drive, the Dolphins broke through. Tannehill connected with Brian Hartline on a 34-yard touchdown strike, a beautiful pass he threw only after discovering Mike Wallace had drawn an extra defender.
Hartline used a double move to get behind Cleveland corner Buster Skrine down the left sideline, and Tannehill delivered.
For Wallace, meanwhile, there were few smiles Sunday afternoon — despite the win. The Dolphins’ $60-million man had just one catch for 15 yards in his debut. Wallace refused to talk to reporters afterwards.
But Tannehill said Wallace had an impact on the game by simply being on the field. Since the Browns made a concerted effort to take him away, it created opportunities for Hartline (nine catches for 114 yards), Brandon Gibson (7 for 77) and Charles Clay (5 for 54).
“It’s Game 1,” Hartline said. “If you’re the same team you are in Week 1 as Week 17, then you’re not making very good strides. You’re probably not a post-season team. We’re hoping to grow.”
Their quarterback looks like he already has.