Not long after the 2013 season ended, Branden Albert strolled into Matt Baiamonte’s boxing club in Miami. The star lineman wanted quicker hands, improved footwork and stronger conditioning, and decided to spend his offseason in the gym working the bags and jumping rope.
It’s fitting. Albert and his young protege, Ja’Wuan James, are just a few days shy of a true heavyweight bout.
Dolphins coaches are calling the Bills’ defensive line the best Miami will face all year. Buffalo’s starting defensive tackles both made the Pro Bowl last year. And their best pass rusher, Mario Williams, is a former No. 1 overall pick.
On Sunday, James can expect to see plenty of Williams — who wrecked the Dolphins when the teams met in Miami last year. And more often than not, James will be asked to handle Williams on his own.
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The Dolphins on Wednesday dismissed the idea of providing rookie tight end help, at least on a regular basis.
“Coach [Bill] Lazor is going to call the offense how he’s going to call it,” James said. “We’re in the business of getting yards and scoring points. We’re not out here trying to max protect.”
Said coach Joe Philbin: “I think the foundation, the way we teach pass protection is one player blocking one player. I think that’s the foundation of pass protection. Certainly, we have all different ways to help ... but at the end of the day, if you’re going to play in the National Football League, you better be able to pass block one-on-one.”
Tyson Clabo, against the Bills last year, could not. The Dolphins had a late lead at home, but gambled. Instead of running down the clock, they called a pass-play on second down, and left Clabo alone on an island with Williams. The result: a strip-sack that cost the Dolphins the game.
One could persuasively argue that the decision kept the Dolphins out of the playoffs — and cost Jeff Ireland and Mike Sherman their jobs. And yet, Philbin and James gave no hints Wednesday that the strategy would change, if the identical situation presents itself this year.
“It’s 2014 and what’s in the past is in the past,” Philbin said.
Added Williams: “Nothing that happened last year really dictates anything. ... This is obviously a new year, with new faces on both sides of the ball.”
The Dolphins’ new faces — Albert and James, most specifically — have been excellent with their new team. Neither allowed a sack in the preseason or in last Sunday’s drubbing of the Patriots.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. The Dolphins targeted each for their ability to pass protect. But Albert and James were also strong in the running game Sunday, allowing the Dolphins to rush for nearly 200 yards.
Albert, the veteran signed away from Kansas City, has led. And James, the rookie out of Tennessee, has followed. The Dolphins surrendered nearly four sacks a game without them in 2013. The Patriots managed just one on Sunday, prompting the scouting service Pro Football Focus to rank Albert and James the week’s No. 2 and 23 tackles, respectively.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Albert said. “I worry about how my coaches and teammates view me. I’m the hardest critic on myself. I should have played better. I feel like I played a C-plus level. My game needed to be at an A level. I could have done better, but me being a critic, I want to prove myself to these guys in this locker room, to these coaches and the fans. I appreciate the love, but these guys in this locker room, I play for.”
Albert signed a big-money deal this offseason — Forbes recently named him the NFL’s 14th highest-paid player in 2014 — and is determined to prove he’s worth every money.
Looking for an edge, he turned to boxing. Albert and a few teammates decided to train with Baiamonte, who apprenticed under the legendary Angelo Dundee. Within a month of work, he was doing “double unders” on the jump rope.
“For a guy that size, that’s amazing,” Baiamonte said. “He’s a tremendous puncher. He really hits like a heavyweight now.”
Outside the ring, Albert has certainly caught Williams’ attention. On a call with Miami reporters, the Bills defensive end said: “Obviously, he’s one of the best tackles in the league.”
The respect is mutual.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Albert said of Williams. “Somebody of his stature speaks for itself. We’re going to have our hands full.”