With a revamped defense and a new big-play wide receiver on board, the Miami Dolphins are looking to rebound from a disappointing 2009. Coming off their fifth straight losing season, the Buffalo Bills are hoping a rookie running back can make coach Chan Gailey's first season a successful one.
The AFC East rivals meet in Sunday's season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Dolphins haven't won since 2003.
Looking to follow up their first division crown since 2000, Miami lost its final three games last season - all by seven points or fewer - and finished 7-9 to miss the playoffs for the seventh time in eight years.
The Dolphins' porous defense was one of the major reasons for the sub-.500 record. Miami was tied for fifth-fewest in the league with 21 forced turnovers and allowed a franchise-record 140 fourth-quarter points, a league-worst.
"When you look back at us, we gave up too many big plays a year ago, no question about it,'' coach Tony Sparano said. "That has to be fixed.''
Mike Nolan was hired as defensive coordinator, veterans Joey Porter and Jason Taylor weren't brought back, and the Dolphins used seven of their eight draft picks to bolster the defense.
While rookie linebacker A.J. Edds tore his right ACL on the fourth day of training camp, first-round pick Jared Odrick, a defensive end and 2009 Big Ten defensive player of the year at Penn State, and second-rounder Koa Misi, a linebacker, are expected to play major roles in the Dolphins' 3-4 defense that will put a larger emphasis on rushing the quarterback.
"Those guys have created a little bit of chaos out there at times," Sparano said.
The Dolphins coach is also expecting Brandon Marshall to cause plenty of chaos for opposing defenses. Acquired in April from Denver, the two-time Pro Bowler joins a team that had six receiving TDs last season. Marshall had 101 receptions for 1,120 yards and a career-best 10 TDs in 2009. He is one of two players (New England's Wes Welker) with more than 300 catches over the last three seasons.
"Brandon Marshall obviously adds another dimension to their offense, and you've got to take account of him on every play,'' Bills linebacker Chris Kelsay said.
The addition of Marshall is expected to help Chad Henne, who begins his third season, and first as the team's Week 1 starter. Henne took over for veteran Chad Pennington in Week 4 last season and completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,878 yards with 12 TDs and 14 interceptions.
"I guess I feel more comfortable knowing that I'm the starter and this is kind of the way you want to start and get things off to the right start," Henne told the Dolphins' official website.
With Gailey taking over for the fired Dick Jauron in the offseason, the Bills are hoping running back C.J. Spiller can help them return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Selected ninth overall from Clemson, last season's ACC player of the year won the starting job in the preseason after rushing for 122 yards and three TDs. Although Fred Jackson (broken hand) and Marshawn Lynch (ankle) missed significant time during camp, Gailey said Spiller likely would have won the job even if the two were healthy.
"He's done a good job and he's earned the spot," said Gailey.
Jackson, who last season became the first in NFL history with 1,000 or more receiving and kickoff return yards, is expected to see limited time Sunday, while Lynch could also take a few carries.
While Miami is looking for an improved defensive effort in 2010, the Bills are hoping first-year defensive coordinator George Edwards - the Dolphins linebackers coach the last five seasons - can help the team transition from a Tampa-2-style defense to the 3-4.
Buffalo, though, has struggled implementing the system, with the starters allowing 617 yards, 34 first downs and 56 points in the first halves of the first three preseason games.
"When you're new and you're putting in something, you're trying to develop it faster than it probably should,'' Gailey said. "But you have to do that because the games start counting this week."
The Bills could be tested against the 1-2 combination of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. Williams led the Dolphins with 1,121 yards and 11 TDs last season, while Brown, a 2008 Pro Bowler, was limited to 647 yards after missing the final seven games with a broken right foot. The Dolphins' last 1,000-yard tandem was Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris in 1972.
"There are a lot of things that go into that,'' Brown said. "But that goal is very attainable. It's realistic.''
Miami has dropped five in a row in Buffalo since a 20-3 victory Dec. 21, 2003. The Dolphins defeated the Bills 16-3 in Toronto on Dec. 7, 2008.