The 5-4 Miami Dolphins host the 5-4 Buffalo Bills on Thursday Night Football in a game with playoff implications. Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins look to avenge a NFL Week 2 loss to Sammy Watkins and the formidable Bills defensive line. Joshua Soden, FC’s resident Dolphins expert, previews the matchup.
In what may be, without hyperbole, the most important game of the year for both teams, Buffalo will travel to Miami to face the Dolphins this Thursday night in a matchup that has huge playoff implications for both teams.
Both teams enter this game coming off a loss. Miami fell to the Lions in Detroit, 20-16, with Matthew Stafford delivering the dagger to Theo Reddick in the waning seconds. Meanwhile, Buffalo collapsed at home in the fourth quarter, losing 17-13 to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Heading into Thursday’s meeting, Buffalo has a victory in hand after soundly beating Miami, 29-10, in Buffalo’s Week 2 home opener. Miami played without right guard Mike Pouncey (injury) and strong safety Reshad Jones (suspension), and lost all three starting linebackers ‒ Dannell Ellerbe, Koa Misi, and Phillip Wheeler ‒ to injury during the game. Buffalo has dominated Miami of late, winning 4 of the previous 5 meetings including a 19-14 Thursday night home victory in November 2012.
With identical 5-4 records, the division rivals enter their Week 11 showdown deep in the muddied waters of the AFC Wild Card race along with Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, Kansas City and Cincinnati. There is no shortage of contenders for the conference’s two slots (even Houston remains a candidate), with the Chiefs in the driver’s seat holding head-to-head tiebreaker advantages over both Buffalo and Miami.
Miami suffered a devastating setback Sunday when starting left tackle Branden Albert tore his ACL and MCL, ending his season. Albert had largely helped stabilize an offensive line that was atrocious last year in every phase of the game. His loss will make keeping quarterback Ryan Tannehill upright more difficult.
Miami’s rushing attack has improved from 29th and 26th last season in attempts and carries, respectively, to 15th and 7th in 2014 under new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Lamar Miller spearheads the ground game, but his availability against the Bills is in doubt after being limited by injury to only 4 rushes against the Lions.
After placing Albert on injured reserve Miami activated RB LaMichael James from their practice squad ahead of this week’s game. The move is likely a precautionary depth addition in case Miller can’t go, but James is an intriguing roster presence because his speed and athleticism don’t grow on trees. At Oregon, he was an explosive and dynamic cog in Chip Kelly’s offense and the school’s first-ever unanimous All-American in 2010, leading the nation in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. He’ll likely get a small handful of touches Thursday night, and his fit with Lazor’s Kelly-inspired offense is something to monitor moving forward if Miller’s shoulder problem persists.
Buffalo is not without its share of walking wounded. Most notably, C.J. Spiller is gone for the year after breaking his collarbone. The speedster torched Miami earlier this season with a 102-yard kickoff return and he leaves a major void on the Bills’ special teams. Also, groin injuries have hampered running back Fred Jackson and, more recently, wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Jackson recently returned to action, and both are listed as probable for Thursday.
Dreaming of D
With teams typically struggling to produce Thursday night offense due to the short week, this game should be a defensive enthusiast’s dream. According to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA, Buffalo’s defense ranks fourth overall (-14.6%), while placing third against the pass (-12.3%) and tenth against the run (-18.0%). Miami’s defense checks in third overall (-16.0%) and 11th against the run (-17.4%). The Dolphins top the NFL in pass defense (-15.1%), led by Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and his coverage skills, as demonstrated below:
Miami’s offense has evolved slightly since their last meeting with the Bills. The Dolphins are incorporating more read-option plays into the game plan and Tannehill is executing them with ruthless efficiency. Last week against Detroit marked the first time since Week 3 against Kansas City that Tannehill was held to under 30 yards rushing, and the first time since Week 4 that he had fewer than 40 yards rushing. A part-time receiver in college, Tannehill has always had outstanding athleticism for the quarterback position but the coaching staff has only recently started putting it to good use. The read-option may prove a valuable tool in neutralizing some of Buffalo’s aggressive defensive line play.
Miami’s Keys to Victory:
- Protect Ryan Tannehill. Buffalo’s defensive line dominated Miami’s offensive front in Week 2 and with Albert on the shelf the pressure is going to be on first-round pick Ju’Wuan James. He has played well thus far at right tackle, but is transitioning to left tackle where he’ll assume responsibility for his quarterback’s blind side. There are other moving pieces, with Dallas Thomas getting the first crack at RT and Shelley Smith replacing Daryn Colledge at left guard. This unit needs to congeal very quickly, or Buffalo’s front four will feast.
- Make Kyle Orton beat you. Watkins had 117 yards and a TD in Week 2 against Miami with EJ Manuel under center, but Grimes is enjoying a fantastic season and the return of Jones has really given Miami’s defense a boost. According to Football Outsiders, Orton has been worth 52 DYAR, just 24th in the league. Focus on stopping the run, force Buffalo into 3rd-and-long situations, and dare Orton to make the plays.
- Spread the field. Miami’s offense needs to scatter the Bills’ defenders and get the ball out quickly. Rookie Jarvis Landry has emerged as a valuable target for Tannehill and led the team with 10 targets last week. While he may not be a burner, he’s probably Miami’s most dangerous receiver with the ball in his hands. If Miami keeps the passes short and quick, they can counteract some of Buffalo’s pass rush.
Miami has come very close to beating two very good teams in Green Bay and Detroit. They trounced San Diego in a game they knew they had to win. Thursday night’s matchup brings another must-win situation. As a team, they are playing better football in all three phases than in Week 2. If the defense plays to its capabilities and the offense does just enough, the Dolphins can secure a crucial home victory in what is sure to be a hard-fought battle for both sides.
DOLPHINS VS BILLS PREVIEW PREDICTION: MIAMI 17, BUFFALO 13
All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.