The Buffalo Bills are mere hours away from their Saturday night showdown with the Miami Dolphins. It’s going to be cold and snowy at cozy Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, NY — just the way we like it. Well, at least when it means teams from Florida have to pay a visit to town. The Bills are riding high, on a four-game win streak and leading both their divison and the AFC as a whole. The Dolphins’ are playing like a fish out of water, suddenly dropping two games in a row and fielding an offense void of the same explosiveness that made them the team du jour much of the season. It’s important to remember that the NFL is a week-to-week league and the Bills also endured a two-game skid earlier this season. So, anything’s possible in Week 15.
Kevin Nogle, managing editor with The Phinsider, joined me this week to discuss tonight’s game. Read on below to find out Kevin’s thoughts on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s meteoric rise this season (Remember the Dolphins actively trying to land Deshaun Watson?), what’s behind Miami’s recent skid, if teams have figured out how to stop McDaniel’s offense, lots of talk about football in the snow, and more.
1. Tua Tagovailoa has taken a giant leap this season. Long gone are the days when he’d be benched mid-game or for weeks at a time, ceding the job to Ryan Fitzpatrick. What can you attribute to Tagovailoa’s meteoric rise, and his play becoming the talk of most league circles?
Part of it is just time and growth. We used to recognize players, especially quarterbacks, needed time to make the adjustment from college to the NFL, and it was a surprise when a rookie broke out and had huge success as a rookie. We used to say that you did not know who a player really is until their third year in the league. Now, we expect the player to hit the ground running and if he is not putting up all-time great numbers in Week 1 of his rookie year, it is time to move on. Bills fans have seen that. Can you imagine how Buffalo would look if, after his first two seasons, the Bills had moved on from the “bust” that was Josh Allen? Taking some time to let a player grow into the NFL is a huge part of why Tagovailoa is now having success.
The other part of it is Mike McDaniel. It seems as though former head coach Brian Flores was trying to replace Tagovailoa from about 30 seconds after the team turned in the card selecting him in the 2020 NFL Draft. Flores clearly was not a Tagovailoa fan and, despite being the coach of the team when the pick was made, he was doing everything he could to get someone else under center. It essentially destroyed Tagovailoa’s confidence and he started to really question if he could succeed in the NFL. One of the first things McDaniel did was make a connection to Miami’s quarterback. He put together a 700-play tape to show Tagovailoa that he was good enough to win in the league. Honestly, he rebuilt Tagovailoa. Then, he built an offense that would allow Tagovailoa to shine. The quick passing game, the run-pass option and play-action passing attack, the use of Tagovailoa’s accuracy to get the ball to a spot, it all plays perfectly for Tagovailoa in his third year, and it has made him into one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
There are not a lot of comparisons to make between Josh Allen and Tagovailoa, as they are just two completely different quarterbacks. But the third-year jump from each is very similar.
Of course, it was not just about Tagovailoa this offseason. Miami had the worst offensive line in the league last year. Adding Terron Armstead at left tackle and Connor Williams at center has moved Miami from a miserable offensive line to a solid one. They are not a dominant line that is going to impose its will on the opposing defense, but when you go from miserable to solid, you have made a huge improvement.
And, adding Tyreek Hill does not hurt, either.
2. What’s at the heart of the Miami Dolphins’ current slide on offense, where they’ve failed to score more than 17 points the last two games?
I feel like it is a couple of things. We are far enough into the season that there is enough tape on Miami’s offense to allow opponents to make adjustments now. I also think the team pressed too much. They are trying to be too perfect right now, and, especially two weeks ago against the San Francisco 49ers, they want to prove they are real contenders. They wanted to prove something against the 49ers, and it led to inaccurate throws and mistakes we do not normally see from them. Then they had to show that the performance was just a one-off event, so they came out looking to take it to the Chargers - and made some of the same mistakes.
They have also dealt with some injuries, particularly to tackles Terron Armstead and Austin Jackson, that have had an impact as well. The offensive line keeps having to adjust and change as players have missed time due to injuries. Jackson has landed on injured reserve and Armstead has been playing through a toe injury all season, a pectoral muscle injury the last couple of weeks, and now has a knee injury on top of it. It is not an excuse, and it is not something with which only the Dolphins have had to deal this year, but the injuries have definitely had an impact on the explosiveness of the offense.
After getting out to a 30-0 lead on the Houston Texans in Week 12, Miami took their foot off the pedal and coasted to the victory. They have struggled since to get back into gear and get the offense moving. Two weeks of spinning their tires bring them to Week 15, a re-match with the Bills, and another primetime contest.
3. Did the San Francisco 49ers put out a blueprint to stop Mike McDaniel’s scheme—and did the Los Angeles Chargers employ anything like what the Niners did in Week 13?
They definitely showed the adjustment that can work against Miami. The Dolphins have dominated the middle of the field this year with their passing game, using motion to create mismatches and set up in cutting routes to give Hill and Jaylen Waddle the space to make a play with the ball in their hands. The 49ers and the Chargers both clogged the middle of the field with defenders. Linebackers hung back away from the line of scrimmage and the cornerbacks did a great job of communicating and switching coverage, rather than chasing receivers and allowing them the space Tagovailoa could exploit. Dan Orlovsky and Ryan Clark did a breakdown on ESPN’s NFL Live on Tuesday that shows really well what happened:
That said, this is now two weeks in a row that Mike McDaniel’s offense was stuck in neutral. I would fully expect him to make an adjustment to this adjustment. Of course, the weather in Buffalo may force a completely different set of adjustments anyway.
4. The forecast for Saturday could be frightful. McDaniel is on record as saying he’s doing “zero monitoring” of the weather ahead of the game and that the only way to prepare is by “mentally deciding if it’s gonna matter or not.” I get that he’s a Colorado native, but this isn’t downhill skiing — it’s professional football facing off against Lake Erie in December. Is this just more bravado from McDaniel (and his wardrobe) who may be overlooking a problem, or do you believe he really could care less about the idea of inclement weather affecting the players?
I do not think it is either of those. I think he really just does not care because what are they going to do about it? They cannot do anything to replicate the weather - no matter how much they turn on the air conditioning. The game plan will be ready for the weather, and they know it is going to be cold, snowy, and windy - but that is how it always is when you play the Bills in Buffalo in December. There is no need to monitor it, you know what it is. I think that is what he was saying. They cannot sit there and stare at the forecast and be paralyzed by the idea of playing in the cold, because it does not change anything. They will be there Saturday night ready to play.
5. Should Saturday’s weather snow-in the Dolphins’ dynamic passing attack, what do you believe the team can and will do to move the ball — with no Ricky Williams to dash through the snow — given their run-game troubles?
The Dolphins have a good set of running backs in Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson, Jr. The limited use of the ground attack this year has been frustrating at times. The offense is built off play action, but they just do not care if they actually are running the ball to make the fake. It would be nice to see Mostert and Wilson get involved in a game a lot earlier and use the threat of them to open up more of the passing game.
McDaniel could look to Mostert and Wilson on Saturday to establish some ball control and offset the weather. They both have the ability to break one and take it to the house at any time. If the Dolphins are able to establish that threat, the passing game over the middle should start to come back as the linebackers start to creep back toward the line of scrimmage. Depending on the wind, that could allow Miami to start to get the ball to Hill and Waddle again.
6. The folks at DraftKings Sportsbook currently list the Dolphins as 7-point road mammals. Are you surprised the line isn’t closer, and is it possible that history plays a huge role in these odds? (Miami hasn’t won in Orchard Park, NY since 2016.) How can Miami emerge victorious Saturday night?
I am actually surprised it is not a little larger. After the last two weeks of the Dolphins offense, I thought the oddsmakers would bump this a little closer to the double-digit mark. Maybe not quite 10 points, but something up there. That said, I do think Miami can score the upset win here. They play the Bills well and, assuming they are able to make the adjustments to defeat what the 49ers and Chargers did, they should have a new wrinkle or two to throw at Buffalo. The defense is going to have to play lights out, especially if Allen decides it is a day to run all over the place, but this is really going to be about what the Miami offense can do. Get Mostert and Wilson involved, transition some of those in-cutting routes to outs or start using the running backs and tight end Mike Gesicki in the spaces where Waddle and Hill are not, and Miami can score the season sweep of the Bills and keep alive the hope for a division title. It will not be an easy game and I would probably expect a Bills win, but I do not think Miami has lost this game before they even reach the field.
My thanks to Kevin Nogle for spending time with me to answer questions ahead of what’s sure to be an epic AFC East showdown. Don’t be surprised by the playoff vibes jumping off the field and out of the stadium. It’s going to be electric Saturday night!
Be sure to head over to The Phinsider to read my comments in the hot seat with Kevin. Though, the discussion trended more cold than hot.