The Miami Dolphins enter this week’s matchup with the Buffalo Bills atop the AFC East. Last season, Miami was in first place in the AFC East after three games, as well, after squeaking by the Bills in a 21-19 victory. This season, the Dolphins could open up a two-game advantage — along with a jump in the head-to-head tie-breaker and the divisional record tie-breaker — by beating Buffalo on the road.
The Bills clearly want to avoid having that happen, and while it’s definitely alarmist to say that any game this early in the season is a “must-win,” I’d characterize this one more as a “game the Bills sure would like to win.” Yes, that’s every game. However, when it’s one against a divisional rival to avoid falling to 0-2 in the division? It definitely takes on some bigger meaning.
The Bills are going to have their hands full with a Miami offense that just dropped 70 points on the Denver Broncos, but two things are true: First, this is a different week, and on any given Sunday, we never know what’s going to happen. Second, the Bills are not the Broncos. Buffalo boasts an elite defense, and while it may be true that the Bills haven’t seen an offense like Miami’s this year, the Dolphins also haven’t seen a defense as good as Buffalo’s.
In order for the Bills to emerge victorious this weekend, they’ll need to control Miami’s key players. Here are five in particular that we’re watching this week.
QB Tua Tagovailoa
The chorus of people doubting Tagovailoa’s talent is starting to grow quieter, and with good reason: the guy can flat-out ball. He’s in the perfect offense for his abilities, he has a supporting cast full of speed-burners, and he throws with stellar ball placement and a lightning-quick release. The fourth-year man leads the AFC in passing yards (1,024) and passing touchdowns (8), and he leads the NFL in passer rating (121.9), QBR (82.9), yards per attempt (10.1), and yards per completion (14.2), among other things. The key to beating Miami’s passing attack is to flood the middle and force Tagovailoa to throw it outside the numbers, preferably to the far side of the field. That’s easier said than done, as head coach Mike McDaniel is one of the premier play designers in the league right now. Buffalo will need to be incredibly disciplined in their coverage reads, and they’re going to have to deal with all the eye-candy McDaniel gives them in the form of motion and variable formations. If the Bills can force Tagovailoa to hold the ball for a beat longer than he wants, their dominant defensive line may have a chance to hit him. Part of the reason Miami likes to make sure Tagovailoa throws the ball quickly is that his offensive line isn’t great, and keeping Tua upright is the major key to their season. If Buffalo can make him hold the ball, it could lead to sacks, or even better, pressures that lead to turnovers. Tagovailoa owns a career interception percentage of just 2.1%, but in his career against the Bills, that total is 2.7%. He’s also a full yard per attempt below his career average in yards per attempt against Buffalo. The Bills have been successful in forcing him into mistakes before. They’ll need to do it again on Sunday.
RB De’Von Achane
Welcome to the box score, rookie! Achane was impossible to stop last week, and he ran wild on the Broncos all afternoon. He carried 18 times for 203 yards and two touchdowns, and he added four catches for 30 receiving yards and two more touchdowns in what was likely one of the best fantasy football performances in the history of your league’s waiver wire or bench (for me, it was the latter). Between Achane and Raheem Mostert, the Dolphins have two speedy backs who are good receivers out of the backfield. I don’t know which one is going to see the majority of the carries on Sunday, but I know that Mostert, while still very good (he currently leads the NFL in total touchdowns with seven), doesn’t have the same burst that Achane does at this point in his career. Buffalo has been stout against the run, but they’ve been prone to big plays with a few missed gaps and missed assignments. If the Bills commit fully to limiting the passing attack, it could leave them vulnerable to a big run or two. They can’t let that happen.
WR Tyreek Hill
Hill is yet another Dolphins offensive player at or near the top of the statistical leaderboards early in the year. He leads the AFC in receiving yards (412) and is tied for the AFC lead in receptions (25; tied with Stefon Diggs and Michael Pittman Jr.). He leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with four, as well. Hill has been a thorn in Buffalo’s side for years now, starting with his time as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bills have shown the ability to slow him at times, and it will be interesting to see how they defend him and who covers him. Will the team have Tre’Davious White shadow him? Will they just use whomever is across from him? Will they activate Kaiir Elam? Will they jam him at the line? Roll a safety his way? Hill has accounted for 40% of Tagovailoa’s passing yards this season. Slowing him down and forcing someone else to beat them is going to be a big part of winning on Sunday.
WR Jaylen Waddle
Hi folks, meet “someone else.” Waddle is a phenomenal receiver in his own right, and while he missed last week’s game due to a concussion, he should be just fine come Sunday. Waddle has eight catches for 164 yards this season. In the playoffs last season, Buffalo mostly used Tre’Davious White on Waddle, with Kaiir Elam playing Tyreek Hill. The Bills don’t often have their corners shadowing players, but it was effective in the game. Of course, Skylar Thompson was playing quarterback in that game, not Tua Tagovailoa, so that may have impacted the way the team wanted to play. As good as Hill is, Waddle can’t be ignored.
DT Christian Wilkins
I considered talking only about Miami’s offensive players given how good they are on that side of the ball, but it’s not as if the team has a bad defense. Miami has plenty of talent on the “other” side of the ball, including safety Jevon Holland, cornerback Xavier Howard, edge rusher Bradley Chubb, and linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. However, it’s Wilkins who takes the cake in a Bills game, as he is this generation’s Bryan Cox — and yes, the namesake for an instigator could not be more perfect in this case. More so than any other front-seven player, Wilkins has the ability to destroy all the good vibes Buffalo’s had with their offensive line of late. Rookie guard O’Cyrus Torrence has held his own in some tough matchups so far. He’ll need to be game again.