The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins face off tomorrow afternoon, looking to gain advantage over each other in the AFC East standings following what’s sure to be an epic matchup in Week 4 of NFL action.
While it’s still too early to call this a must-win for either team, victory will help establish more than a few narratives. As the media is wont to do, it’s likely that whichever team wins on Sunday will be the talk of the league. For the Dolphins, that will simply mean a continued focus on their successes leading up to the team’s current 3-0 start — and gaining a real advantage in the division. Should the Bills win at home, they’re likely to find themselves a renewed favorite in any discussion about league-wide dominance. Buffalo would also pull even with Miami, and at 3-1 would hold a half game lead over the Dolphins thanks to head-to-head tiebreakers.
Still, it’s too soon to worry about tiebreakers in a week-to-week league — one that has 13 weeks left in the regular season after the sun sets on Sunday. But how, exactly, can the Bills defeat their division rivals, a team as hot as any and coming off a performance on offense not seen in generations? It won’t be easy, even with Bills Mafia at full roar within the confines of Highmark Stadium.
It’s very likely Sunday’s outcome is decided by head coaches Sean McDermott and Mike McDaniel. The two will engage in a cross-gridiron tête-à-tête — namely when the Bills are on defense and the Dolphins are on offense. McDermott has a long history of success as a defensive-minded coach, but prior to this season, he hadn’t called plays as a defensive coordinator since his time with the Carolina Panthers. Through three weeks, the results of McDermott’s scheme are fantastic. The Bills are currently ranked No. 2 in the NFL in total defense, and leaded the league in interceptions (7), total takeaways (9), while sitting second in sacks (12). McDermott has turned the defense into a gridiron pressure cooker.
McDaniel is one of the NFL’s brightest offensive minds, constantly reinventing his scheme to best-fit the matchup each week. Once teams appear to have figured McDaniel out, he quickly adapts to feature new wrinkles and play designs. And the results of McDaniel’s work has the look and feel of a precise and viciously fast, punishing attack. The sort of stuff that keeps defensive coaches up at night. No big deal, right?
Notably, McDermott has done exceptionally well against quarterbacks who’ve never faced him. The Dolphins and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa provide no such convenience in that regard. These teams know each other well, regardless of personnel changes. But the Bills are 8-2 against Miami since Josh Allen took over as QB1.
Having established the who of how a the Bills can win tomorrow, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss the what that needs to happen to ensure victory.
On defense, Buffalo must play sound fundamental football, and maintain gap integrity. That’s elementary, certainly — but it bears repeating when facing a pseudo-Olympic track team on offense. Seriously, most of Miami’s skill players are that fast.
The Dolphins are going to get their yards — partly due to NFL rules that favor such situations, and of course in consideration of the proficiency with which their offense operates. Tagovailoa’s been labeled by many as a system quarterback (as if that’s a terrible thing), and it’s a system perfect for his strengths, allowing him to release the football lightning fast (2.21 seconds from snap to throw), and usually to his first read (81% of the time). The Bills must find a way to slow Tagovailoa down; limit his ability to make those quick decisions that serve to decimate opposing defenses. Given his predilection to go with the first read, it serves to reason that there’s less comfort in reads two and beyond. That, in and of itself, could create the time Buffalo needs to make life in the Dolphins’ backfield less than comfortable. When Tagovailoa has to abandon his first read, he’s far more likely to press the ball.
But it’s going to be a challenge getting to Tagovailoa. Due no doubt in part to his quick release, Tagovailoa has only been hit five times in three games. Utilizing a heavy rotation on the defensive line should allow Buffalo to keep their defense fresh and constantly in pursuit.
Short of pressure, the Bills’ defensive line needs to do what it can to reduce sight lines for Tagovailoa. Leaping and clogging lanes with their arms and hands could lead to negative plays for the Dolphins’ offense. When the defense can’t get downhill fast enough, it’s important to climb the ladder to shorten the passing game.
Concerning Miami’s run game, it’s important that the Bills don’t get aggressive such that they over pursue and allow running backs Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane to break contain and would-be tackles. Easily said, and perhaps nearly impossible to implement when the defense is running sideline to sideline in a game of cat-and-mouse almost every snap.
With all that horizontal motion, the Bills can and should leverage the sideline as an extra defender. Narrowing the ball carrier’s lanes and reducing their escape options could help cork some of the damage Miami is capable of doling out.
All the talk this week has been about the Dolphins’ 70-point offensive output, but that’s more an outlier in terms of what’s in store for the Bills on Sunday. Though you can’t ignore the fact that Miami has already shown themselves capable and willing to destroy an ill-prepared team. Bills Mafia shouldn’t expect that’s Buffalo’s fate this weekend, but it’s hard not allowing the idea to at least manifest on some level.
The Bills are one of only a few teams that should be able to keep pace on offense with the Dolphins. It still likely benefits Buffalo to slow the game down, which should serve to speed up the clock. They need to establish their own run game, which has found its footing under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Methodical drives that chew up clock, tire Miami’s defense out, and keep their offense on the sideline sounds like a recipe for success tomorrow.
Of course there’s one more fact to note, with a fair bit of history that makes for a compelling stat.
NFL teams that scored 55+ points, are 1-6 in the following week.