The wait’s almost over, Bills Mafia. As soon as the 2023 NFL schedule was announced, fans were eager for this week to arrive. Yes, the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are set to clash for the first time this season, with bragging rights to first place in the AFC East on the line. Of course, Miami currently resides in first place, with an undefeated record of 3-0. But the Bills can pull ahead of the Dolphins with a victory — which would put them a half game ahead of the Dolphins if both end up 3-1.
Bills-Dolphins has historically been one of the greatest rivalries in the NFL. Miami had the Bills’ number in the 70s (20-0 at one point), until quarterback Jim Kelly stopped the bleeding. Then during the 90s Levy/Kelly vs. Shula/Marino provided both fan bases an incredible back-and-forth heavyweight battle every regular season and beyond. After a time of transition from future Hall of Famers on both rosters and a more recent period of lopsided results favoring the Josh Allen-led Bills, this rivalry feels renewed. Last season, the teams met three times (including postseason play), with a total of eight points separating the teams (2 games to 1 in favor of Buffalo).
This week, I was once again joined by managing editor Kevin Nogle of The Phinsider with SB Nation. Kevin, as always, provided some key insight into the Dolphins, which should well-prepare you as await Sunday’s 1 p.m. EDT feast.
We cover that incredible, now-historic performance by the Dolphins in Week 3, and what’s next for Miami. Plus, Kevin takes a moment to reflect on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s positive career arc, which has notably accelerated, going back to his 2022 season. I also ask Kevin how best to prepare for Miami’s talented roster, which players are key, yet unsung heroes/contributors, and allow him to reflect a bit on this weekend’s matchup and how things might play out.
1. So 70 points. Incredible, really (and I admittedly enjoy the schadenfreude that is an embarrassment of Sean Payton). But, to me what’s most incredible is how the Dolphins scored those points. All on offense. All without Jalen Waddle, and via one of the most dangerous running games in today’s NFL. What do you think the Dolphins can offer up as an encore to that performance — and do you have confidence they have the answers to limit the Bills’ defense?
It has been almost a week since the Broncos game and I am still not sure what I saw, nor am I sure I was watching the Miami Dolphins. As long as I have been watching football and following the Dolphins, I never would have guessed I would see a game like that. The Broncos dropped back to help clog up the passing lanes, so the Dolphins ran the ball and ran it well. If the linebackers stepped back up toward the line of scrimmage, Miami found the space behind them through the air. Incredible really might be the best way to describe it. And, add in not having Waddle and, once again, I am not sure what I saw.
This offense is the real deal, but another performance like the 70-point game is not likely. Everything lined up perfectly for Miami. The Bills’ defense is better than the Broncos (yes, that was a purposeful understatement). Buffalo’s nine sacks last week scares me. The entire fan base is hopeful that Miami’s offensive line is as good as a team that has allowed only one sack so far this year, but this week will be the test. How will they handle the Bills? Buffalo has not been exceptional against the run this year, so Miami needs to establish the run game early and hope the Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane attack can gain traction.
If the Dolphins can have success against the Bills this week, they may really be the best team in the league. That is not an easy task, especially with the Bills’ defense.
2. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa still hasn’t received the respect I believe he deserves, which is surprising because at one point every team’s fans wanted to tank for the guy. What have you seen from Tagovailoa through three games in 2023 that best illustrates his ascension as an NFL QB, and do you believe his current level of production is sustainable?
I believe he is among the top quarterbacks in the league and that he is mastering the Mike McDaniel offensive system, a system that is perfect for him. He is literally the model for the run-pass option and Miami is throwing all kids of different wrinkles and motions into the system. Tagovailoa reads defenses and makes the right decision so incredibly quickly that he is throwing the ball before the receiver is even in the area of the pass. Dan Marino had an incredibly fast release, but Tagovailoa’s ability to read a defense, anticipate his receiver, and put the ball in a spot may make his ability to get the ball out of his hand almost as fast as Marino’s release. When you have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, getting the ball into their hands as quickly as possible seems like a good plan.
Is Tagovailoa going to win the MVP? Maybe, maybe not. But can he remain in the conversation all season? I do not see not. Bill fans understand how a quarterback can take a huge step forward in season three - Josh Allen is proof of that. Tagovailoa was taking that step forward last year, but the concussions sidelined him. Now in his fourth year, the rest of the league is starting to see what Dolphins fans saw last year.
3. If you were scheming to stop the Dolphins on offense and attack them on defense, what would you say are the key areas to target — their weaknesses, if you will?
Before last week, I would have said to keep your safeties deep, clog up the middle of the field with your linebackers, and force Tagovailoa to check down the ball to someone other than Hill or Waddle. Forcing the Dolphins into proving they can run the ball was the best plan you could have had.
Then, last week, Miami ran the ball for 350 yards, and the offensive line opened holes everywhere. Of course, as we talked about, the Bills’ defense is better than the Broncos’, so we may or may not see the Dolphins running game have success, but we now know they can do it, so the Bills cannot sell out to stop the passing attack without the threat of Mostert and Achane.
I would attack hard up the middle of the line of scrimmage to force the guards and center into uncomfortable positions. Get big as fast as you can right in front of Tagovailoa and make it hard for him to see the passing lanes. Ensure your linebackers stay in the way of the quick slant, but those safeties have to remain disciplined, so when Hill and Waddle head upfield, they are there to help. Again, I am back to selling out to stop the pass and hope the running game last week was a fluke. It is probably the best plan right now.
I know I am making it sound like the Dolphins do not have a weakness on offense and they do - but what I thought it was became a strength last week, and now I am questioning what is real and what was just a one-off 70-point performance.
4. Bills Mafia knows the big names in the equation, those players who have played key roles in Miami’s turnaround under head coach Mike McDaniel. Who’s an unsung hero/contributor from both sides of the ball?
On offense, it is probably tackle Austin Jackson. Playing right tackle, Jackson is Tagovailoa’s blindside blocker and, entering his fourth season, there were still a lot of question marks surrounding his play. There was an expectation that Miami would bring in a veteran to challenge for the starting position at right tackle during the summer. When that never materialized, there was a huge concern about what would happen with the line and with protecting Tagovailoa. Jackson has stepped up and is playing up to the potential that had him selected in the first round along with Tagovailoa in 2020. Again, the Bills will be a test of the improvements we have seen from the Dolphins this year, and with Buffalo’s pass rush, that test may be centered squarely on Jackson, but so far, his growth and development as the starting right tackle has been huge for Miami.
On defense, safety Jevon Holland is a player set to break out as a star, but he may be a name Bills fans already know. Linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel has been playing out of his mind this year and doing it both as an inside linebacker and on the outside. Again, though, he may be someone Bills fans know because he has been with the team since 2019. Cornerback Kader Kohou, an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M Commerce last year, was thrust into a starting role last year due to injuries, and he is back there again this year as injuries have again mounted. He is fourth in the team in tackles, he is second in passes defensed, and he continues to play well despite being so young and out of a small school.
5. In recent years, and despite a narrative that sometimes says otherwise in favoring a lack of competitive balance, it feels like the Bills-Dolphins rivalry is finally renewed. As such, every meeting seems like a coin flip in determining a winner — especially when considering the three matchups last season (decided by three or less points in each, for a total of 8 points total in three games). The current DraftKings Sportsbook line has the Bills as slight favorites at home in Week 4. Does that surprise you given the way the season’s unfolded for the undefeated Dolphins — and do you believe this game will be a closely contested affair that’s low scoring or a track meet ending in each team’s end zone?
It does not, mostly because the Bills are the three-time defending AFC East champions and they still have Josh Allen at quarterback. I do believe both teams are finally back and able to bring back the Dan Marino - Jim Kelly era rivalry. It should be a ton of fun over the next several years. This should be a great game, and it will likely be close. Both of these teams are Super Bowl contenders, and this should be a slugfest, with the team with the ball last winning the game. I am excited for Sunday and for the future of this rivalry.
My continued thanks to Kevin Nogle, who’s always awesome to chat with during Bills-Dolphins week. If you’d like to read my responses to Kevin’s questions about the Bills, head over to the article at The Phinsider (also pinned to Buffalo Rumblings’ home page).