The Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins face off this week in a tremendously important game. The winner claims the AFC East title, and in Buffalo’s case, a loss could lead to them missing the playoffs. In short, this is exactly the kind of matchup that NFL and television executives dream of when they make the schedule in the beginning of the season.
Both Buffalo and Miami are dealing with plenty of injuries this season, though most of Buffalo’s injury woes occurred early in the year. Miami’s injury report reads like a CVS receipt heading into this week’s showdown, which makes planning a “five players to watch” article mighty difficult.
So, with apologies to players who are obviously important, but whose injury status is leaving their game availability in doubt (here’s looking at you, Jaylen Waddle, De’Von Achane, Raheem Mostert, Terron Armstead, Xavien Howard, and plenty of others), here are five Dolphins players we’ll be watching closely this week.
QB Tua Tagovailoa
Clearly, the fourth-year quarterback has put it together this season, as Tagovailoa has been able to stay healthy while remaining incredibly efficient. He’s already set career highs in completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns, and he leads the NFL in passing yardage (4,451) and completion percentage (69.6%) this season. However, Waddle’s importance to the offense can’t be overstated, as it’s no surprise that Tagovailoa is coming off his worst performance of the season against a tough Baltimore defense. They held the ridiculously accurate passer to just a 57.9% completion rate.
As both Waddle and Tyreek Hill, who we’ll talk about more below, have dealt with injuries over the last month, Tagovailoa’s effectiveness has waned, as well. He’s averaged just 7.45 adjusted yards gained per pass attempt over that span, a full yard per attempt less than his entire-season average. He’s also been responsible for just four touchdowns over that four-game span, adding two interceptions and a lost fumble, as well. Much of this has to do with injuries to the offensive line, as well, which have led to Tagovailoa taking 13 of the 29 sacks that he’s endured on the whole season in just the last four games alone.
If Buffalo can generate pressure while limiting the first read on offense, they can not only create some incomplete passes, but they may be able to generate some turnovers, as well. Tagovailoa is as good as anyone in the NFL when he can operate within the structure of his offense. Where he can be had is when a team forces him to make some plays outside of that structure.
WR Tyreek Hill
Part of forcing Tagovailoa to operate in some off-schedule looks is taking away the “easy-money” throws to Hill, who’s having one of the best seasons for a receiver in the history of the NFL. Even with his limited health over the last month thanks to an ankle injury, Hill still has 112 catches for 1,717 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. However, in the last meeting between these two teams, Hill had just three catches for 58 yards.
While Hill has killed the Bills at times during his career, he hasn’t done so yet while with the Dolphins. You’d have to go back to the infamous “13 seconds” collapse for the last time Hill eclipsed 100 yards receiving against Buffalo, and he has yet to break the 70-yard mark in a game against the Bills while a member of the Dolphins. Buffalo’s defensive game plan is clear: Make someone other than Hill be the guy who beats them, even if it’s Waddle (who has 100 receiving yards in two of his last four games against the Bills).
Playing a two-deep look while sliding help towards Hill is going to be a common look this weekend. I expect Miami to counter by trying to give Hill the ball in space on jet-motion flips and handoffs, as well as some tunnel screens and bubble screens. If Buffalo can limit him deep, though, they’ll have a great shot at winning this one.
LB Melvin Ingram
Someone has to pick up the pass-rushing slack in the wake of linebacker Bradley Chubb’s ACL tear, and it just might be the venerable Ingram, who is currently on Miami’s practice squad. I assume that he’ll be signed to the Dolphins’ 53-man roster once Chubb officially goes on Injured Reserve, and he’ll immediately play a huge role in Sunday’s game.
Though he has just two tackles on the season so far, he’s only appeared in two games for Miami. He had six sacks last season with the ‘Phins, and he’s still an effective edge rusher in small doses. Whether he’s matched up against Pro Bowl left tackle Dion Dawkins or resurgent right tackle Spencer Brown, he has the potential to change a game in one play.
LB Andrew Van Ginkel
My oldest son refers to Van Ginkel as “Josh Allen’s enemy,” and after Van Ginkel tormented Buffalo’s blocking scheme for two sacks during their last meeting, I can see why. As the individual — or one of the players — who will serve as the mirror/spy/contain player to limit Allen’s scrambles, Van Ginkel is someone who will be around the ball a lot on Sunday. He’s a feisty player who does a lot of good things for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and Miami will likely line him up in multiple places to try to disguise what he’s doing on a given play.
The defensive scheme is going to be something worth monitoring, too, as Miami’s injuries give them a few “pick your poison”-style options this week. Do they rush four and play coverage, giving Allen time to analyze the field? Do that without a spy and Allen likely finds running lanes all night; do it with a spy and there’s room in the coverage. Do they play man against Stefon Diggs? The same issue with Allen running applies here. Of course, they could try to blitz, but Allen has been one of the league’s best passers against pressure for years. Van Ginkel’s success in his role is paramount to Miami’s success this week.
CB Eli Apple
Apple had plenty to say about the Bills last year as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, and this week, he may have a chance to start again against them in a win-or-go-home situation. The downgrade from cornerback Xavien Howard to Apple is steep, and the Baltimore Ravens exploited Apple multiple times last week. It’s unlikely that the Dolphins have cornerback Jalen Ramsey follow wide receiver Stefon Diggs. But even if they do, the Allen-to-Diggs connection has had plenty of success against Ramsey in the recent past. Apple on either among wide receivers Gabe Davis or Khalil Shakir is still a plus matchup for the Buffalo’s offense. Regardless of who Apple covers this week, I expect that to be a place the Bills looks to throw often in the course of the game.