7 things to watch for in Bills vs. Dolphins

Chris Brown 1 – Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

It won’t be anything like the Snow-vember storm that forced the Bills to relocate their Week 11 game to Cleveland last month when more than six feet of snow fell in Orchard Park, but things are shaping up for a lake effect snow event on Friday and Saturday that is expected to carry into kickoff and the game Saturday night.

The forecast is for up to six inches of snowfall by kickoff with more possible, and heavy at times, depending on where the lake effect snow band decides to reside Saturday night. Bills safety Jordan Poyer has become accustomed to playing in snowy conditions in his five-plus seasons in Buffalo and has passed some of that knowledge on to his younger teammates.

“I think you gain more knowledge of how to prepare yourself to play in weather like that,” Poyer said. “Obviously, one thing you have is the mindset, understanding early on in the week that this is what it’s going to be like. I’ve learned how to prepare myself to play in the cold. And especially here at home in Buffalo you’ve really just got to embrace it.”

According to ESPN Stats & Info in the three coldest games in which Miami QB Tua Tagovailoa played his passer ratings were 53.1 (at Tenn. – 2021), 62.5 (at Buffalo – 2020), and 81.9 (at Denver – 2020). The game time temperatures for those games were 36, 35, and 45 degrees. In those games he threw two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Saturday night’s forecast is a low of 26 with a wind chill in the low teens. Tagovailoa has never played in a game in which it has snowed or there has been measurable snowfall on the ground in his career.

If the weather should mandate a ground attack, Miami could be in trouble. The Dolphins average just 90 yards rushing per game this season, which ranks 29th in the league. It’s partly because they only run the ball 37 percent of the time (37.2%). They have just four games this season with 100 rushing yards or more, which is the third fewest for a team this season.

Back in Week 3 against the Bills they had just 41 rushing yards, their second-lowest total this season. Meanwhile Buffalo ranks fourth against the run and they’re the only team that has rushed for at least 100 yards in every game this season.

Buffalo has been at their best late in the year at home. They’re 9-1 in their last 10 home games from the month of December through the playoffs.

2 – Playoffs on the line

The game on Saturday night will definitely have a playoff feel even though it’s only Week 15. The game is one of five taking place this weekend between division rivals, one of four games between teams with winning records and one of three games between teams that are both in a playoff position.

Buffalo currently holds the top spot in the AFC, while the Dolphins occupy the six seed. Bills head coach Sean McDermott isn’t letting his players focus on the playoff race. His concern is going 1-0 this week.

“Really just focused on trying to win this one game. That’s really where our focus is,” he said. “Just really focused on this one game and improving as a team overall.”

With a win the Bills can clinch their fourth-consecutive postseason berth, which would tie for the second-longest streak in franchise history (1963-67). The only streak that was longer was when they went to the playoffs six straight seasons from 1988-93.

3 – A different defense on the road

The Dolphins’ defense has slipped a bit from where they ranked last season. Through their first 13 games, Miami ranks 20th overall, seventh against the run, 23rd against the pass, 25th on third down and 22nd in points allowed. Most interesting is how the effectiveness of Miami’s defense has varied between their games that have taken place at home as opposed to on the road.

The Dolphins’ defense ranks third in the league in points allowed when they play at home giving up just 15.3 points per game, which sits just behind Buffalo. The Bills rank second in points allowed at home (14.4 ppg).

But on the road things change dramatically for Miami’s defense. They surrender a league-worse 31.4 points per game away from home. The Dolphins are the only defense giving up more than 28.5 points per game in their away games this season.

“Good defenses are supposed to travel, and their defense when they have home cooking is all over the place,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Giardi. “They’re very difficult to score on and when they go on the road it doesn’t match that same level of intensity and performance. I don’t know what it’s all about other than to say they’re just not good on the road. They’ve had issues with their pass rush even after adding Bradley Chubb. That’s exposed their players on the back end, and I’ve never thought much of their linebacker group, and I think they can be taken advantage of as well. It just hasn’t materialized.”

Some might chalk it up to their home and road opponents, but Miami has played four teams in the top 15 in scoring at home and four teams in the top 15 in scoring on the road. To have a difference in points allowed of more than two touchdowns is difficult to figure.

They have lost a good number of players they counted on earlier in the season including nickel CB Nik Needham and S Brandon Jones. Starting CB Byron Jones has been on PUP almost all year. And just this past week starting S Eric Rowe suffered a hamstring injury.

Miami also has the lowest 3-and-out percentage in the league on the road at just 21 percent.

4 – A blip or a slump?

Getting more attention than Miami’s strange defensive struggles on the road, their offense has fallen on hard times the past two weeks. That was somewhat expected against a 49ers defense that ranks first in the league in total defense, run defense, first downs allowed, and points allowed. But against a Chargers defense ranked in the lower third of the league and without five of their starters, the Dolphins offense was completely flummoxed last Sunday night.

Even more interesting was San Francisco and Los Angeles took vastly different approaches to slowing down Miami’s high-octane offense with the 49ers choosing to lean on zone defensive principles while the Chargers were more aggressive with press man coverage.

“Miami struggled on offense the last two weeks there’s no doubt,” said NFL Network ‘Good Morning Football’ co-host Jason McCourty in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. “What’s interesting is there had two totally different approaches. The 49ers are a defense that are stacked on each level. So they go in and do what they do. They play zone schemes with (Nick) Bosa and (Arik) Armstead can get after any quarterback in the NFL. They have mobile linebackers in Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner who understand how to drop into coverage and identify where the threats are. But the Chargers last Sunday night took a totally different approach. They refused to let (Jaylen) Waddle and Tyreek Hill, two speed receivers run on air and attack us while we play passive. We’re going to get up in their face and take away the space early and they did so with a safety deep to protect and then they had other players protecting the middle. They also maintained inside leverage to not allow those quick slants or routes to the middle of the field be available.

“What both teams did though was continue to put pressure on Tua Tagovailoa. They didn’t allow him to get comfortable and forced him to throw the ball outside the numbers. We know the key to his success is anticipation and accuracy and hitting those passes between the numbers.”

The Dolphins have scored just four touchdowns over their last two games and one of them came on a fumble recovery at Los Angeles. Even moving the ball into their opponents’ territory has been a struggle the past two weeks as they’ve run just 19 plays in plus territory since Week 13.

The approach Buffalo defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier decides to take will be interesting, but McCourty believes the Bills, much like the 49ers, will do what they do best.

“The Bills aren’t going to change their entire game plan to go against Tua and this offense,” said McCourty. “Buffalo is a team with Leslie Frazier who do what they do, and they do it really well. They’ll blitz you a little bit, but a lot of it is playing zone and keeping the ball in front of you. And if they can do that against Miami’s offense you limit them drastically.”

According to NextGenStats all five of Tua Tagovailoa’s interceptions this season have come against split-safety coverage. The Bills use split safety coverage on 54 percent of their opponent drop backs this season. In Week 3, with an injury-riddled defense, Buffalo used split-safety looks on just over 77 percent of Miami’s drop backs.

On split-safety looks, Tagovailoa’s completion percentage drops to 58.5 percent and his passer rating is 81.2. Against single-high safety looks his completion percentage is 73.1 percent and his passer rating is 131.1.

5 – Blitz answers

Josh Allen, like many NFL quarterbacks, has been negatively impacted when facing the blitz. Without pressure he has completed 67 percent of his passes this season compared to just 54 percent when blitzed.

What doesn’t add up is Allen’s performance in each of those situations was reversed in the first meeting with the Dolphins back in Week 3. Allen routinely beat the Dolphins’ blitz going 16-20 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns with a passer rating of 138.5. When they didn’t blitz him, he was 26-43 for 215 yards and just a 73.3 passer rating.

Miami blitzes at the third highest rate in the league at 37 percent. This despite adding pass rusher Bradley Chubb in a trade deadline deal at the beginning of November.

“The Bradley Chubb situation has been up to now a disappointment,” said NFL senior writer for Outkick.com’s Armando Salguero. “They brought him in to be the closer. The guy who when you’re protecting a lead late in the game and he knows the opponent has to pass and that’s when he strikes. He hasn’t really done that. The last couple of games there has been no opportunity to close either because they’ve been trailing.”

The Dolphins have allowed the most yards on blitzes this season and their highest completion percentage when blitzing (65.7%). They’ve also given up twice as many touchdowns when blitzing (14) than when they don’t (6).

Considering that Allen had answers for their blitz the first time do the Dolphins just flood the field with coverage defenders most of the game or do they throw different blitz schemes at the Bills quarterback than they did the first time around?

6 – Cavalry call?

Buffalo’s passing game has been shorthanded for most of the season with slot receiver Jamison Crowder going on injured reserve all the way back in Week 5. Fellow receiver Jake Kumerow joined him on I-R last month. The Bills have tried to supplement the roster with veteran practice squad options.

John Brown was signed to the practice squad two weeks ago and has been active each of the last two game days. After playing 15 snaps in Week 13 at New England, he played just three snaps against the Jets.

Veteran Cole Beasley was signed to the practice squad this week and GM Brandon Beane would not rule out the possibility of him playing on Saturday night.

What is clear is Josh Allen believes in him, so going forward it’s a matter of getting Beasley up to speed and in sync with Buffalo’s trigger man.

“I think the rapport that we’ve had with each other the last few years, the communication, he sees the field like a quarterback when he’s out there, especially in zone coverages and just being able to trust him. Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect right away, but to kind of go back and maybe sit down and watch some film and just talk about some different things that we’re doing. Again, I don’t know if he’s playing or not. I don’t know really what the plan is, but if he’s ready to go, we’ll be ready to go with him.”

After his first full-scale practice this week, Bills’ nickel corner Taron Johnson in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ felt he looked the same as he always did in a Bills practice jersey.

“He’s still got that same quick twitch that he’s so famous for having,” Johnson said. “I’m excited that he’s back. Hopefully we can get him out there and see what he does.”

Beasley said he would see how he feels through the course of the practice week but didn’t believe the final decision rested with him. Coach McDermott emphasized that there are many layers in determining whether a newly added player to the roster is fit to play.

“I think you’ve got to look at all of it, and in those situations it’s rarely one area that needs to kind of be checked if you will,” he said. “So you want to go through as many of those areas as you can in a short amount of time and then make sure ‘A,’ that you’re putting the player in a position to be successful and ‘B,’ that they can do the job. Is it physically? Yes. Is it mentally? Yes. Is it playbook wise? Yes. So there’s more than one factor.”

7 – Hill still a handful

Tyreek Hill has been a thorn in a lot of teams’ sides over his seven NFL seasons and Buffalo is no exception. In his first season with the Dolphins he has been extraordinarily productive leading the league in receptions with 100 in just 13 games and is second only to Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (1,500) with 1,460 receiving yards.

“They have arguably the most dynamic receiver in the NFL,” said NFL senior writer for Outkick.com Armando Salguero when he appeared on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. “And I’m not saying he’s the best wide receiver, but you can stop Tyreek Hill for 57 plays, and he’ll have three plays in the game that are lightning bolts. Last week he recovers a fumble and he goes 57 yards for a touchdown. He just does things that are dangerous.”

He has already broken a 40-year-old single season Miami receiving yards record in his 13 games with the Dolphins eclipsing Mark Clayton’s total in 1984 (1,389).

Hill has four games of 160 receiving yards or more in his first 13 with Miami. He’s topped 100 receiving yards six times this season with five of them coming on the road. Six 100-yard outings in a season is already second most in team history behind Mark Duper’s team record of eight in 1986.

The ‘Cheetah’ leads the NFL with 17 receptions of 50 yards or more since he entered the league in 2016 and has three such plays this season. He also leads the AFC in third down receptions with 23 for 400 yards and four touchdowns.

Back in Week 3 facing a depleted Bills’ secondary, Hill had a season-low two receptions for 33 yards.

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