Sunday, December 22, 2013

Four Point Stance: Dolphins at Bills


The Miami Dolphins' path to the postseason is clear: Win each of their last two games, and they're playing football in January. Lose either one, or both, and those chances can easily evaporate.

All the Dolphins (8-6) can do is focus on the team in front of them, which this week is the Buffalo Bills (5-9), a division rival that would love nothing more than to spoil Miami's march to the playoffs. Buffalo won the season's first meeting back in October by a 23-21 margin, as the Dolphins were in the midst of a four-game losing streak.

Out for this game is Bills starting quarterback E.J. Manuel, and in is back-up Thad Lewis, who also started that first matchup in Miami. Lewis' solid but unspectacular outing proved steady enough, but it was Buffalo's defense that turned in the impact plays. Among them was an interception returned for touchdown and a timely fumble recovery that put former Dolphin Dan Carpenter in position to kick the game-winning field goal.

This game only has playoff implications for one of the teams, but don't expect it to lack any of the luster of past chapters of this rivalry.

When the Dolphins have the ball:
In the last matchup, quarterback Ryan Tannehill's abysmal first quarter (2-of-9 for 32 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions) put his team in a hole it couldn't quite climb out of. The second year signal-caller has since strung together some of the best football of his career, thanks in part to an offensive line that improved after a midseason overhaul that began shortly after Mario Williams and the Bills defensive line accrued two sacks, eight quarterback hits and 13 hurries against it, per Pro Football Focus. Pass protecting and creating running lanes will be key, but, as most teams have figured out, the best way to beat the Bills defense is to use its aggressiveness against it. Expect the Dolphins to utilize play action roll-outs and misdirection plays to get Buffalo's front seven flowing, then take advantage of the open space on the backside.

When the Bills have the ball:
Fortunately, Lewis possesses many of the same tools as injured starter Manuel, allowing the Bills to keep the playbook open when he's needed. The more significant loss is that of primary receiver Stevie Johnson, who's sitting out after the death of his mother last week. Buffalo's developing receiver depth will need to be sharp in order to give Lewis adequate throwing windows against a very good Miami secondary. The Bills fourth-ranked rushing attack, the centerpiece of the offense, was held to just 3.0 yards per carry in the matchup in Miami. Dedication to the run despite that low output will be a must. Testing the edge run defense of Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan, as well as the pursuit abilities of the linebackers, should yield some big gains for the Bills. Expect Buffalo to design some high-percentage throws early to get Lewis in a rhythm, then ride the running game most of the day with some deep shots peppered in.

Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams vs. Miami's interior line. There isn't a more dominating, disruptive defensive tackle duo than Buffalo's pair. They have the strength and power to pressure the pocket up the middle and can act as wrecking balls to the Dolphins' matchup-dependent zone running scheme. Their individual talents can each command double teams and force Miami to move resources to address them. How the Dolphins handle or adjust to their abilities will play a big role in this game.

The Bills have a chance to sweep the Dolphins for the first time since 2007. With a win, Miami would secure its first winning season since 2008 and assure Buffalo double-digit losses for the fifth straight year.

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