Miami Dolphins vs. Buffalo Bills
Who: Dolphins (0-1) vs. Bills (1-0)
When: Sunday September 20, 1:00 EDT
Where: Hard Rock Stadium – Miami Gardens, Fla.
Weather: 87 degrees, 50% chance rain, scattered thunderstorms, 75% humidity
Another week, another divisional foe. This time, the Dolphins welcome their rivals from the north as the Buffalo Bills look to make it two straight in-division wins after a convincing Week 1 victory over the New York Jets.
The parallels between Sean McDermott's Buffalo team and the program Brain Flores is building in Miami are vast. Both came from defensive-minded backgrounds. Both coaches when entering their second seasons put a premium on draft capital. The Dolphins entered Flores' second draft with 14 picks compared to Buffalo's 11 for the 2018 draft.
Above all, both coaches emphasize culture. The acquisition of players who prioritize the game of football; players who are tough, smart and disciplined.
McDermott brought the Bills to the postseason two of the last three years, breaking the four major sport's longest playoff drought with that 2017 trip the AFC Wild Card round.
Beating a good football team at home and evening the mark at one game up and one game down would be a big first step for Flores' team early in his second year.
Wide receiver Jakeem Grant (calf) was removed Thursday from the Dolphins injury report.
Linebacker Elandon Roberts (concussion) was the only player not on the field Thursday for Miami.
Four players were limited participants in practice for Miami: wide receiver DeVante Parker (hamstring), safety Clayton Fejedelem (pectoral) and cornerbacks Xavien Howard (knee) and Byron Jones (Achilles).
Two Dolphins were listed on the report but participated in full. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy (hand) and Preston Williams (knee) were on the field Thursday.
The visiting Buffalo Bills listed nine players on their Thursday injury report.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes (calf) and wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (hamstring) were added on Thursday after not being listed on Wednesday.
Two players did not practice for the Bills. Linebackers Matt Milano (hamstring) and Del'Shawn Phillips (quadriceps) were not on the field Thursday making it two missed practices in a row for both players.
Linebacker Tyrell Dodson (neck) and wide receiver John Brown (foot) were upgraded from limited and did not practice designations on Wednesday to full participants on Thursday.
Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (shoulder) and quarterback Jake Fromm (not injury related) were limited again on Thursday.
Defensive tackle Vernon Butler was listed for a hamstring, but was a full participant.
Continuity was a major talking point in the NFL this offseason. With offseason programs taking place virtually, many pondered if returning starters might play a bigger role than usual early in this strange 2020 season.
The Bills were atop the charts in ESPN's continuity rankings. The study measured returning players and the percentage of the team's snaps for which those players accounted. All three of Buffalo's coordinators returned including Brian Daboll. Daboll saw 95.4 percent of his offensive snap-takers in 2019 return for this new season, tops in the league.
Defensively, Buffalo ranked seventh in returning snap-takers.
On paper, few rosters are more daunting than the squad assembled by McDermott and General Manager Billy Beane.
The Buffalo defense is stout and deep at all three levels, starting with the secondary. Buffalo added three stalwarts in the 2017 offseason. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are the definition of ball hawks. In three years with the team, Poyer and Hyde have combined for 19 interceptions and 42 passes defensed. Sunday against the Jets, Poyer made two run stops and allowed one catch, but tackled the receiver for an eight-yard loss to go along with a forced fumble.
Then there's first-team All-Pro Tre'Davious White. On top of a game-changing interception in the Dolphins-Bills tilt in Week 7 a year ago, White's held opposing quarterbacks to a 61.9 passer rating over his career.
Linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano suffered injuries in the opener, both have been limited this week in practice. Edmunds made his first Pro Bowl at the ripe age of 21 last season and Milano has allowed a paltry passer rating against of 81.0 in his career with 103 run stops over three seasons.
Edge rushers Trent Murphy and Jerry Hughes each had three quarterback pressures Sunday against the Jets. Ed Oliver, a top 10 pick in 2019, has made his interior pocket collapsing impact felt early in his career. Picking up steam late in his rookie season (31 total pressures), Oliver got it going early in Year 2 as he had six pressures and a run stop in the opener.
Offensively, Josh Allen is coming into his own. He started the season with 369 total yards and three touchdowns vs. the Jets. Over four career games against Miami, Allen has 318 rushing yards but only 88 in the two games last season. Limiting Allen's ability to extend plays will be crucial for the Dolphins defense.
Much like the secondary, Buffalo rebuilt the offensive line in short order under McDermott. Through both the draft and free agency, the Bills acquired a wall of physical, tough players with a nasty temperament. Dion Dawkins' Week 1 performance was much of the same through three years in the league and he averages just two pressures allowed per game in his career.
Center Mitch Morse stabilized the interior of the line at center last season and he allowed only one pressure Sunday against the Jets. Fellow 2019 free agent acquisition Quinton Spain had the same stat line (one pressure allowed) and does his best work digging out bodies in the run game.
The running game is made up of some sizzle and spice with two juxtaposing backs in Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. The former rushed for 775 yards last season at 5.1 yards a clip while the latter, Moss, was the workhorse for a tough, physical Utah Utes program. Over his final three years in college, Moss rushed for 3,685 yards and 36 touchdowns.
Dolphins Front Seven vs. Bills Runners
Team defense rankings, like all stats in football, require context. The Dolphins enter Sunday with the No. 1 ranked pass defense but the 32nd ranked rush defense. New England's game plan called for 42 runs and 19 passes, by far the greatest disparity favoring the ground game in the NFL in Week 1.
Flores said on Wednesday that Buffalo's receivers are as good as there is in the league, so for the Dolphins to be competitive, stopping the run while containing the pass is crucial. Josh Allen is similar to Cam Newton in the size and athleticism departments. Both quarterbacks are 6-5 with Allen giving 10 pounds to Newton.
Last year, the Bills running game hit chunk plays in the same read-option look the Patriots had success with in Week 1. Once Allen is accounted for, it's imperative to contain running back Devin Singletary. He can bounce runs and hit the second level in a flash. He had 25 runs of 10 or more yards last year on 151 carries. Miami will also need to bring the physical mindset to handle not just Allen, but Zack Moss, who is a compact 225-pound aggressive runner.
The Dolphins are not lacking in size up front. Emmanuel Ogbah (275) and Shaq Lawson (267) are sustainably above the average defensive end weight. Christian Wilkins (315), Davon Godchaux (311) and Raekwon Davis (330) all provide the beef on the interior. On the line and at linebacker, Flores says the Dolphins must play with better fundamentals to handle Allen and the Bills' run game.
"Obviously Josh Allen is big, strong, fast. He had something like 60 yards rushing (Sunday)," Flores said. "Some similarities to what we saw (at New England). Obviously we're trying to get a lot of that fixed now – from an edge-setting standpoint, from a tackling standpoint – schematically. We'll work on that over the course of the week, just from a technique, fundamentals and practice standpoint. Hopefully it helps us on Sunday next week."
Last week, the Patriots called on sixth offensive lineman Michael Onwenu for 22 snaps at the end of the line of scrimmage. Per Pro Football Focus, New England rushed off either end a combined 11 times for 83 yards behind the 350-pound Onwenu, 335-pound Jermaine Eluemunor and the 310-pound Isaiah Wynn. Buffalo's line provides more size averaging just under 330 pounds.
Dolphins Defensive Backs vs. Bills Pass Catchers
The Bills are both top-heavy and deep at wide receiver. Stefon Diggs caught eight of his nine targets against the Jets for 86 yards. He's a technician that sets up defensive backs with crafty route-running and a natural feel for attacking blind spots. He can fly, too. Diggs led all NFL receivers in 2019 in deep receiving (20-plus yard throws) with 635 receiving yards on such throws.
John Brown is a speed merchant. He finished 19th in the NFL in deep receiving yards. He turned eight targets into six receptions for 70 yards, a touchdown and five first downs in the opener. In two games against Miami last year, Brown caught 14 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns.
No Bills receiver created more consistent separation on Sunday than Cole Beasley (4.0 average yards of separation per NFL Next Gen Stats). The reliable slot target has caught better than 70 percent of his targets for an entire season five times in his eight-year career.
It's strength on strength as Miami matches all that talent with Byron Jones, Xavien Howard, Noah Igbinoghene and a trio of safeties with coverage skills in Bobby McCain, Brandon Jones and Eric Rowe.
How the Dolphins choose to match their talent with Buffalo's is one of the more intriguing storylines in the NFL this week.
Rowe's second game at safety last season was in the Week 7 game in Buffalo. He limited tight end Dawson Knox to one catch for two yards.
As a member of the Cowboys in 2019, Byron Jones held Bills receivers to 13 yards on three targets including a pass breakup.
In his last game against the Bills (2018), Howard intercepted two passes and allowed only two receptions on eight targets.
Dolphins Run Game vs. Bills Front-Seven
The keys this week are back to the basics. Run the ball, stop the run, and win the matchup with the defensive back talent to match Buffalo's receiving prowess.
The Bills have a strong secondary of their own. Avoiding third-down-and-long situations in which all those playmakers will have freedom to roam and attack the football is critical. That starts with early down success both in the passing game and with the run.
In the first meeting of 2019, Miami rushed for 109 yards and took a lead into the fourth quarter. In the second matchup, the Dolphins ran for just 23 yards as the Bills were able to open up a 17-point lead and maintain it throughout the second half.
Keeping the Buffalo pass rush honest against the run and forcing all 11 on defense to key the ground game is a will help Ryan Fitzpatrick to operate at his highest efficiency. Attacking away from Tre'Davious White was beneficial as well. In the Week 7 game from 2019, White limited Dolphins receivers to one catch on five targets. Against other Buffalo corners, the Dolphins caught nine of 12 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown, per PFF.
Nobody ran more plays (81) than the Bills in Week 1. As a result, Brian Daboll called the league's most common package (11-personnel) third-most in the league with 53 plays on Sunday.
The personnel deployment number that jumps off the page is the use of 10-personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) as Buffalo called on that package 22 times in Week 1. The rest of the NFL used 10-personnel 20 times combined in the opening weekend. Buffalo called the package only five times total a year ago.
From there, Allen is able to put defenses in a bind with the decision to drop and play coverage, or send extra rushers and put pressure on the defensive backs to hold up against all the weapons at Allen's disposal.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Bills blitzed Sam Darnold 51.3 percent of the Jets offensive snaps Sunday; that was second-most in Week 1 (Baltimore). The result was a 20.5 percent pressure rate, 16th in the league. PFR also credited the Bills defense with three missed tackles, tied for second-fewest in the NFL (Miami, New England and Chicago).
Final thoughts and Game Notes
The Dolphins will host the Buffalo Bills in their 2020 home opener at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, September 20 at 1 p.m. The venue will operate with a capacity of 13,000 fans for the game.
The all-time series favors the Dolphins with a head-to-head mark of 60-47-1. The Bills were victorious in three of the rival's four playoff meetings.
The Dolphins are 6-2 in the past eight home openers and 34-19-1 all time against the Bills at home. However, Buffalo has won three in a row against the Dolphins and five of the last six meetings.
The Bills and Patriots won in Week 1 while the Dolphins and Jets lost. The Jets are hosting the 49ers and the Patriots are in Seattle for Sunday Night Football to take on the Seahawks.
We will recap the game Sunday both on MiamiDolphins.com and on the Drive Time Podcast with Travis Wingfield.