When the Bills pass the football
Kyle Orton is not elite. He’s not even a franchise quarterback. But he has nonetheless upgraded the Buffalo offense with solid if unspectacular play. Orton has so far avoided the meltdown game and actually been better in the fourth quarter than earlier in the game. But despite upgrading the position, Orton hasn’t been able to improve Buffalo’s red zone efficiency. The Bills are last in the NFL in that category. The Dolphins’ defense is generally better than it was in the first meeting because Reshad Jones and Dion Jordan (both suspended) and Koa Misi (injured) were not available in the first game. Rookie Sammy Watkins dominated the Dolphins that day. Expect the Dolphins to match Brent Grimes against Watkins especially because Cortland Finnegan will miss the game. The matchup to watch with Finnegan out is Robert Woods versus Jamar Taylor in a battle of two former 2013 second-round picks. ADVANTAGE: Miami.
When the Bills run the football
Like the Dolphins, the Bills backfield is banged up with C.J. Spiller not playing and Fred Jackson still nursing a groin injury. Perhaps as a result the Buffalo running game is a shadow of last season when it was second in the NFL in rushing yards per game. This season, Buffalo is 20th in rush yards per game and 22nd in rush average. Bryce Brown last week had a critical fumble on what should have been a touchdown run but he hasn’t been the primary back the Bills have turned to during Spiller’s absence. That would be Boobie Dixon, who is averaging a respectable 4.2 yards per carry. There’s little doubt the Dolphins have the horses up front to stop the Bills. They are No. 10 in both rush yards per game and per carry. The Dolphins have upgraded since Misi’s return to the middle linebacker spot. They are also getting good support from the secondary and part of that is Reshad Jones returning from suspension and the downhill tackling of Louis Delmas. ADVANTAGE: Miami.
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When the Dolphins pass the football
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a sore right throwing shoulder. He’s also got a sore ankle. He still starts and can make every throw he usually makes but this might not be a week to watch Tannehill do a lot of running, unless he’s trying to scramble away from the pass rush. And that may be happening as much if not more than any time this season because the Dolphins are about to field a makeshift offensive line. Rookie right tackle Ju’Wuan James is shifting to left tackle to replace Branden Albert, who is out for the remainder of the season. Dallas Thomas, who has played mostly guard since training camp, is filling in at right tackle and that means he’ll face Mario Williams the entire game. It’s a tough assignment because Williams has at least one sack in six consecutive games. If this sounds like just one concern it is actually a small part of a greater area of concern. The Bills pass rush has been fierce lately, averaging five sacks in each of the past three games. Defensive tackle Marcel Dareus has been outstanding this season. He leads the Bills with 10 sacks. The Dolphins need to find alternate ways to give Tannehill time. Perhaps rollouts. Perhaps screen plays to stem the tide of the pass rush. ADVANTAGE: Buffalo.
When the Dolphins run the football
Lamar Miller is obviously not 100 percent after he separated his shoulder less than two weeks ago but he remains the starter. QB Ryan Tannehill, who buoyed the running game for four consecutive games with dynamic runs off the spread option, was shut down last week and is nursing a sore ankle this week. The Dolphins may get an unexpected talent infusion from LaMichael James, who was recently added from the practice squad. Although coach Joe Philbin has said he has not seen James in a game, he has seen him in practice where he’s been as impressive running for the scout team as anyone else on the roster. The Buffalo front is not just about collecting sacks, although they are doing that more often than anyone else in the NFL. The Bills are No. 8 in rushing yards allowed per game and No.7 in rushing yards allowed per attempt. All this without Kiko Alonso at linebacker. Alonso was lost to a knee injury before the season. ADVANTAGE: Buffalo.
The Miami special teams are a give-and-take proposition. Last week they yielded a key completion on a fake punt the kept a Detroit scoring drive alive. Then they blocked a field goal attempt and had a 55-yard return to set up Miami’s only TD. In a game where they’re facing a team they’ve lost to three consecutive times, the Dolphins need more consistency from this unit. The Bills, meanwhile, suffered a major special teams mistake last week when Leodis McKelvin fumbled a punt deep in Buffalo territory. That led to Kansas City’s winning score. The Bills had a kickoff return TD against Miami in the first meeting, but C.J. Spiller, who had that return, is not playing this game. The Bills do have the kicker advantage because former Miami kicker Dan Carpenter has been more dependable (5 of 6) from 40-yards-plus than current Dolphins kicker Caleb Sturgis (5 of 8). ADVANTAGE: Even.
Joe Philbin and his assistants have to prove they can figure out the Bills after losing three in a row to them. They have to do it in a game their offensive line is makeshift. They have to do it against a more consistent quarterback after losing the previous three against inconsistent Bills quarterbacks. Doug Marrone has his team playing very good defense while the offense typically avoids the catastrophic turnover. Can he keep doing that in a key division game on a short week on the road? ADVANTAGE: Buffalo.