The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills meet in Week Two of the 2014 season with the winner very likely taking hold of the AFC East divisional race.
Both teams are coming off mildly surprising upsets of the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears respectively in the first week of the season and are looking to carry that momentum into this match-up.
Here are a couple of things to watch for as the teams take the field in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday:
1. Focus on the run game. Both teams had success on the ground in Week One and Buffalo especially has been a team that has been predicated on the run game the past several years. The Bills gained nearly 200 yards on the ground against the Bears with several large game-changing runs thrown into the mix, notably Fred Jackson‘s 38 yard run in overtime that set up the game winning field goal.
Miami nearly matched that total when their duo of Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller racked up 191 yards against the Patriots. Moreno in particular was spectacular, gashing the Patriots’ defense for 134 yards at a clip of 5.6 yards per rush and accumulating 50 yards after first contact alone.
The Dolphins totally rebuilt offensive line did well in opening holes for the running game and held up quite well for their first regular season game action together.
The Bills, a team that was ranked just 27th against the run in 2013, did well against the Bears – holding them to just 86 yards rushing and will need to do the same against Miami in order to pull off a win. On the opposite side, the Dolphins are dealing with the loss of three of their starting linebackers all to injury and may find it difficult to contain the trio of Jackson, CJ Spiller, and Anthony Dixon.
With both starting quarterbacks – EJ Manuel for the Bills and Ryan Tannehill for the Dolphins – throwing for less than 200 yards last week the running game becomes more important than ever.
2. Miami’s fierce pass rush. In 2013 the Dolphins ranked a respectable 11th in the league with 42 sacks. The start of the season showed that their defensive line could be even better this year, sacking Patriots quarterback Tom Brady four times, hitting him seven, and causing him to be ‘hurried’ on 18 of his throws (over half of his passing attempts).
Defensive end Cameron Wake showed why any discussion of the league’s best defensive ends needs to include him as he accumulated two sacks, two forced fumbles, and three hurries of Brady on his own. On the opposite side Olivier Vernon is quietly coming into his own as well, making this pass rushing duo one of the most intimidating in the NFL, especially against a second year quarterback (Manuel) still learning the game.
Miami took to often lining up with five defensive lineman and dropping two linebackers into coverage (doing so on over 70 percent of their snaps) to generate more pressure on the quarterback without having to send extra defenders.
If such a tactic was effective on an elite veteran like Brady, it will surely overwhelm Manuel. The Bills’ offensive line, still in a state of flux outside of left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Woods will have to solidify quickly if they are able to give Manuel enough time to throw.
Sticking with the short passing game (a Manuel strength) and the run game is the Bills’ best strategy here.
3. Buffalo’s Pass Coverage. There was a fear with the loss of Kiko Alonso (injury) and Jarius Byrd (free agency) the Bills might have some issues in pass coverage and those concerns came to fruition against the Bears. Although they held the Bears’ offense – projected to be one of the most prolific in the league – to just 20 points, the Bills surrendered 349 yards through the air and two passing touchdowns.
The Bills starting linebackers graded out poorly earning a negative -7.3 in pass coverage from Pro Football Focus with the trio of Preston Brown, Keith Rivers, and Brandon Spikes allowing 14 completions on 16 attempts. Spikes alone missed three tackles and was flagged for an unnecessary roughness call that didn’t help matters.
Starting cornerback Leodis McKelvin wasn’t much better, surrendering 10 catches on 14 targets for 139 yards.
Nigel Bradham, slated to be Alonso’s replacement, returns to the field after a one game suspension and hopefully will help make a difference.
While Tannehill doesn’t have quite the arm that Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler does, he does possess the ability to ‘fling it around the yard’ despite the modest 178 yards – and 5.56 yards per completion – he put up last Sunday and will require the Bills’ secondary to perform better than it did in Week One.
4. The status of Sammy Watkins. Watkins is still recovering from a rib injury he suffered during the third game of the preseason and re-aggravated in the fourth game. The Bills’ stopped looking to Watkins after the first quarter, targeting him just once during the rest of the game.
Whether that was due to the status of his health or the fact that Manuel sometimes has difficulty getting him the ball is up for debate. Although defenses still need to be aware of where Watkins is on the field – opening up more opportunities for Robert Woods and Mike Williams – the Bills didn’t give up two first round picks for Watkins to act as a decoy.
Watkins needs to play a significant part in the Bills’ game plan and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett would do well to remember that.
5. The Impact of the Sale of the Bills. The estate of Ralph Wilson reached a deal with Terry and Kim Pegula on Tuesday to purchase the team at a reported price of $1.4 billion pending approval by the rest of the league’s owners.
Couple that with the news that Jim Kelly was declared cancer free and the Bills’ organization and fan base is riding high.
As much as those two events are great news for the city of Buffalo and Bills’ fans, realistically they will have little impact on the actual play of the team on the field. Expect the Bills’ fans to be out in full force for the season opener and create something of a 12th man effect but the players themselves will be relatively unaffected by the events of the past week and will still need to execute as a unit.
Overall these two teams are fairly similar in that both will look to rely on their run games with still developing quarterbacks, both have undergone significant changes to their offensive lines, and both have an intimidating pass rush that could decide the game.
With the Bills having swept the season series last year and control of the division on the line this game is big for both teams despite taking place in Week Two. It is one that could set the tone for the rest of the season and will be treated as such.