On Sunday, we get answers to one of the most important questions of this Dolphins season: Are they near the elite level of the Buffalo Bills, the standard by which every AFC East team should be judged?
An ocean separated the teams the past four years; not only have the Bills beaten Miami seven times in a row and nine of their past 10 meetings, but the scores usually haven’t been particularly close.
The Bills won by margins of 10 and 17 points in 2019; by 3 and 30 points in the 2020 season (with that season-ending 56-26 drubbing costing Miami a playoff spot) and by 35 and 15 last season.
Both 2-0 teams have looked good, but so much needs to change for Miami to be more competitive with Buffalo.
Here are eight of them:
▪ Tua Tagovailoa’s play against Buffalo: His 59.8 passer rating versus the Bills is his second worst against any opponent, ahead of only Tennessee. That includes one touchdown and four interceptions.
He’s 0-3 in those games but lasted only a quarter in one of those games (the 35-0 Bills shellacking last September) before a sack injured his ribs and knocked him out of the game.
The good news: Not only has Tagovailoa improved, but he has a far better supporting cast than any of his previous three games against Buffalo. And the Bills have a depleted secondary that’s missing three starters and is starting two rookie cornerbacks.
▪ Xavien Howard, the Dolphins’ best player on defense, must be better.
In his past four games against Buffalo, he has permitted 19 of 26 passes in his coverage area to be caught for 262 yards and a 111.5 passer rating. He has yielded three TDs but also two interceptions in those games.
And he’s coming off a poor game in Baltimore where he allowed five receptions for 119 yards and TD. Plus, he’s nursing a groin injury.
▪ Speaking of… The Dolphins can’t allow Stefon Diggs to torch them. He’s too good to be limited to a couple catches. But he can’t erupt like he has against Miami historically.
Diggs, in his past four games against Miami, has 22 catches for 315 yards; 145 of those yards (and two TDs) came against Noah Igbinoghene, who doesn’t have a defensive snap this season. Howard often shadowed him last season.
He had three catches of 15 yards or more in his two games in Miami as a Bill, including a 41-yarder in last year’s 35-0 blowout.
▪ Nik Needham: He has been two different players in his NFL career: a poor cornerback against the Bills, a good one against most everyone else.
Kader Kohou replaced Needham to start the second half against Baltimore, and the question now is whether the Dolphins play Needham at all against the Bills, knowing the history there and knowing that Kohou has thrived as an undrafted rookie.
In 2020, Needham had a 78.5 passer rating against him in games against teams other than the Bills, per Pro Football Focus.
Against Buffalo in 2020, he allowed a perfect passer rating of 158.3 — eight completions in nine targets for 166 yards and three touchdowns, with Isaiah McKenzie, Cole Beasley and Diggs administering much of that punishment.
So the Dolphins mostly sat him in the first Buffalo game last year (a 35-0 Bills win), then played him in the 26-11 Halloween loss, when Needham was again roasted, allowing 7 of 8 passes in his coverage area to be caught for 94 yards (a 115.6 passer rating).
No Dolphins player has a bigger disparity in performance against Buffalo compared with the rest of the league. And that could result in a limited role on Sunday.
▪ The pass rush: The Bills are second in the league with nine sacks this season. The Dolphins have only two.
And there’s there: The Dolphins have just three sacks in the past four games against the Bills, compared with 11 for Buffalo in those games — including two by Greg Rousseau and two by Mario Addison.
The Dolphins had just one sack in the two Bills games last season (split between Emmanuel Ogbah and Andrew Van Ginkel, who has played only seven defensive snaps this season).
In 2020, the Dolphins had only two sacks in the two games: 1 ½ by Van Ginkel and a half for Obgah.
Even though Miami was fifth with 48 sacks last season, the poor pass rush against Buffalo wasn’t forgotten; the Dolphins subsequently signed Melvin Ingram and Trey Flowers.
But Van Ginkel needs to play some Sunday; he’s a productive player and is fully healthy after his appendix removal.
And this was exasperating: The Dolphins got close to Allen repeatedly the past two years, yet have only three sacks in those four games. They hit Allen 11 times and pressured him 25 times in the two losses last season yet managed just that one sack.
Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer made a subtle change between the two meetings last season, one that bears keeping in mind on Sunday: In the first game, the 35-0 loss, Boyer blitzed safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones just eight combined times, and they didn’t have a quarterback pressure.
In the second meeting, he blitzed them a combined 26 times - including 18 by Jones - and they combined for four pressures.
▪ The offensive line:
This was a disaster against the Bills, something Miami hopes has been fixed by offseason changes.
The Dolphins allowed an unfathomable 52 quarterback pressures (per Pro Football Focus) and eight sacks in the two Bills games last season; Tagovailoa was knocked out of the first game early when an AJ Epenesa hit injured Tua’s hip, then was hit four more times in the second game.
Austin Jackson (nine) and Liam Eichenberg (four) permitted a combined 13 pressures in that game last September — an unfathomable number. Jackson is out on Sunday, and Eichenberg has moved from tackle to guard.
Incidentally, Terron Armstead (who’s questionable for Sunday with a toe injury) allowed two pressures but no sacks in the Bills’ trouncing of the Saints last season.
The good news: The line was very good against Baltimore.
▪ Josh Allen. For his career, he’s 7-1 with a 106.8 passer rating against Miami, with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. What’s more, he has 430 yards rushing versus the Dolphins (by far his most against any team) on 8.96 per carry, his highest rushing average against the 12 teams that he has played against more than once.
The Dolphins have played him well only once in the last four meetings, holding him to a 75 passer rating and forcing a career-high percent of turnover-worthy throws in the Hard Rock game last September. And Buffalo still won 35-0.
▪ Devin Singletary. The Bills starting running back has 274 rushing yards against Miami (his most against any team) and a 4.98 career rushing average against Miami, higher than his 4.7 per carry mark.
If the Dolphins can’t stop the passing game or Singletary, they have no chance of success defensively.
Here’s the good news, beyond the Dolphins now having Tyreek Hill:
Bills Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White is out with an injury; he allowed just three catches on Tagovailoa’s past 11 throws against him. Cornerback Dane Jackson and second-team All Pro safety Micah Hyde also are out. All-Pro safety Jordan Poyer has been dealing with a foot injury.
Also, the Dolphins won’t need to contend with Beasley, who caught 10 passes for 110 yards in their last meeting. They won’t need to contend with John Brown, who torched the Dolphins in 2020. Neither is on the Bills any longer.
They will need to contend with other dangerous receivers besides Diggs: Gabe Davis if his ankle is OK (he had four catches, 88 yards against the Rams in the opener) and McKenzie, the former Plantation American Heritage standout who has two of his eight career receiving touchdowns against Miami.
ESPN’s Domonique Foxworth, the former NFL cornerback and players union chief, makes the case for why Miami can win Sunday:
“I think they have a really good chance because Mike McDaniel is a run game genius. They have an improved offensive line. The weakness of the Bills defense, if there is a weakness, is they’re weak at the corner spot. They have young guys out there who don’t have much experience.
“If Mike McDaniel is able to figure out a way to run effectively, it draws one safety in the box, boy are you in trouble if you have two young corners trying to run with Waddle and Hill. It could get ugly fast. If you double both of them, you have Mike Gesicki up the middle.”
ESPN’s Chris Canty countered: “That doesn’t matter if you are talking about the Bills’ defensive front being able to get to Tua.”
Foxworth countered: “The reason why the front may not be as important this week is because of the play action game and the [Kyle] Shanahan history and the zone blocking history. If they are able to do these zone blocking things and somebody misses their assignment and they break a couple of those runs, and draw the safety in, the [Bills] going to be in for a long day.”
The Bills, who won easily against the Rams and Titans, acknowledge Miami’s improvement.
General manager Brandon Beane said during the offseason that Miami’s acquisition of Hill is “a very strong move by the Dolphins pairing him with Jaylen Waddle. We know we have our hands full. You’re not sad to see him leave KC. You’re also not excited to see him come to your division.”