Friday, December 20, 2013
Double Coverage: Dolphins at Bills
By Mike Rodak and James Walker
Thad Lewis and the Bills will look to thwart the playoff hopes of Mike Wallace's Dolphins.
It was Dec. 22, 1990, when the Buffalo Bills defeated the Miami Dolphins in a cold rain at Ralph Wilson Stadium (or Rich Stadium, as it was called then) to lock up their third consecutive AFC East title.
On Dec. 22, 2013, the Bills (5-9) will again host the Dolphins (8-6) in a cold rain, but this time around it's Miami that has playoff aspirations. With a win Sunday, the Dolphins will simply need to win next week to secure a postseason berth.
That game 23 years ago -- which capped off a perfect home record for Buffalo -- was seen by a crowd of 80,325. That won't be the case Sunday. The Bills could have as many as 16,000 empty seats for their home finale, which has been blacked out on local television.
ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss the matchup:
Mike Rodak: James, the Dolphins are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won their last three games. What has gone right for them lately, and how important is Sunday's game in their quest to make the playoffs?
James Walker: This game is vital for Miami. Truthfully, the playoffs started for the Dolphins on Dec. 1. They were a 5-6 team still alive for the postseason, but few viewed them as a serious threat. Three consecutive wins later, Miami controls its own destiny and just needs to beat Buffalo and the New York Jets in back-to-back weeks. It's certainly doable if the Dolphins maintain focus -- and that has been the biggest key.
The stink, to some degree, has worn off from the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying scandal. Miami has been able to focus mostly on football since NFL investigator Ted Wells left its training facility a few weeks ago. I credit quarterback Ryan Tannehill's play down the stretch as a key reason. He saved his best football for the end of the season, with passer ratings of 94.2, 95.5 and 120.6 during the three-game winning streak.
However, Tannehill struggled in the first game against the Bills. He had three turnovers off two interceptions and one lost fumble. How does Buffalo plan to defend Tannehill and Miami's offense a second time around?
Rodak: They will bring a whole lot of pressure. We saw the effect that the Bills' pass rush had in October, when Mario Williams' strip-sack of Tannehill set the table for Dan Carpenter's game-winning field goal. The Dolphins' offensive line came into that game shaky, and it doesn't appear that has changed. Miami has allowed 51 sacks, the most in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Bills have 49 sacks, the most in the NFL.
It's been more than just Williams. Three other Bills -- defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and defensive end Jerry Hughes -- have set career highs for sacks. Hughes, in particular, has come on strong in the second half of the season. The pressure on Tannehill will be coming from all angles Sunday.
James, the last time these teams met, Cameron Wake was working his way back from an injury and Dion Jordan was off to a slower start than expected. Have they picked it up since? Are the Dolphins happy with what they're getting from their pass rush?
Walker: The pass rush has been solid over the past month. The Dolphins have gotten contributions from various players, including Wake, Olivier Vernon and Jordan. Miami got only one sack last week against the Patriots. But Tom Brady gets rid of the ball quickly and the quarterback pressures were satisfactory, according to Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
A lot of people have asked about Jordan. It's clear he will just have a reduced role this year, and that won't change. Jordan makes an impact in his limited reps, but he will need to wait until next season, or for an injury, to get a bigger role.
Mike, it looks like backup quarterback Thad Lewis has a shot to ruin the Dolphins' season. The Miami native beat the Dolphins in Week 7. What can we expect from Lewis this week?
Rodak: I think he could again pose a challenge for Miami. While EJ Manuel's QBR (42.3) is significantly better than Lewis' (19.1), Lewis has completed a higher percentage of his passes and has a better passer rating. When Lewis played for three games in October, we saw a quarterback with a strong arm who wasn't afraid to take deep shots. Those could be harder to convert if it's raining Sunday, but the Dolphins' banged-up secondary needs to be aware of that. On the other hand, Lewis has shown to be prone to fumbles. He fumbled six times in three games. He'll also need to get better protection than he did in his first stint as the starter, when he was sacked 13 times.
James, weather could be a factor Sunday. Cold rain is expected, or even a wintry mix, with temperatures in the mid-30s. If this slows down Tannehill and the Dolphins' passing game, can their running game carry the load?
Walker: Miami's running game has been strangely inconsistent. The Dolphins are ranked 24th in rushing. But I usually don't get the sense Miami can't run the ball. I just think the Dolphins aren't dedicated to the run. There are games such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and, to some degree, New England in which the Dolphins proved they can run effectively and efficiently. But in many weeks, Miami gets discouraged too easily and loses balance on offense.
Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas are not dynamic tailbacks. But Miami has enough receiving threats where it just needs a running back to pick up five yards when his number is called. Miami's offense can be physical when needed, and this will be one of those games if inclement weather plays a factor.
Finally, Mike, what is considered a successful season for Buffalo? There are still two games left. Has this year's team met your expectations?
Rodak: Bills CEO Russ Brandon was on the radio this week and called it a disappointing season since the Bills didn't make the playoffs. I would agree. I think that, even as a rebuilding team, the bar needs to be set high. Recent history has shown that it's hardly impossible to turn it around quickly; the Colts went from 2-14 to 11-5 after drafting Andrew Luck, for example.
The Bills have impressive speed on offense and talent on defense. It just didn't come together for them this season. That's not to say I was expecting the Bills to make the playoffs -- I predicted a 6-10 record in the preseason -- but I'm not sure that I see progress from the time the season started until now.