The Buffalo Bills, for the first time in the 2018 season, have won back-to-back games and will be going for a third straight victory on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. The Bills have played their most consistent total brand of football since the beginning of the season, but now they have to knock off a Dolphins team that still has playoff aspirations, all of which happening on the road.
Last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bills got their rookie quarterback Josh Allen back on the field. Following a five-week layoff due to injury, Allen returned to the lineup with his best game as a starter for the Bills in his young career.
How can he, and the Bills, respond this week with a road game against an up-and-down Dolphins team?
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Dolphins:
1) Allen’s response to his best outing
- There is little doubt that last weekend, at home against the Jaguars, was rookie quarterback Josh Allen’s best performance to date. He looked a lot calmer in the pocket, he was pushing the ball down the field, and he was throwing passes with anticipation in tight windows. Despite completing only eight passes, Allen’s day could have been loads better had he gotten a little help from his teammates on a handful of plays. Still, the Bills have a good baseline performance with which to work from — that’s the good part. The bad part is that now the Miami Dolphins are likely to look at what Allen struggled with early in the season, and will attempt to turn him into the more skittish passer that leaves the pocket too soon with some unique pressures. I think we could be in line to see the Dolphins send some players in addition to the front four, because that’s something that Allen struggled with before his injury. An obvious candidate for the Dolphins to try and get Allen off of his game from last week include both former Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has always had a reputation as a good blitzer, as well as defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Those two have the type of skill-sets — and most specifically the speed — to get Allen moving when he doesn’t want to be. That will be the next big test for Allen when teams counter his positive play with something different, and how he responds to it. Should he pass that test as well and show more poise in the pocket even with the more unique pressure packages, that’s another bit of confidence to add to his back pocket. If he struggles with it, the good news is he’ll likely see it more through the last four games because of the copycat nature of the league, which means he’ll have plenty of time to improve against it, too. Allen’s counter to the oppositions game plan specifically for him makes this into a fascinating game for Bills fans.
2) Benjamin’s dwindling snap count
- Over the last two games, the Bills have scaled back the workload of Kelvin Benjamin quite a bit. Usually getting somewhere between 60-to-75-percent of snaps, Benjamin’s percentage went down to a little over 50-percent against the New York Jets, and then after the bye, his snap count went down to a season-low 40-percent. On Friday, head coach Sean McDermott acknowledged the trend and said it was to give some of their young receivers some more significant responsibility and workloads. With Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie both taking advantage of those opportunities over the last two games, I would expect the trio of Zay Jones, Foster, and McKenzie to be the top three snap getters moving forward — and for Benjamin’s snaps to continue to decline. I don’t think they want to phase him out completely because no matter what, he is still a unique player with length and size that you can’t match with many cornerbacks — and his play in the first quarter against Jacksonville will likely keep him active. However, if there is a game or a run of games where he fails to make an impact, I don’t think we’re so far off from him potentially being inactive. It’s that time of year where the Bills are prioritizing getting their young players some on-field experience above all else, and with Benjamin having taken only 0.33-percent of all special teams snaps (one snap, total) the case to keep an unproductive player that gets a low offensive snap count active becomes increasingly harder to make. I don’t think we’re there yet, but it’s trending in that direction. It’s on Benjamin to step up in his now limited chances.
3) All eyes on McCoy
- Over the 11 games that the Bills have played this season, LeSean McCoy has been healthy enough to make an impact in nine of those. Out of those nine, the only time where we’ve seen the playmaking runner that the NFL has grown accustomed to was a few weeks back in New York ahead of the bye week. In all his other games, McCoy has looked hesitant in the backfield and isn’t making as many people miss as he once did. Now, the offensive line certainly hasn’t helped matters over the last two months of the season, but even though they haven’t been dependable, they’ve still paved the way for McCoy to be a more productive player than he has been. It’s almost as though he’s trying to do too much and not taking what the defense gives him because he thinks he can get away with it. Other than the one spin-out of a tackle in the backfield against the Jets that went for a considerable gain, we haven’t seen an elusive LeSean McCoy. Now, that’s not to say that I think he’s done being an effective runner or anything like that, but each game that goes by that yields the same results, the more the Bills are going to have to take a hard look at the running back position in the offseason. Should McCoy return in 2019 — which it sounds like that’s what the Bills want to happen at least at this point — the Bills need to make an honest assessment about McCoy and what he is heading into that year, which makes these last five games so important. Should McCoy be able to show some of the explosiveness that has been missing for much of the year, and becomes a more decisive runner, then the running back position in the draft becomes less of a priority. However, should he travel down the same path as eight of his nine performances, this could be setting up for the Bills to select a running back as early as the second or third round of the 2019 NFL Draft — which would then shift McCoy into more of a complementary role. While the wins and losses of the final five games might not mean much, it could mean everything to McCoy for the last year of his contract in 2019 — and if he has one more crack at being “the guy.”
4) Beware of Tannehill vs. the zone
- Since being selected in the first round, Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill has mastered the art of being a perfectly average starter that usually won’t lose you a game, all while flashing some high-caliber throws that make you believe that one day he can become more than he is, which keeps him gainfully employed as the team’s starting quarterback. Yes, with Tannehill, the Dolphins have been in the famed ‘quarterback purgatory.’ However, while he has never been the consistent guy to go out and win you a game, there are certain elements to his game that he does quite well — and I think he has an opportunity for success against a susceptible area of the Bills defense. It’s all about the linebackers over the middle of the field in zone coverage. While Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano have both improved in this area as the season has gone on, this is an area of the field where Tannehill can make those high-caliber throws in tight windows that I referred to above. Especially against a good Dolphins offensive line (more on that in a moment), the play of the linebackers against both the run and the pass could be a major determining factor to this game. If you’re not careful, Tannehill has enough talent to put together a few drives to win a game. The Bills can’t come into this game asleep on coverage.
5) The challenge for the Bills DL
- The two young linebackers will be depended on by the Bills to get off their blocks and fill the running lanes against this Miami team, and the reason why all the pressure on them is because I think the Dolphins present a fairly challenging group for the defensive line to make a real impact. Not having their starting center Travis Swanson is undoubtedly to the Bills’ benefit, but I don’t think the Bills defensive line matches up so well that they have a legitimate chance to take over the game. I think this is probably set up to be a stalemate at the point of attack more often than not, which will then lead to the linebackers and safeties to have to pick up the slack and be the reason that the Dolphins can’t move the ball consistently on the ground. With how the linebackers for the Bills have struggled to get off blocks at times this season, I can see the Dolphins’ ground game with Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore having some success in this game.
OUT: QB Derek Anderson (concussion), RG John Miller (oblique)
QUESTIONABLE: TE Charles Clay (hamstring)
DOUBTFUL: WR Danny Amendola (knee), C Travis Swanson (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: TE A.J. Derby (foot, knee), WR DeVante Parker (shoulder)
Bills Projected Inactives: QB Derek Anderson, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, G John Miller, G Ike Boettger, T Conor McDermott, LB Corey Thompson, CB Ryan Lewis
Prediction: Dolphins over Bills
- Thought the Bills had done a much better job the last two games in moving the ball effectively, I think the Dolphins defensive attack is going to try and duplicate the pressure packages that gave Allen trouble through his initial starts before the injury occurred. He has enough seasoning to have done a better job with it, though you have to wonder if he’s due for a turnover considering the throws he tries to make. This Dolphins team isn’t remarkable by any stretch of the imagination, though I think they do have a talented enough roster to win at home — with their run game and offensive line play being the best advantage of any. For all of those reasons, I’m taking the Dolphins to win this one — in what can be a learning experience for Allen and the rest of the offense should the Dolphins play him like many are expecting them to.