Welcome to Week Eight of the 2021 NFL season. Here at Buffalo Sports Page, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the Buffalo Bills’ upcoming opponent and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The Bills’ seventh game of 2021 will take place at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York as they face the Miami Dolphins. Here’s what you should know:
MIAMI’S OFFENSE IS IN TRANSITION
Coming off a season where the roster lacked talent and their front office tanked for a better draft pick, the Miami Dolphins looked to take a step forward in 2020 and they did so by winning 10 games for just the third time since 2008. Owner Stephen Ross gave general manager Chris Grier – the brother of former Buffalo Sabres winger Mike Grier – the authority to build the team as he and head coach Brian Flores saw fit, and the acquisitions of some new blood have helped them.
Under Flores new faces have been a constant at one area for Miami – offensive coordinator. While the basis of Flores’ philosophy has stayed the same – the Erhardt-Perkins concepts that his former employer, the New England Patriots, have based their passing game around for more than 20 years – the man calling the plays has changed in all three of Flores’ seasons in South Beach. After trying out Chad O’Shea and Chan Gailey in 2019 and ’20, Flores decided to promote tight ends coach George Godsey (a former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans) and running backs coach Eric Studesville to passing game and running game coordinator, respectively.
The issue of who would be the triggerman for Miami’s offense last year was a back-and-forth affair on a weekly basis between 38-year-old former Buffalo Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick and youngster Tua Tagovailoa. Whenever Tagovailoa would struggle in 2020, Flores would turn to Fitzpatrick for a spark off the bench. Since then, Tagovailoa, a rhythmic, precision passer and last year’s fifth-overall draft pick out of Alabama, has been given the starting job while former Patriot and Indianapolis Colt Jacoby Brissett was signed to be the new backup.
The Dolphins’ offense has become condensed and more basic to help ease Tagovailoa into life in the pros. Many of the routes that have been called for him by Godsey (and Gailey last year) have been short and intermediate to play to his strengths as an intelligent passer who can get the ball out on time, but not many shots down the field have been performed. Perhaps some of the power in his core has been taken away because of the horrific hip injury that he suffered while at Alabama in 2019, and Tagovailoa has been compensating for a lack of velocity.
Physical wide receiver DeVante Parker (who is the last wideout to record a 100-yard receiving game against the Bills back in Week 17 of last season) is Miami’s top target in the passing game, and former Texan Will Fuller and rookie Jaylen Waddle were acquired in the spring to add a vertical element to the Dolphins’ play designs. Fuller, however, is out for Week Eight, leaving backups Preston Williams and Albert Wilson to pick up the slack (watch for the Dolphins to potentially use more “12” personnel – one back, two tight ends – to compensate for injuries at wideout).
6’6” tight end Mike Gesicki is a red zone threat and a versatile route runner and the running back position is led by third-year man Myles Gaskin. The Dolphin’s offensive line is made up of youngsters Liam Eichenberg and Austin Jackson while veterans Greg Mancz, Robert Hunt and Jesse Davis hold down the other three spots.
Miami has, due to being behind in so many games and their running game struggling, thrown the ball on nearly 67 percent of their offensive plays – and 62 percent of the time on first down. Both numbers lead the NFL.
DOLPHINS’ DEFENSE UNDERACHIEVING
Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer, who worked together in New England, traditionally favor playing lots of Cover One – man coverage with a single-high safety over the top – and will occasionally mix in some Cover Three concepts (deep zone coverage on the outside with a safety in the box and a deep safety patrolling centerfield). They also love to blitz, sending extra rushers at quarterbacks at the third-highest rate in the NFL last year (41.2 percent) out of multiple defensive fronts and will sometimes zone-blitz on third-down with a lot of disguise and late movement by their defensive backs at the snap.
These schemes allowed the Dolphins to be among the NFL’s leaders in takeaways and turnover margin in 2020. Miami also went from dead-last in points allowed per game to among the best and were also among the league leaders in third-down and red zone defense. However, underperformance by their defense – especially their pass rush, which is 30th in sack percentage – and injuries at cornerback have set back this unit severely, forcing Flores and Boyer to rely on zone coverage more and not blitz as much. Consequently, the Dolphins have dropped to the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category.
Miami is led in their secondary by cornerbacks Xavien Howard (who led all NFL players in interceptions with 10 last year) and Byron Jones – who are one of the better outside corner pairs in the league – and nickel extraordinaire Justin Coleman and second-year pro Noah Igbinoghene man the slot. The team’s safeties are former Patriots Eric Rowe and Jason McCourty.
At linebacker the Dolphins employ former Patriot Elandon Roberts along with Andrew Van Ginkel, Jerome Baker and rookie Jaelan Phillips, and their best defensive linemen are journeyman Emmanuel Ogbah and former first-round pick Christian Wilkins.
Given how often the Bills like to pass – they currently throw the ball on 57.3 percent of their offensive snaps – Miami may attempt to use defensive personnel that goes beyond the traditional nickel and dime formations. Last week against the Atlanta Falcons they utilized seven defensive backs quite often, could they turn to this approach again?
BUFFALO’S DEFENSE IS GOOD AGAIN – AND GOT REINFORCEMENTS
After a 2020 season which saw Buffalo’s defense start slowly and finish strong, this unit – led by stalwarts like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano and Jerry Hughes – is off to a strong start and closely resembles the defenses from 2018-19 that were considered elite.
In 2021 the Bills decided to heavily invest in upgrading their pass rush. Rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, along with second-year defensive end A.J. Epenesa and free agent signing Efe Obada have injected a shot of youth behind the aging Hughes and Mario Addison, and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is back to clog gaps against the run after opting out of 2020. These additions have assisted the team tremendously, as evidenced by Buffalo currently ranked first in pro football in points allowed, total yards allowed, passing yards surrendered and takeaways. They’re also sixth against the run and tied for eighth in sacks (the sack total would have been higher had they gotten to Ryan Tannehill, the most sacked quarterback in the NFL, in their last game – but they didn’t sack him once).
Those acquisitions also helped Buffalo’s defense terrorize Miami in Week Two to the tune of six sacks and three turnovers. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier creatively used many six and seven-man fronts along the line of scrimmage along with zone blitzes characterized by Rousseau dropping into coverage and Edmunds and Milano rushing the quarterback. Yet no one benefited more from the gameplan than Epenesa, whose nine pressures in Week Two was the third-most of any defensive player since last season (behind All-Pros Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt) and was the most by any Bills defender since Hughes generated 15 against the Minnesota Vikings three years ago.
Schematically, the Bills’ defense mostly relies on basic zone coverages after the snap but before the snap it is complex – safety rotations to disguise their coverages keep opposing quarterbacks guessing, selective pressure looks at the line of scrimmage and coverage exchanges at the snap are Sean McDermott and Frazier’s calling card (those blitz looks are usually in the A-gaps from their linebackers to confuse opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks).
The Bills’ defense is usually among the top units in the National Football League in usage of Cover Two, Four and Six, and are also in blitz rate. They mainly utilize nickel personnel, as evidenced by Buffalo using five defensive backs on 90.4 percent of their plays in 2020, the most in the league.
BILLS’ OFFENSE EXPLOSIVE
Led by quarterback Josh Allen and a cadre of talented wide receivers, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the NFL’s elite offenses for the first time since the K-Gun was running roughshod over the league 30 years ago.
Allen – last season’s runner-up for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player – set Bills’ team records for completion percentage, completions, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 2020. His improved processing skills, ball placement, patience within the pocket and touch on passes allowed Buffalo to become one of the most explosive attacks in pro football, and that success has continued into 2021 as the Bills have scored a franchise-record 203 points through six games (breaking the old mark of 200 in 1964).
His core of targets is deep and extremely talented. Stefon Diggs is an exceptional route runner (much like the rest of his teammates), excels in making contested catches and operates well out of bunch and stack formations. His presence along with physical youngster Gabriel Davis has balanced out Buffalo’s wide receiver corps already boasting veteran Emmanuel Sanders and crafty slot receiver Cole Beasley. Third-year tight end Dawson Knox is also enjoying a breakout season with five touchdowns in his last five games but will miss Sunday’s outing with a broken hand.
Buffalo’s offense is a Patriots-style system built upon concepts involving option and crossing routes from the slot, downfield routes from the outside, designed quarterback runs to take advantage of Allen’s mobility, deep dropbacks and alignments that create favorable matchups (and some trick plays with jet/orbit motion and sweeps with Isaiah McKenzie). They also used more pre-snap motion and expanded upon their play-action and screen game greatly – mostly out of “11” personnel groupings (one back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “10” personnel (one back, no tight ends, four receivers).
In fact, the Bills used multi-receiver sets so often that they lined up in “11” personnel on 71 percent of their offensive snaps and “10” personnel on 14 percent of their plays in the regular season. In 2020, they used four wide receivers or more 155 times – the second-most in the NFL – and they utilized someone in pre-snap motion 43 percent of the time, a huge increase from their 25 percent rate in 2019. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll also called for a passing play on first down 64 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Information – no team with a winning record in the last 20 years did it more often than Buffalo (so far that number is at 59.3 percent – fourth in the NFL).
The Bills’ offensive line isn’t made up of slouches either. Composed of Dion Dawkins, Jon Feliciano, Mitch Morse, Daryl Williams and rookie Spencer Brown (who is out for Sunday’s contest with a back injury), this unit can hold their own in pass protection and mainly execute outside zone runs almost exclusively to the left side of the line, along with zone read-options, pin-and-pull concepts, draw plays and split inside zone sprinkled in for running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss.
One area where the Bills have been surprisingly below average is in the red zone. Although they are tied for fourth in the NFL in touchdowns scored and lead the league in red zone possessions, once they do get inside the 20-yard line they only find paydirt 55 percent of the time – which is tied for 26th in pro football.
The book on slowing down the Bills’ offense – as evidenced last season in losses to Kansas City and Tennessee and in Weeks One and Six against Pittsburgh and the Titans – has been to rarely blitz, lean on zone coverage with a lot of stunts from defensive lines with mixed fronts and late movement in secondaries before the snap. This approach can hold Allen in check, will the Dolphins attempt a similar gameplan?
STATS AND MUSINGS
- Allen has compiled 21 games with a passer rating of 100 or better. In those games, Buffalo’s record is 19-2. He’s also 225 yards away from passing Ryan Fitzpatrick for fourth in team history in passing yards.
- Buffalo’s quarterback is the only one to ever have 80-plus passing touchdowns and 25-plus rushing touchdowns through his first 50 games. He’s also had the third-longest streak without throwing an interception in the red zone since 1991 (only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning had longer stretches of play with 242 and 217, respectively).
- Since 2017 the Bills are 34-4 when leading at halftime. They’ve also had a lead at halftime in 15 straight games, a league record.
- Hughes can tie Cornelius Bennett for fourth in team history in sacks with one on Sunday.
- Last week the Bills became the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to score 200 points and allow less than 100 through six games (the 2007 New England Patriots, 1999 St. Louis Rams, 1996 Green Bay Packers and 1968 Dallas Cowboys also accomplished the feat).
- Speaking of the ’96 Packers, no team has finished a season leading the league in scoring offense and defense since they did the deed. The Bills currently are tops in the NFL in both categories (their point differential is +105) and have become the 16th team in the last 50 years to do so (12 of the prior 15 teams to do it have reached the Super Bowl, six have won it).
- Against Tennessee, Buffalo scored 30 points or more for the fifth straight week and can tie the team record of six should they do it again against Miami.
- Buffalo’s win against the Dolphins in Week Two was their sixth in a row against the Dolphins, tying a team record that took place between 1987-89. It was also their largest margin of victory in a shutout since defeating the Indianapolis Colts 38-0 in Week Three of the 1992 season.
- Allen is 6-1 in his career against Miami having thrown 19 touchdowns and just five picks. If he gets at least two passing scores against the Dolphins this week, he’ll become the first quarterback with multiple touchdown passes against one opponent in his first eight games against them.
- Not only has Allen had success against the Miami, but Sean McDermott has too. His record against the Dolphins is 8-1.
- Look for the Bills to use multiple crossing routes on Sunday along with reduced splits along the formation to beat the Dolphins’ patented man coverage and mesh concepts to defeat their zone concepts.
- Beasley became the ninth undrafted free agent in NFL annals with 500 receptions last week.
- The Bills have accumulated 20 or more first downs in 22 straight games going back to Week One of last season. According to Warren Sharp, no other team in the NFL has done so.
- According to NFL Media Research, Diggs and his brother Treyvon’s touchdowns last week allowed them to become the first pair of brothers to score an offensive and defense touchdown since Vernon and Vontae Davis in Week Four of the 2009 season.
- This will be the Bills’ first game on Halloween since 2010 (their record is 2-4 on that day) and it will be their first home game on All Hallow’s Eve since 2004 against the Arizona Cardinals. Conversely, Miami has never lost on Halloween (6-0).
- The Dolphins come into Sunday’s matchup having lost 24 of their last 33 road games and six straight games overall since emerging victorious in Week One (three of those six losses have been by three points or less). Meanwhile the Bills have won nine of their last 11 home games.
- There were seven lead changes between the Bills and Titans in Buffalo’s last game, setting a Monday Night Football record.