Both teams suffered bitter defeat in close contests the last time they strapped on the pads—the Dolphins having dropped a 26-23 heartbreaker to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5 and the Bills having lost to the Cincinnati Bengals 27-24 in overtime in Week 6. Both teams will look to bounce back this week in an effort to earn their first win within the AFC East division this season.
Here, we'll break down everything you need to know heading into Week 7. We will take you through division standings and an updated injury report, and we will highlight the areas in which Miami must improve if it wants to remain a winning team.
The Miami Dolphins came a heartbeat away from having pulled off a complete victory during Week 6, without even playing a football game.
The New England Patriots—the AFC East division leader—spoiled the day when quarterback Tom Brady threw a game-winning touchdown pass into the hands of undrafted rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins during the final moments of their Week 6 contest against the New Orleans Saints.
That same day, the Buffalo Bills faced the Cincinnati Bengals, who were fresh off of an upset of the Patriots in Week 5. The Bills were without first-round rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, and starting in his place was the relatively unknown Thaddeus Lewis. The Bengals jumped out to a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, but Lewis managed to tie the game and bring the Bills into overtime where they eventually lost the game.
The New York Jets played and lost to a winless Pittsburgh Steelers team that was well rested coming off a bye in Week 5. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith seemingly continues to alternate good and bad performances. He put together an excellent performance to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5, but he could not build off of that success in Week 6.
The Week 6 results left the Dolphins 0.5 games ahead of the New York Jets for second place in the AFC East heading into this week's matchups.
The Dolphins' bye week came at a crucial time, as the team has suffered several recent injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Most of the players suffering injuries were able to convalesce during the week off, though, and have since returned to practice.
Defensive tackle Paul Soliai suffered a knee injury against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, and the injury kept him out of the team's Week 3 game against the Atlanta Falcons. He played well during the team's next two games against the New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens, respectively, but he was also a bit limited.
According to Adam Beasley of The Miami Herald, Soliai missed practice on Monday. However, that was due to illness, as his knee has recovered during the bye.
The big news for Miami is that corner Dimitri Patterson, who has played approximately half-a-game this season—yet intercepted the football twice in that short amount of time—finally returned to practice on Monday with the promise of playing against the Bills in Week 7.
On the other hand, the statuses of defensive end Cameron Wake and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are still unknown at this time.
Wake has missed the majority of the last three games for the Dolphins, as his knee injury happened at the very beginning of the team's Week 3 contest against the Atlanta Falcons.
He practiced with the team all week leading up to matchup against the New Orleans Saints in Week 4, but he was scratched from the lineup just hours before kickoff. He continued to practice leading up to the game against the Baltimore Ravens the following week, but he only made it through three plays before coming off the field with a freshly tweaked knee injury.
The good news is that, according to James Walker of ESPN, Wake appeared to be a full participant during both of the portions of Monday's and Tuesday's practice that were open to the media:
Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell whether that means Wake is ready to go in Week 7 or not. Even if he plays during the game, he may not be the same player.
Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe initially suffered a chest injury against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1. He played in each of the next four games with the injury, and according to Pro Football Focus, only missed one snap prior to the Baltimore Ravens game.
During the game against the Ravens, though, Ellerbe came off the field with his shoulder in apparent pain. He missed the remainder of the game but told Omar Kelly of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel that he expects to play against the Bills in Week 7.
However, he has sat out practice on both Monday and Tuesday this week, also according to Kelly, making his prediction a little less likely with each passing day.
What Must Improve
The Miami Dolphins may have already begun the process of improving themselves prior to the bye week. However, they must continue that improvement if they wish to translate their improved play into victories on Sunday.
Miami's points margin against its opponents had been slowly eroding for a number of weeks after a convincing two-touchdown victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 1.
The team barely outlasted the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, and many observers felt that the team managed to steal a victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, despite being outplayed in most facets of the game.
Then the dam broke on national television in Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints, as Miami was thoroughly beaten.
The following week, though the team lost a tough game against the Baltimore Ravens, the team played well for the entire game and brought the game to within a long field goal attempt that could have forced overtime. Some of the key weaknesses that had festered during the first three games and played such a large role in the team being blown out by the Saints began to improve against the Ravens.
The team had established a weakness covering backs out of the backfield. However, according to Pro Football Focus, they held Ray Rice to only 28 yards, despite the Ravens throwing the football to him seven times during the game. The team had also established a weakness covering tight ends throughout the season. Against the Ravens, though, the Miami defense allowed only two catches for 51 yards to tight ends.
Despite star defensive end Cameron Wake's absence for most of the football game, the Dolphins defense was able to pressure Joe Flacco on nearly half (16-of-35) of his pass snaps.
The Baltimore Ravens were a team fresh off an embarrassing and unexpected loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. Quarterback Joe Flacco threw five interceptions during that loss, but he and his entire championship-winning team regrouped and bounced back hard against the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens played playoff-caliber football against Miami in Week 5, yet the Dolphins absorbed the blows and kept the game to within a game-tying field goal attempt at the end.
That said, the one glaring weakness the Dolphins did not successfully address was the pass protection of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who took another six sacks during the game. That brings his sack total to 24 for the season through just five games.
The running distraction among the fan base is whether the sacks are the fault of the Dolphins offensive line or the fault of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Those who point toward Ryan Tannehill are bolstered in their arguments by the fact that, according to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill has been sacked on approximately 34 percent of all snaps during which he was put under pressure.
This figure is far off the mean for NFL quarterbacks from 2008 to 2013, which is approximately 19 percent. Furthermore, Tannehill has only been pressured on approximately 34 percent of his pass snaps, which is not an unusual number based on recent NFL history.
The data suggests that while Ryan Tannehill is not necessarily being pressured at an outlandish rate per pass snap, he is being sacked at an outlandish rate. Therefore, he must not be doing enough to avoid the sack when pressure comes.
On the other hand, there is much data to suggest that the Dolphins offensive line must accept some of the blame as well.
Using the same data from Pro Football Focus, we can construct a ratio of pass snaps during which Tannehill has faced pressure versus pass snaps during which he has held the ball 2.6 seconds or longer after the snap. Compared with other quarterbacks from 2011 to 2013, the ratio is extremely high.
Most quarterbacks are able to hold the football 2.6 seconds or longer on nearly half of their pass snaps. In 2012, the median percentage was just under 50 percent. What the above ratio means is that for every snap where Tannehill holds the football 2.6 seconds or longer, he will be pressured on one snap. This is a very strong suggestion that the Miami offensive line cannot hold its blocks as long as normal NFL offensive lines.
In some ways, Joe Philbin must be reminded of his experiences with the Green Bay Packers, particularly during the 2009 season.
That year, quarterback Aaron Rodgers took 25 sacks through the first five games of the season. Rodgers was only pressured on approximately 36 percent of his pass snaps, yet just like Ryan Tannehill in 2013, he was sacked on 34 percent of the snaps during which he was successfully pressured by the defense.
For Rodgers, that trend did not turn around until the 10th game of the season. However, when it did turn around, it turned dramatically. Rodgers went from being sacked on 32.8 percent of pressured snaps to only being sacked on 11.3 percent of pressured snaps over the final seven games of the season.
The question Joe Philbin must be asking himself is: what did they change that year and can the same work for Miami?
There are no significant, statistically-traceable offensive tendencies that changed from the first nine games of that 2009 season to the final seven games. The Packers ran the football about as often during the two periods, and Aaron Rodgers scrambled for yardage when pressured at the same rate during the two periods. His average yards gained per pass completion did not change significantly, nor were the Packers sending significantly more or less players out on routes during pass plays.
The one thing that changed for the Packers that year was simply the offensive line getting healthy, particularly at offensive tackle, and the pass protection improving as a result.
Left tackle Chad Clifton had missed about 4.5 games during those first nine games, and struggled dealing with injuries during some of the remaining games. Right tackle Mark Tauscher did not fully come back and play consistently until those final seven games, either. Players like Daryn Colledge, Allen Barbre and T.J. Lang struggled while trying to fill their shoes.
Aaron Rodgers went from being pressured on 34.8 percent of all drop-backs in the first nine games to being pressured on only 27.0 percent of drop-backs. Based on an NFL sample pool analyzed from 2008 to 2013, that is a very significant change in pressure tendency.
The above example suggests that if the Dolphins want Ryan Tannehill to make significant improvement in his tendency to take a sack, they must get better play from the players up front. Significant change can happen mid-season, but the quarterback must be met at least halfway.
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