After a hopefully refreshing and enriching bye week, the Miami Dolphins are set to square off against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7. The Bills' trip to Miami marks the Fins' first divisional game of the season, and it's beginning to look like a must-win.
The Dolphins skidded into the bye week on a two-game losing streak after winning their first three. Battered, beaten and dejected, Miami entered its off week with a stormy cloud over its head, accompanied by doubt from disappointed fans.
Miami must come out and beat Buffalo to regain its momentum. The Dolphins are still (in this writer's opinion) capable of being a good team this year that finds their way into the playoffs. However, a loss to a wounded Buffalo team that's missing its starting quarterback would send Miami crashing down to Earth and lead us to question the makeup of this team.
On paper, the Dolphins appear to be the superior squad. To prove that they are, they'll have to win three crucial matchups on Sunday.
Jonathan Martin, LT vs. Mario Williams, DE
Whoever wins this matchup stands a good chance of winning the game. Scoff at first, but consider the Dolphins' protection woes after five games. They've allowed 24 sacks, which puts them at third most in the league. There's a good chance they'd still be leading that category had they played last weekend.
Meanwhile, Mario Williams is third in the league with eight sacks so far. Jonathan Martin alone has allowed six sacks. When Martin took over at left tackle following Jake Long's injury last year, the young tackle struggled against talented pass-rushers.
Williams holds a plus-1.5 pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Meanwhile, Martin holds a plus-2.8 pass-block grade, despite his six sacks.
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has looked like an improved and mature player this year, but the offensive line hasn't done him any favors. While not every hit he's taken has been on the line, the majority have been.
It's a problem when the guy whom a franchise is banking for the next decade is getting clobbered all game.
The Bills haven't been great against the pass this year, either. At 22nd in the league, they've given up 270.8 yards per game.
Tannehill is averaging just over that (276) per game. However, it hasn't always been enough to win, as shown by the Fins' last two games. In both those games, pressure was an issue.
Look no further than Miami's final drive against the Baltimore Ravens. Tannehill and company nearly mounted their second game-winning drive this year, but a sack on the final series pushed back Caleb Sturgis' field-goal attempt. The rookie missed his first kick as the Dolphins sunk.
With a pass-rush threat like Williams on the opposing side, it's easy to envision a similarly disastrous outcome this week if Miami isn't careful. If the Dolphins can't keep Williams out of the backfield and off Tannehill, they could find themselves on the wrong side of an upset.
Paul Soliai, DT vs. C.J. Spiller, RB and Fred Jackson, RB
The Bills come into Sunday's contest sporting the league's third-best running game. Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and quarterback E.J. Manuel average a combined 148.8 yards per game on the ground.
What has been a three-headed attack is now reduced to just two, but the remaining duo can still do plenty of damage.
Spiller leads the two in yards with 351, but Jackson's right behind him with 344. Jackson also has a better average per carry (4.6 to 4.2) and more touchdowns (four to one) than Spiller. Both backs have strong numbers all around, which makes the task of focusing on one nearly impossible.
The onus lies with Miami's entire front seven to slow Buffalo's running attack, but one player in particular will dictate how well the team does.
Paul Soliai is the Dolphins' 344-lb. road block in the middle of the field. He holds a plus-6.8 run-defense grade from Pro Football Focus, which is the highest on the team by far.
The Dolphins have been good against the run for most of the season (certainly not great, though), but they've allowed runners like Jacquizz Rodgers and Ray Rice to gouge them for big days. With their starting quarterback out, the Bills will likely lean on their running game to establish an offensive rhythm.
If Miami can stop Buffalo's ground attack, it stands a greater chance at pulverizing an already weakened pass game.
Lamar Miller, RB Vs. Kyle Williams, DT
The running game will be equally important for Miami on Sunday. While Buffalo doesn't have a smothering secondary (22nd in the NFL), Miami will need to establish a ground attack anyway.
This matchup is somewhat unique in that it isn't as crucial to the outcome as the others are. Miami has the potential to win this game through the air. However, the Dolphins' running game has oscillated between barely effective and nonexistent through five games.
In Week 7, Miami must come out and set the tone for its ground game for the rest of the season.
The Dolphins are starved for offensive balance. A respectable running game could take pressure off Tannehill while keeping the Dolphins multidimensional.
That starts with Lamar Miller. The second-year player still shares carries with Daniel Thomas, but you get the sense that he's only one big game away from establishing himself as the feature back.
A lot of that stems from offensive coordinator Mike Sherman's inability to stick to the running game. That must change in Week 7. However, that doesn't mean it will be easy. While Buffalo ranks 28th in run defense, it has a potent run defender in Kyle Williams.
The big man has a plus-7.4 run-defense grade from Pro Football Focus. PFF also has him down as recording 12 tackles and 14 stops that constitute an offensive failure. Simply put, teams don't have much success running the ball directly at Williams.
The Dolphins will want to get a push up front to keep him away from Miller as much as possible, although the runner will have to do his part as well to find open lanes and avoid blown plays.
If Miami can establish a threatening ground game against Buffalo, the offense could start to click more consistently.