Despite preseason predictions of doom and a relatively unimpressive 2-4 regular-season record, the Buffalo Bills, regardless of much the odds may be stacked against them, have established a strong pattern of playing their opponents tough.
The Bills came within a field goal of beating the New England Patriots. They brought the Cincinnati Bengals into overtime before losing. They were tied with both the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns during the fourth quarter. They beat the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers.
By no means can Miami Dolphins fans show up at Sun Life Stadium in Week 7 expecting their team to play a pushover opponent. Here we will focus on how the Miami Dolphins should look to attack Buffalo, on both sides of the ball, so they can come away victorious in front of the home crowd. As you will see, the key to outpacing the Bills will involve a reemphasis on conservative, fundamentally sound football.
*All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus, unless otherwise noted.
When Buffalo Has the Ball
The Buffalo Bills go into Miami as a bit of an unknown because of the inexperience their quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who will play in only his third NFL game of his career against the Miami Dolphins.
Teams facing the second-year Lewis have very little game film on which to determine his abilities and tendencies. Despite this, the Cincinnati Bengals defense did an excellent job defending Lewis with the exception of about three plays.
Those three plays included Lewis' very first pass of the game, a 47-yard strike down the left sideline to speedy wide receiver T.J. Graham. On that play, the Bengals approached the 3rd-and-4 with a single high safety. Perhaps the alignment was a case of the Bengals testing Lewis and his receivers early; in order to complete this pass, Graham would have to beat Adam Jones in single coverage and Lewis would have to hit him in stride.
Later in the game, Lewis would throw a 22-yard touchdown to tight end Scott Chandler, as well as a 40-yard touchdown to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. Both of these passes also came against aggressive coverage schemes.
Despite a foot injury of unknown severity, Lewis still should put his mobility on display against the Dolphins. Against the Bengals, Buffalo moved the pocket and ran option plays, quarterback draws, screen plays and bootlegs all in an attempt to simplify the game plan and take advantage of Lewis' athleticism.
The dilemma for Miami will be figuring out the best way to pressure Lewis. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Bengals blitzed Lewis only five times last week. That may have been a wise choice, as Lewis completed three out of four passes for 109 yards and two touchdown passes.
|QB Thaddeus Lewis versus the Blitz 2012-13|
|Pro Football Focus|
Cincinnati may have gone with a conservative game plan against Lewis based on how he played against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 of the 2012 season. During that game, Lewis compiled a 105.7 passer rating against the Steelers' blitz packages.
The blitzes, aggressive coverage and offensive simplification helped to cover up an ugly truth for the Buffalo Bills, which is that the team's receivers are not doing a great job of getting open or creating opportunities underneath shell coverage schemes.
When the Cincinnati Bengals did not blitz Lewis, they held him to 107 yards on 28 pass attempts and sacked him four times. Accounting for both scramble yardage and sack yardage, the Bills gained a net average of 2.7 yards per pass play when the Bengals did not call a blitz.
Without that 47-yard strike on the first pass of the game against an aggressive single-high-safety look, that average goes down to a mere 1.4 net yards per pass play.
Some of that is misleading. The Bills focused on high-percentage passes and using an effective ground game to set up shorter, more manageable third-down opportunities.
The plan worked for much of the game, as the Bills faced only three 3rd-and-long situations. On the other 14 third downs, the average distance to convert was 3.0 yards.
Another reason the blitz can be dangerous is the Bills' ground game, which features backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. With a mobile quarterback in the game, the Bills have installed a run game that utilizes options and draw plays out of the shotgun to attack the defense.
If the Dolphins defense is blitzing linebackers from the outside, the Bills have the ability to challenge the middle which may be tougher to defend if vacated due to the blitz. The Dolphins like to show a lot of double A-gap pressure at the snap. If they blitz up the middle, Buffalo's backfield—using a combination of option plays and draw plays—has the ability to bounce the football outside.
What the Bills offense does not seem to be able to do very well is line up in power or base formations and run the football against a defense's base personnel. This makes it difficult for them to execute in the red zone; they found this out against the Bengals, when they failed to punch the football into the end zone on four straight plays after starting with a 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line.
Expect the Bills to stick mostly with a nontraditional approach to the run game that keeps Miami's nickel defense on the field.
The Dolphins can combat this by sticking more defensive backs in the box. However, that brings us back to the original danger established on the first pass play of the Bills game against Cincinnati. Lewis was able to create 109 yards on three pass plays by finding mismatches against aggressive, undermanned coverage schemes.
The Dolphins would be better off sitting their coverage players back in a zone, forcing the Bills to undertake long drives and execute inside the red zone.
If Miami's offense is able to complement this bend-but-don't-break approach on defense by putting points on the board early, the Bills could find themselves in a rare position this season: out of a game before the fourth quarter starts.
When Miami Has the Ball
The Miami Dolphins need to focus on protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The sacks have become a problem for the offense.
The question is, how much of a problem?
Though Miami fans may hate sacks taken by the Dolphins offense, Miami coaches are not likely to care as much about them when they come on third down. According to ESPN’s statistics, Tannehill has taken 11 sacks on third down. Third-down quarterback takedowns are no more drive-killing in nature than a simple incomplete pass.
The only area of the field in which a third-down sack is unacceptable is a narrow 10-yard sliver between the opponent's 25-yard and 35-yard lines. If the offense is within that range, a sack could impact the team's chances of hitting a field goal. A quarterback has to know this.
Outside of this specific situation, third-down sacks are relatively inconsequential when compared with, for example, a throwaway.
On the other hand, Miami has taken 13 sacks on first and second downs. These losses are much more impactful, as the loss of yardage—which according to NFL.com’s statistics has averaged about six yards for Tannehill this season—will impact the chances of converting on third down. The chances of the offense converting off 3rd-and-6 are a lot higher than the chances of converting on 3rd-and-10.
One easy way that Miami can reduce the number of sacks on first and second downs is rather simple: run the football on those downs.
According to ESPN's figures, Ryan Tannehill has thrown on first and second down 159 times, whereas tailbacks Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas have run the football only 72 times on those downs. This ratio is far too lopsided. You can reduce the number of drive-damaging sacks simply by having Tannehill throw the football less on these downs.
The Dolphins can reduce drive-killing sacks is by utilizing misdirection on their first- and second-down passing plays. By throwing more screen passes to the backs, tight ends and wide receivers, the Dolphins can cause the Bills defensive linemen to think more. This causes hesitation, and will make them less effective when the Dolphins do call for a downfield pass on first or second down.
Screens are not the only way to accomplish this. The Dolphins do not utilize enough play-action passing. This is confusing, because Tannehill is particularly effective on play-action passes. In 2012, he had the second-highest passer rating on such passes among qualified quarterbacks. Though his ranking has fallen to tenth in the league in 2013, he still has a 108.8 passer rating.
Despite this strength, the Tannehill throws fewer play-action passes than all but seven NFL quarterbacks, according to PFF metrics.
Such plays can reduce the potential for sacks on first and second downs by causing defensive linemen to hesitate as they tighten up their gap defense. Play-action also allows the quarterback to bootleg to one side of the field.
Effective play-action will be necessary against Buffalo. The Bills boast two of the best defensive tackles in the league in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, as well as one of the best defensive ends in the league in Mario Williams. The team’s acquisition of pass-rush specialist Jerry Hughes also paid dividends.
Bills rookie linebacker Kiko Alonzo is in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has four interceptions in only six games. The Dolphins must take note of this and be careful testing him in coverage.
However, it is important to note that his interception against the Panthers, against the Jets and one of his interceptions against the Baltimore Ravens all came in the middle of the field, within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. His other interception against the Ravens happened in this intermediate area in the center of the field.
About one-quarter of Ryan Tannehill’s "aimed" passes are thrown into the shallow middle. Those throws only gain an average of about 5.9 yards per attempt.
On the other hand, using the same data we see that Tannehill averages 7.9 yards per attempt on the perimeter of the field, outside the numbers.
|Buffalo Pass Defense by Area of the Field|
|All Other Areas||159||93||1401||11||5|
|Pro Football Focus|
According to PFF's data, the Bills defense has allowed 37 of 57 “aimed” passes to be completed for 328 yards in that shallow middle area, but it allowed only one touchdown while intercepting five passes.
The resulting 49.5 passer rating is far worse than the 97.5 passer rating the Bills defense has allowed to all other sections of the field. The Dolphins should therefore be careful when passing into shallow center area of the field.
The Dolphins should be able to win this game if they stick to fundamentally sound football. They will face a backup quarterback and have the advantage of playing in front of a home crowd.
The Miami defense must focus on not allowing big plays. It must pressure Lewis, create hesitation on his part and create turnovers as a result. The Miami offense must renew its effort to establish a run game on first and second downs and, when throwing the ball, avoid the strengths of Buffalo's pass defense.
If the Dolphins are able to play mistake-free football, they should outlast the Bills and put the game away in the fourth quarter.