BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Coming off an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, there is some hope bubbling under the surface for the Buffalo Bills. A 2-4 record is certainly nothing to get overly excited about, but they have continued to show fight despite the myriad of injuries that have plagued them throughout the season. With the team slowly getting back to full strength (with the exception of under center with EJ Manuel still out 4-6 weeks), there’s a chance that the remaining two-thirds of the season might have more success in store for the Bills.
In order for that to become a reality, however, the Bills are going to have to do something they haven’t done much of lately: win a division game on the road. Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, the Bills have won just three of their last 18 home games. That has to change if the Bills are going to keep their season on track as they play a road game versus the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
Return To Health
As mentioned above, the key to the game will be how certain Bills players are able to return to form following missed game time. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson missed last week and is expected to return this week, while cornerback Ron Brooks remains a question mark for Sunday. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, free safety Jairus Byrd and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin all returned last week after multi-week absences.
Goodwin contributed with a game-tying touchdown reception in the fourth quarter, which suggests that he might be able to quickly get back into the flow of the action, but Byrd and Gilmore were less effective in their returns.
Gilmore specifically seemed to be limited by a cast (that’s really more of a club) that he’s still wearing on his left wrist. It is unknown whether he will wear the cast again this week, according to WKBW’s Jeff Russo, so he’ll need to learn to be as effective with it in a crucial matchup against Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace.
Both quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and running back CJ Spiller were troubled by ankle injuries in last week’s game, but both are listed as probable to play Sunday. Since both have returned to practice this week, it’s likely they will suit up, but if Lewis is unable to go, it could force the Bills to turn to newly-signed Matt Flynn under center.
Can the Bills Get After Ryan Tannehill?
The one clear advantage the Bills seem to possess is with their pass-rush. The Bills come into the game ranked fourth in the NFL with 21 sacks. The health of defensive end Mario Williams and a more aggressive gameplan from new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have enabled the Bills to keep opposing quarterbacks off-balance throughout much of the season. It’s a change that could be a major factor in Sunday’s game, since the Dolphins currently rank 30th in the league in sacks allowed, with 24 surrendered in just five games. However, Miami is coming off a bye and likely spent much of the week working on ways to keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of trouble.
Will Thad Lewis Be Able to Game Manage?
Despite some late-game heroics last Sunday, Thad Lewis was only able to record a 16.2 QBR against the Bengals. While Cincinnati had a more fearsome defense than the Dolphins, this week will still prove to be a tough test for the former practice squad quarterback. He showed solid arm strength and beautiful touch on the deep touchdown to Goodwin, but the Bills don’t need Lewis to win the game for them; he only needs to keep them in it. He had one turnover last week, a poorly guarded fumble in the second half, but he is going to need to limit those in Miami, as one turnover could ruin any chance the Bills have to win.
Mike Wallace vs. Stephon Gilmore
One of the keys for the Bills will be how Stephon Gilmore can contain Mike Wallace. The deep threat, who was one of the major signings for the Dolphins this summer, has been inconsistent this season, with just two games over 100 yards receiving but three games under 24 yards. The Dolphins as a team, however, are tied for third the NFL with five passing plays over 40 yards. That is an area where the Bills have really struggled this year, allowing nine plays over 40 yards, “good” for 2nd worst in the league.
A lot of that has to do with the absence of Gilmore, Byrd and Brooks, but it’s still a troubling statistic. Despite his inconsistent performance so far, Wallace is still a legitimate deep threat, so if Gilmore can keep him contained, it could go a long way towards ensuring a Bills victory.
Dolphins Run Game vs. Bills Run Defense
When the football season starts, it’s easy to misjudge how a given unit will perform. For the Bills and Dolphins, this miscalculation has happened in the running game.
Many thought Dolphins running back Lamar Miller would be a breakout star this year, yet the Dolphins seem reluctant to give him the clear-cut starting job over Daniel Thomas. It’s just one factor that’s led the Dolphins to the 29th-ranked rushing attack, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.
The Bills run game has been about as dominant as the Dolphins has been inept, ranking third in the NFL with 148.8 yards per game at 4.3 yards per carry. Their rushing defense, however, has been another story. Coming into the season with an interior line led by Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, many thought the Bills defense would take a major step forward. While injuries have played a role, the Bills currently allow the fifth-most rushing yards in the league at 124.2 yards per game. When these two units go head-to-head on Sunday, something is going to have to give, and it could very well determine the outcome of the game.
Cameron Wake vs. Cordy Glenn
While some members of the Bills offensive line have struggled (especially left guard Colin Brown, who was released this week as a result), left tackle Cordy Glenn has taken his game to another level in his second season. Currently ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league’seighth-best offensive tackle, he has allowed only one sack and six quarterback hurries through six games.
Glenn’s play as the primary pass protector at left tackle is a factor that has becoming increasingly important, as the Bills have been forced to rotate through various inexperienced quarterbacks. Glenn get a real test this week as the Dolphins leading pass rusher, Cameron Wake, is set to return from injury. While the two won’t square off on every single snap, Glenn will most likely be left alone with him when Wake is on the defense’s right side, while right tackle Erik Pears will more than likely have extra help from a tight end or running back. Not fully healthy since week two, Wake has tallied only five tackles and 2.5 sacks this season, but is coming off of a 15 sack campaign last year. If the Bills can keep him out of the backfield and allow Thad Lewis to get comfortable, the offense will have a better shot at getting into a rhythm.
With the Bills defense getting healthier every week, the offense will continue to have to do less in order to keep them in games. They still allowed a deep touchdown last week, but Mike Wallace is not A.J. Green, and I think Gilmore and Byrd will be a little more polished and prevent those big plays this week. The Dolphins’ inability to run the ball effectively will also work in the Bills favor, so this is unlikely to be a high-scoring contest. The Bills have to overcome playing without Manuel, but if they can manufacture first downs on the ground, limit mistakes, and maybe use wide receiver deep speed to hit on one big play, they could certainly pull this one out. Call me optimistic, but…
Bills 20, Dolphins 13