BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
Coming off a 27-20 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Buffalo Bills (5-9) will be short-handed as they host the Miami Dolphins (8-6) on Sunday. The Dolphins have a chance to earn a playoff berth if they can win out, but the Bills will be looking to play spoiler and keep some positive momentum building into the offseason. It won’t be an easy challenge for Buffalo, who could be overmatched with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and others out Sunday.
Bills Are Banged Up Again
It seems like it’s been a common thread for the Bills all season, but they will head into Sunday’s game shorthanded at a couple key positions. After experiencing some swelling in his knee after suffering a left knee sprain against the Jaguars, Manuel will be held out of Sunday’s game, which means backup quarterback Thaddeus Lewis will go back to fill-in duty.
In four games for the Bills this season, including three starts when Manuel was out previously with a sprained LCL in his right knee, Lewis completed 60 percent of his passes for 652 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The 26-year-old Duke product began to get comfortable under center and looked fairly competent in his final outings.
Manuel, however, is not the only loss the Bills will be dealing with. After the death of his mother last weekend, Stevie Johnson has been away from the team this week and will not play. Without the team’s leading receiver in the lineup, Lewis will have to rely on Robert Woods, Marquis Goodwin or possibly even recently-signed tight end Tony Moeaki, who is expected to be active for his first Bills game Sunday according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills will be missing starting safety Aaron Williams, who is also listed as out on the team’s injury report after injuring his ribs against the Jaguars. Williams has had a solid first season at strong safety after being moved from cornerback, picking off four passes and making 82 tackles.
All told, the losses will be tough for the Bills to overcome, but they have had to play short-handed in many games this season, so it is nothing new.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins on a Roll
After winning three in a row, and four of their last five, the Dolphins come into Buffalo on a roll, and playing much better than they were in Week 7 when the Bills beat them, 23-21, in Miami.
Most of that success can be attributed to the continued development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Much like Manuel, Tannehill was considered a raw prospect coming out of college, and dealt with some ups and downs in his first season. His November and December stats, however, suggest he is turning the corner. Over his last seven games, Tannehill has completed over 65 percent of his passes, while tossing twelve touchdowns and only five interceptions. He has a 93.7 quarterback rating for the season and a 103.2 rating for the month of December alone.
With Aaron Williams out in the Bills secondary, Buffalo will need its other three starters — free safety Jairus Byrd and cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin — to step up if it is going to stop Tannehill’s hot streak.
Bills Trying to Learn and Grow as a Team
The Bills are one of the youngest teams in the league. With that comes a variety of issues in learning how to close out games and deal with the grind of an NFL season.
According to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, Marrone addressed the issue of accountability during an appearance on WGR 550 earlier this week.
”People talk about changing the culture, the only time they talk about changing the culture is when they win,” Marrone told WGR, according to Brown. “They say, ‘Oh man, that guy went in there and changed the culture.’ If someone goes in there and they don’t win, then it’s ‘That guy went in there and didn’t change a thing.’ It’s about winning football games and are you willing to do whatever it takes to win? When you say yes to that question then you have a chance.”
The Bills showed fight and toughness in Week 15 by closing out a close victory against the Jaguars, but they are going to need to do as Marrone suggested and continue to compete if they want to instill confidence going into 2014.
Bills pass-rush vs. Dolphins offensive line
One unit that has performed for the Bills all season has been their pass-rush. Buffalo leads the league with 49 sacks, including 16 in its last four games alone. Mario Williams remains the team leader with 12 sacks, but Jerry Hughes has also added nine and Kyle Williams has 8.5 sacks, among others.
The early struggles for the Miami Dolphins offensive line were well-documented, but the unit has been playing better during the team’s recent surge. That said, Miami has still given up a league-worst 51 sacks. Their recently improved play will be put to the test by Buffalo’s strong defensive line.
If the Bills pass-rush can keep Tannehill from feeling calm and collected, he might go back to making the same mistakes that plagued him early in his career.
Cordy Glenn vs. Olivier Vernon
The Bills offensive line hasn’t been as strong as initially hoped, failing to open up consistent running lanes and allowing the fourth-most sacks in the league, but left tackle Cordy Glenn has remained a strong point.
Ranked as the 11th-best offensive tackle in the league (ninth-best left tackle) by Pro Football Focus this season, Glenn has used solid technique and strength to make up for a lack of elite foot speed. He’ll have a tough test this week against Dolphins pass-rusher Oliver Vernon, who has accumulated 11.5 sacks and 50 tackles on the season.
With the Bills down a few key offensive pieces, they need Glenn to keep pressure away from Thaddeus Lewis if they have any chance of winning this ame.
The Bills showed some fight last week, and they still have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to keep things interesting. However, I can’t help but think that Marrone’s public discussion of accountability might suggest that he feels the need to remind his team about its value. With the Dolphins riding a hot streak and the Bills down Manuel and Johnson, I think the offense will find it tough going, especially if running back C.J. Spiller continues to hobble around with his ankle injury that has yet to seem to fully recover.
The Buffalo home crowd should keep the team in the game, and its defense should fight tough for a while, but the Dolphins are probably a bit too well for the Bills to keep up.
Dolphins 23, Bills 17