If you’ve read my articles or listened to my podcast, you know how I became a Dolphins fan despite being born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. I won’t take you down memory lane once more, other than to state that I’m old enough to have recognized the Bills-Dolphins rivalry in the 1990s. When people ask me the AFC East Opponent I dislike the most, I always answer the Bills. I couldn’t stand Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Steve Tasker. I couldn’t stand them. They seemingly always ended Dan Marino’s best shot to get back to a Super Bowl for most of the early and mid-90s. As those players went away, so did the rivalry. Let’s not sugarcoat it; both teams have been pretty bad since 2000. But as you look at the NFL landscape heading into the 2021 season, very few teams have as talented a roster as the Buffalo Bills do. They’re back. The flag has firmly been planted in Orchard Park, New York, in what will always be known to me as The Ralph.
As I and many other podcasters and writers have spoken and written about, the Dolphins are seemingly on the way back. Under Brian Flores, they’ve gone 5-3 against the Jets and Patriots. But they’ve gone 0-4 against the Bills, with two of those games not being particularly close. The worst of those defeats kept Miami out of the playoffs last season. Miami’s since retooled the defense, adding key pieces in Benardrick McKinney, Jaelan Phillips, and Jevon Holland and loaded up on weaponry for Tua Tagovailoa with Malcolm Brown, Will Fuller V, Jaylen Waddle, and Hunter Long. They’ve added protection upfront with D.J. Fluker, Matt Skura, and Liam Eichenberg. Dare I say it, but this roster seems like it’s the best and deepest roster since the 2002 squad, which boasted seven Pro Bowlers: Ricky Williams, Jason Taylor, Tim Bowens, Zach Thomas, Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain, and Brock Marion. Williams, Taylor, Thomas, and Surtain were also 1st-Team All-Pros that year. Clearly, a loaded roster outside of QB.
That segues into what Miami’s trying to build this year. At this moment, on paper, Miami’s roster is pretty loaded, and the unknown is at quarterback. That’s nothing really new; it’s been that way since Dan Marino retired. This year’s 90-man roster seems more stocked with talent than we’ve had in a long while. There will be a host of guys that have starting or playing experience with Miami or another team that is going to get cut. That’s a fact. The roster is deep.
So, the question that begs being asked is: What does Miami have to do to catch Buffalo?
First, just given the way that the fan base can so violently whip itself into a frenzy, let me clear the air with my thoughts on Tua Tagovailoa. Those are:
Number 1: I thought he played well as a rookie, given all of the circumstances. Covid-shortened offseason, injury recovery, coaching, play-calling, the talent around him, Tua himself. All of it. I think he’ll take a nice step forward this season.
Number 2: Tua was my top QB coming into the 2020 Draft. He’s the guy I wanted. I didn’t have him ranked as high as Andrew Luck. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a Top 5 QB. I DO think he’s a guy that you can win with and win big with.
Number 3: Like it or not, I feel like Tua has a shorter runway than most QBs that have been selected in the top five, perhaps even in the first round overall. Miami’s got extra picks in 2023 for a reason.
Number 4: As it relates to this piece specifically, Tua only played in one of the four contests Miami lost to Buffalo, so the losses are not squarely on him. He had no impact in three of the games. Remember that.
With those out of the way for the moment. Let’s look at a few items that can provide some insight into how Miami can catch up to Buffalo. I’ll touch on the following topics and see what conclusions this data might provide us. For our purposes here, we’ll keep it on-field. In other words, I’m not going to compare Draft and Free Agency success because I think that can be sliced up so many ways, and there’s no real concrete data point that tells you who is better. The points I want to dissect are:
- A Statistical Comparison between the two teams.
- I’ll bring Tua back into the equation and look at Josh Allen’s career arch thus far, and we’ll see what kind of jump Tua needs to make.
- What happened to Buffalo in their losses in 2020? We’ll look specifically at the Titans game and both losses to Kansas City.
At first, blush, what jumps out at me most is this: Buffalo’s offense is better by wider margins than Miami’s defense is better than Buffalo’s. Miami’s offense needs to take a bigger step forward than the defense – that should be obvious – because Miami’s defense will only get incrementally if any, better than it already is than Buffalo’s defense. Right or wrong, the pressure is firmly on Tua Tagovailoa.
Digging in deeper, several things jump out to me. Let’s call a spade a spade; Josh Allen is really, really good. With Allen under center, Buffalo is averaging a full yard per attempt more on passes and 55.3 yards per game – essentially a full drive, on average – more than Miami. Buffalo also converts on 3rd downs at a clip 11% higher than Miami did in 2020. While not elite, Buffalo’s red zone offense scored touchdowns at a 3% higher rate than Miami did a year ago. This leads to more points per drive, where the league average is right around 2.5. Obviously, Buffalo did very well there a year ago, coming in at 3rd in the league, averaging nearly a FG per drive. That’s REALLY good. And, as you’d imagine, that leads to more points, where Buffalo finished 2nd in the league, averaging more than 31 PER GAME! That’s an outstanding mark and is touchdown more per game than Miami tallied in 2020.
I’m not so much worried about sacks in terms of pass-protection despite Miami’s number being higher. If you recall, Ryan Fitzpatrick took several sacks when he should’ve thrown the ball away. Tua took several sacks when he could’ve run or thrown it away. I couldn’t find a statistic for a unit of measure in terms of pressures allowed, but we all know Miami needs improvement there. That likely comes with the territory of having three rookie starters on the line, together, for large chunks of the year. Moving Solomon Kindley back to his natural left guard spot and Robert Hunt inside should help.
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) June 18, 2021
Defensively, Miami boasts some impressive numbers. No one denies that. They led the league in 3rd down defense and turnovers. They were best in the league in points allowed for a large portion of the year until that Week 17 debacle in Orchard Park. That said, the harsh reality is that Miami’s really only more than marginally better in two major categories: 3rd down defense and percentage of scoring (TD or FG) drives allowed. There’s not as much meat on the bone left in terms of Miami running away from Buffalo on defense, in my opinion.
If you listened to my podcast that was released on June 5th, I covered some of the reasons why Miami is behind in these categories, so I won’t beat a dead horse here. To summarize:
1) Buffalo is much more efficient passing the ball.
Consider: Of Buffalo’s top five reception leaders, four of them averaged at least 8.8 yards per target, and the one who didn’t, was RB Devin Singletary. Conversely, looking at the same metric for Miami, none of their top five averaged about 8.3 yards per target. The two who did were Myles Gaskin and Mike Gesicki. DeVante Parker averaged 7.7, and both Jakeem Grant and Lynn Bowden were below 7.0. In short, Miami didn’t get the ball downfield to the outside receivers anywhere near as well as Buffalo. And Miami didn’t generate yards after the catch to match the discrepancy. Enter Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle.
2) they’re much better converting third downs.
3) Defensively, Miami gave up more big plays in the passing game, and Buffalo is a big part of that.
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) June 17, 2021
Consider that Miami’s gotten more athletic at FS with the additions of Jevon Holland and Jason McCourty, and they’ve added multiple people with slot experience to compete with Nik Needham: both Holland and McCourty, Justin Coleman, and now Noah Igbinoghene is getting work thereafter not getting any work there as a rookie. They need to keep pace with Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, newly acquired Emmanuel Sanders, and TE Dawson Knox inside.
Based simply on statistics and having watched both of the losses to Buffalo in 2020, getting a better quarterback is a must.
When you look at how Ryan Fitzpatrick + Tua Tagovailoa did in comparison to Josh Allen, the numbers are pretty staggering. Keep in mind Josh Allen did this in 1.5 games, and I’m not counting another 160+ yards and a TD that Matt Barkley added. The numbers look like this:
Josh Allen did this against a secondary that boasted Xavien Howard – a Defensive Player of the Year Candidate, Byron Jones, Eric Rowe, and a front seven that boasted four players with 5+ sacks in Emmanuel Ogbah (9), Jerome Baker (7), Kyle Van Noy (6), and Andrew Van Ginkel (5.5). Josh Allen is very impressive.
We know that Buffalo went out and got Stefon Diggs for Josh Allen, and the two were magical together. Miami’s trying a similar path, albeit a year earlier in Tua’s trajectory than Buffalo did for Josh Allen, by bringing in Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle.
To make for a fair comparison, I wanted to showcase Josh Allen’s jumps from year one to year two and from year two to year three.
2018 to 2019 Improvements:
– Completion percentage rose 6% from 52.8% to 58.8%
– Yardage rose by 1,000+ from 2,074 to 3,089
– TDs rose by 10 from 10 to 20
– Interceptions fell by 3 from 12 to 9
– Yards per attempt rose by .2 from 6.5 to 6.7
*Allen started 11 games and played in 12 in 2018 and started all 16 in 2019.
2019 to 2020 Improvements
– Completion percentage rose 10.4%, even with 111 additional passes thrown.
– Yardage rose by nearly 1,500 yards from 3,089 to 4,544.
– TDs rose by 17 from 20 to 37.
– He threw one more INT across 111 additional attempts to go from 9 to 10.
– Yards per attempt rose by nearly 2 full yards, going from 6.7 to 8.5 yards/attempt.
Those numbers are pretty drastic, and in my opinion, shows what adding an elite weapon and better pass protection can do. Allen was sacked 12 fewer times in 2020 than he was in 2019.
A comparison of Allen and Tua from their rookie years looks like this:
As you can see, in three fewer starts and 30 few passing attempts, Tua appears to have a better baseline from which to grow from, statistically. If we extrapolate Tua’s year one to 13 games, it looks like this:
If Tua can improve by the same mathematical margins that Allen did from year one to year two, here’s what Tua’s numbers would look like over a 16 game season in 2021. Yes, I know there will be 17 games played, but I projected over 16 games for our purposes here.
Keep in mind; we’re just extrapolating Tua’s numbers based on the same improvement rates that Josh Allen had from year one to year two. I’d like to think that with the added weaponry Tua has, both his total passing yards and his yards per attempt will both increase at greater rates. I imagine that INTs will also rise, rather than fall, given that we’re projecting essentially double the passing attempts for Tua, based on his extrapolated year one numbers. I think it’s worth noting that 26 TD passes in a season would be something done by Tua in his second year; again, based on these projection metrics, that Ryan Tannehill only beat once as a Dolphin. Tannehill threw 27 TD passes in 2014 and only had one season in which he threw fewer than 12 INTs in 2018 when he threw 9. Tannehill only played in 11 games that year.
So, at least from a mathematical standpoint, if Tua hits the same improvement rates that Josh Allen did, we’re talking about him having a season that Ryan Tannehill could produce in his six seasons played as a Dolphin. That’s pretty impressive, to me at least. Now, that’s not to say that Tua’s numbers don’t improve at a higher, or lower, rate than Josh Allen’s. We can’t predict that. But, adding an additional 15 TDs to Miami’s offensive output would be huge! To give you some perspective, let’s assume that Jason Sanders doesn’t miss any extra points (why would he, he’s a 1st Team All-Pro?) and add 105 points to Miami’s total from 2020, which was 404. That would put Miami at 509, which would’ve tied Green Bay’s league-leading amount from 2020. Obviously, Miami had defensive and special teams scores baked into that 404 point total, and there’s no guarantee you can replicate that. But, what this goes to show is that an improved Tua can do a LOT of good for Miami in terms of catching up to Buffalo’s offense.
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) June 17, 2021
How the Bills Lost
While it’s fun to play around with statistical projects and what could happen with an improved Tua Tagovailoa, I also wanted to look at games the Bills actually lost in 2020 and see if we could pick up on things their opponents did to beat them. For the sake of brevity, if I haven’t lost it at this point, that is, I didn’t review their Hail Mary loss to Arizona. Miami can’t replicate Kyle Murray or Nuk Hopkins, so let’s not try.
With that in mind, let’s look at the Bills’ other three losses. They were:
Week 5 42-16 at Tennessee Titans played on Tuesday, 10/13
Week 6 26-17 vs. Kansas City Chiefs played on Monday, 10/19
AFCCG 38-24 at Kansas City Chiefs
The most impressive thing about this is that the Titans only had one singular practice – a walk-through at that – before the Bills game because of Covid-19 Protocols. The game was played on a Tuesday, which was only the second time in the past 70 years of the NFL that had happened. So, that’s an oddity. Two things stood out in their 42-16 victory over the Bills.
Special Teams/Field Position
As far as the on-field battle goes, the Titans absolutely murdered the Bills in the Special Teams/Field Position battle. Titans Punter Brett Kern had the game of his life, pinning the Bills at or inside their own 10-yard line three times, including once at their own three. Buffalo also committed a penalty on another punt return that backed them up, totaling four drives started at or inside their own 10. Ouch. Tennessee, on the other hand, started four drives in Bills territory.
Tennessee intercepted a pass that hit off the receiver’s hands-on Buffalo’s first drive – not Josh Allen’s fault. Kalif Raymond had a 40-yard punt return into Bills territory. Josh Allen threw a terrible interception to Malcolm Butler, who returned it 68 yards. Tennessee scored a touchdown and, on the ensuing kickoff, forced and recovered a fumble inside the Bills 20.
As a result of all those short fields, Tennessee was FANTASTIC in the Redzone, converting all six of their trips into six TDs! But so was Kansas City, who, in both games against the Bills, converted eight of 10 total red-zone trips into touchdowns. Combined, that’s 14/16 or an 87.% TD percentage.
Turnovers & Other Scores
This one’s a bit obvious, but combined, the Chiefs and Titans bested the Bills in the turnover battle. Those two teams forced five Bills turnovers while giving up just two (one by Kansas City in each matchup). Miami lost the turnover battle to Buffalo four to three over both matchups.
Miami also surrendered three defensive or special teams scores to the Bills – 21 points. Kansas City and Tennessee didn’t have any scores go against them.
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) June 18, 2021
Other Key Factors
Having watched all of these games, including Miami’s two losses last year, within the span of three days, some of the things I’ve noticed aren’t quantifiable by statistics. Some of the trends I picked up on were:
– Patrick Mahomes and Ryan Tannehill both made plenty of plays off-script, outside the pocket. Tannehill had a 23-yard scramble and also threw two touchdown passes on broken plays. Fitzpatrick and Tagovailoa didn’t play off-script anywhere close to that level.
– Kansas City especially was able to run the ball on Buffalo, racking up more than 300 yards in both games. Tennessee hit 139 rushing yards against the Bills, despite just 57 from Derrick Henry. Miami averaged just 84.5 yards per game.
– Both the Chiefs and Titans did considerably better and defending the middle of the field against the pass. Both teams played more than zone coverage than Miami. Miami played more man and obviously had the disadvantage in their week two matchup of having a not 100% Xavien Howard and lost Byron Jones on the game’s third play. Miami stayed in single-high and two-deep looks until the bitter end that week. They compounded their issues in week 17 by being ultra-aggressive. Still, Brian Daboll found a counter to Miami’s zero-blitz package – which wasn’t deployed in week 2 – and carved up Byron Jones and especially Nik Needham.
– One area in that Miami matched the Chiefs and Titans’ successes was in winning the time of possession battle in both games. The more you can keep Josh Allen off the field, the better. Kansas City had a whopping 37+ minutes TOP in their regular season win.
Offensively, Miami has to get better quarterback play, plain and simple. That’s the obvious one. Getting more of a run game than what they mustered in the two matchups last year is also imperative. Keeping Josh Allen off the field by controlling the clock is one way to prevent points. Hopefully, Miami’s revamp array of weaponry helps Tagovailoa achieve the consistency he needs when staying on-script and the potential for a better off-script offense like we saw with the Chiefs and Titans.
Defensively, Miami needs to find the right level of aggression. They level-rushed Buffalo in week 2 and paid. They were ultra-aggressive in week 17 and paid. The correct response is somewhere in the middle. With the additions of Adam Butler, who can help in the Odd Mac 0 package I’ve talked about on recent podcasts, and Jaelan Phillips, Miami is better suited to be able to win 1-on-1 pass-rush matchups. This will help them to find ways to pressure Josh Allen while only bringing four or five rushers.
Getting more consistent punting from Michael Palardy than what Matt Haack provided is a start. Not surrendering punt return TDs will go a long way too. Being able to flip the field and pin the Bills deep helped the Titans immensely. Unfortunately, Buffalo beat Miami at this game twice a year ago, forcing long drives. Being able to turn those tables on the Bills would help tip odds in Miami’s favor.
As I’ve mentioned on the podcast, the Dolphins offseason moves, from free agents to draft picks, align with the overarching philosophy of catching up to and defeating the Bills. In just a few months, we’ll get to see how much progress Miami’s made.