By: Jason Sarney
The Miami Dolphins open Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday to play hosts to the Buffalo Bills and up to 13,000 fans. The home team will be one of the few franchises across the NFL to allow fans in the building. With the amount of work and preparation the organization did to literally be certifiably safe, you can rest assured that an equal amount of time and effort and care is being put into the on-field game-plan for tomorrow’s AFC East bitter rivalry.
During the week of preparation and Zoom sessions, safety and team leader Bobby McCain put it clear as day… “It’s a division rival game. They don’t like us; we don’t like them.”
The Buffalo and Miami rivalry is perhaps the deepest in the AFC East from the time of the 1970’s all the way to the key punches of this article. These key punches are a lot more vociferous from yours truly, as I had the pleasure of living in Buffalo for four seasons as a college student.
The animosity and hatred the Bills have for the Dolphins can be traced back to several justifications why. Namely, the 1970’s didn’t see the Bills defeat Miami at all. Not a single victory. The Dolphins went 20-0 in that decade against the Bills, and we all know a few more awards and accomplishments from that era for the Fins.
The 80’s arrived and a few season’s in saw the great Dan Marino done the aqua and orange. While taking a loss in his first match-up against the Bills as a rookie, Marino and the Dolphins swept them in three straight seasons from 1984-1986.
As the nineties approached, Jim Kelly’s K-Gun offense was rivaled to Marino’s lightning quick release and pristine delivery of the football to anyone who had an inch of a window to receive it. As the Bills became an AFC powerhouse with four unsuccessful trips to the Super Bowl from the 1990-1993 season’s, Buffalo ended Miami’s run twice en route to the league championship game.
The 2000’s were a wash at 10-10, and in only two occasions was there a split. Mathematically, that would mean each team swept the other, four times to open the century. The last decade has been arguably the darkest for Miami, and in terms of the Bills rivalry, the last time they got the better of them for a sweep in one season was back in 2016. The Bills finished 2010-2019 with a 12-8 record against the hated counterparts. The Bills did in fact sweep Miami last season, as the Dolphins were amid year one of their rebuild.
The next phase of this rivalry starts tomorrow as the 2020’s decade kicks-off. A rivalry that once again could see two quarterbacks amass dozens of battles against each other for years to come, yet that is not going to begin on Sunday, in all likelihood. This is still Ryan Fitzpatrick’s team, and although a lackluster performance last week up in New England, the former Buffalo Bill signal-caller is in major need of a rebound game.
The veteran threw three interceptions against the Patriots, and while one came on a loss of footing by target Preston Williams, his second pick was simply a poor decision and the game-sealing 3rd interception in the back of the endzone was not the best placement when considering the coverage. Mike Gesicki was clearly held up and a flag most certainly could have been called, however the interception stood and that closed the door on a potential late-staged comeback for Miami.
Finding a rapport with Williams and his other targets is paramount and that is clear from coach Brian Flores when he spoke to South Florida media this past Thursday. “I think it’s important to establish a connection with quarterbacks and all of the receivers, not just one in particular. That’s something that you build that rapport in practice, and hopefully it shows itself in the game. That’s why we go out there and practice.”
Fitzpatrick plays with a necessary short-term memory as a quarterback. An ivy-league mind that is sharp enough to remember and learn from, yet not dwell on past mistakes and losses. “The best thing that I’ve learned is just to pour everything that I have into the next week of preparation, into the next game,” he said. He added, “a lot of it for me is just the week of preparation and how we’re doing practice Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, the discussions, the communications, the talk, making sure that everybody is into it and everybody knows that this is a new week. Those are the type of things you really try to focus on after a bad week.”
The Bills enter Miami Gardens winners against the New York Jets last week, and they barely broke a sweat. While the Jets are looking perhaps worse than advertised, quarterback Josh Allen may be skewing north, and ahead of expectations. The mobile threat with a big arm has had his accuracy questioned, but former teammate and new Dolphins defensive end Shaq Lawson, is aware that this is a dangerous man.
“That guy got better every year and I saw that develop his first two years as a player. He’s a dog. I said that when I was there. The guy is a dog and that’s what you need at quarterback and things like that,” Lawson said with clear admiration for the young Bill.
With Miami allowing Cam Newton to run at will against them last week, Allen could find similar success unless something is done to spy the run-pass-option threat that he is. Perhaps the biggest key to victory is forcing Allen to beat the Dolphins with his arm, and not find repeated success with his legs.
When discussing Allen and preparing for him, first-year Dolphin yet AFC East veteran, Kyle Van Noy, echoed Lawson’s appraisal. “Just, Josh’s growth each and every year has been big. You can see his strides. His reads are getting better. Everything about his game is getting better,” said the linebacker.
For the Dolphins to have a shot at defeating the Bills, they must force Allen to take his own shots downfield. Cornerbacks Xavien Howard, Byron Jones and rookie Noah Igbinoghene enter the Week 2 contest as the number 1 pass defense in the league which is an odd and stark contrast to the unit being dead-last in stopping the run. Another oddity was the lack of even a single defensive snap from second-year cornerback Nik Needham.
While the Bills pose a similar threat as the Patriots did, expect more throwing and receiver usage with those Bills targets who could be very dangerous in Stefon Diggs, John Brown and slot-threat Cole Beasley. It would not be shocking to see more of Needham, as both Beasley and tight end Dawson Knox could pose potential problems for Miami in the middle of the field.
Flipping to the Bills defensive middle area of their unit, this is the exploitation situation for the Dolphins. Three total linebackers are listed as out for Sunday, Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano being the keys. Miami must take advantage of this, and Gesicki and Miami targets getting snaps in the slot should find openings to work and create yards after the catch.
The running back committee can exploit potential second-level entry with the limited linebacking group as well as an extremely presently surprising offensive line performance from week one. Matt Breida and Myles Gaskin each gained a respectable 4.4 yards per carry, although Jordan Howard will look to rebound from a perplexing Dolphins debut.
DeVante Parker left last week’s game with a hamstring injury although he started strong. He practiced on a limited basis throughout the week, and Flores did not tip his hand all the way during a Friday press conference.
“That’s probably going to be a little bit of a game-time decision. Obviously, he’s practiced on a limited basis all week. We’ll see on Sunday morning, really. But yeah, it’ll be a little bit of a game-time decision.”
It seems clear that Parker is in the plans for Sunday, as this Week 2 rivalry game to open a brand-new decade commences at 1:00 at Hard Rock Stadium tomorrow. As good a time as any for win number one.
You can follow Jason on Twitter @OrangeAquaman