Win Over Bills Shows Dolphins Have Talent on Defense Too

Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills QB Josh Allen
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 3 - There are teams that surprise us every year, who did enough in an offseason to make themselves intriguing but not enough for anyone to buy in blindly without some on-field proof. The Miami Dolphins clearly fit that bill. The additions of Mike McDaniel at head coach and Tyreek Hill at wide receiver were intriguing enough for us to offer tepid optimism, but there was no legitimate, earnest backing without seeing how this team executed on the field first.

Even with two weeks of game film and examples to parse through, there was still skepticism about how real this team was. After a Week 1 win over New England, Miami's 1-0 start could be hand-waved away, citing the Patriots' offseason disfunction and personnel losses. After a triumphant comeback in Baltimore the following week, the Dolphins began to look like they were for real, but there were still questions about the health of the Ravens secondary and speculation as to whether their coverage busts in the fourth quarter that led to multiple Miami touchdowns were fluky.

In Week 3, Miami hosted the Buffalo Bills and walked away with a win. There are still excuses you can throw at Miami, sure. The 85-degree, 90% humidity south Florida day presented mighty home-field advantage for the Dolphins, and they won't have that heat causing cramps and illness come winter. Even still, in the way that Miami won this game, it is getting harder and harder to deny the Dolphins as a true contender in the AFC.

It's in the way this Dolphins team won—or, rather, in the way this team did not win. Week 2's win over Baltimore was driven by an offensive explosion, specifically in the passing game. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finished that afternoon 36-for-50 for 469 passing yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions. Two of those four touchdowns came on passes 39 and 46 yards downfield, deep-arcing strikes afforded by elite speed at receiver in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.

This week was a very different story. Miami ran 37 official plays from scrimmage, throwing 20 times and rushing 17. The Dolphins could barely eclipse 200 yards from scrimmage (171 yards passing, 41 rushing) and lost the time of possession battle 40:40 to 19:20. Buffalo, on the other hand, finished with nearly 500 total yards (382 yards passing, 115 yards rushing), over a 65% pass completion rate, and 31 first downs.

According to Stathead, teams who posted at least 450 yards and 30 first downs on offense, allowed less than 250 yards on defense, and held the ball for at least 40 minutes had been 16-1 headed into Sunday. The last time a team lost under these circumstances was in 1996.

Despite allowing nearly 500 yards, this was very much a defensive win for the Dolphins. Throughout the first two weeks of the season, Miami has thrown the house at offenses, lining up six or seven defenders up at the line of scrimmage and unloading blitz packages at quarterbacks. Playing man behind this defense, Miami's defensive thesis has been "beat us before we get to you."

Through the first half, that's what Buffalo did. On the Bills' first drive, it took all of two plays for Buffalo to get to Miami's 28-yard line. Just over three minutes into the second quarter, Buffalo had found their way into Miami's end zone twice, with a pass longer than 25 yards on both of their scoring drives.

In the second half, that defensive approach completely flipped for Miami. The Dolphins would still roll white jerseys up to the line of scrimmage, but they would instead drop seven players into coverage at the snap of the ball. This completely shifted Buffalo's game plan toward running slow, methodical marches downfield. Buffalo's first drive out of halftime was a 20-play, 87-yard crawl. Instead of targeting Gabriel Davis and Stefon Diggs (while he was still in the game) downfield, Josh Allen instead relied on shorter passes to slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie and Buffalo's running backs to get the ball out quickly.

While Hill, Tagovailoa, and Waddle have stolen much of the public spotlight early this season, the defensive personnel for Miami deserves all the praise in this game. Dolphins safety Jevon Holland was everywhere Sunday, finishing the afternoon with 10 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pair of pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Using Holland as an extra blitzer off the edge helped Miami get pressure on Allen, and his strip-sack set the Dolphins up with a goal-to-go opportunity early.

Holland also made crucial plays in the secondary, breaking up a deep pass to Diggs on the first play of Buffalo's final drive. His athleticism as a second-year player jumps out on tape, and he has already shown to be a versatile tool in the Miami defense.

In terms of offseason acquisitions, not enough has been made of what Miami added to their defense through free agency this year. Melvin Ingram was a late add, and this game alone would be enough to prove his worth. Ingram flashed mostly as a pass-rusher, finishing the afternoon with two quarterback hits, two sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery on the day. His awareness, though, is the player who has been on four teams in three seasons and succeeded at every new destination. Lining up on the right edge of the defensive line, Ingram rushed Allen, recognized that the ball was passed, and pursued Isaiah McKenzie all the way to the left sideline to prevent McKenzie from getting out of bounds. That essentially clinched the game for Miami as Buffalo failed to stop the clock the next play, running out of time.

Let's not forget Keion Crossen, either. Crossen signed with the Dolphins as a backup cornerback and special teamer. He made plays in both phases of the game, making a great recovery on a punt to pin Buffalo at their own 2-yard line, then breaking up an almost-certain touchdown catch by Gabriel Davis that eventually led to the Bills settling for a field goal.

Notice how there has been very little mention of the Dolphins offense thus far. This isn't to discredit Tagovailoa, who posted a quality 67.2% single-game passing DVOA against the Bills defense, or minimize the impact of that deep post reception by Waddle. McDaniel, Tagovailoa, Hill, Waddle, and the rest of the Dolphins spent the first two weeks of the season proving that their offense was good enough to win. This week was about changing the script and proving they have the defensive personnel to win games.

This game puts Miami on the map not only because they beat the best team in football, but because they did so in a way we had not considered previously. That's what makes the Dolphins truly threatening.

By the VOA

BUF 11.5% 20.4% -10.9% -19.9%
MIA 26.2% 12.5% 1.1% 14.8%

Buffalo's low special teams DVOA is mainly driven by their missed 38-yard field goal attempt, a huge play in a game decided by two points.

The Bills also posted their worst offensive DVOA in the red zone thus far this season. Buffalo converted their first two trips inside the 20 into touchdowns but failed to do so again the rest of the game. In the second half, the Bills elected to kick field goals from Miami's 11- and 20-yard lines and also turned the ball over on downs at the 2-yard line.

BUF Offensive DVOA in Red Zone, By Week

  • Week 1: 21.5%
  • Week 2: 29.2%
  • Week 3: -46.2%

Hunting the Buffalo to Extinction

This is not a Week 3 obituary for the Buffalo Bills. Far from it, in fact. Did you miss the part where Buffalo possessed the ball for 40 minutes and accrued nearly 500 yards on offense? The Bills are still a great football team and remain a favorite to take the AFC. But this is the first time they have looked truly mortal this season.

Dominance is a fickle state of being. In a game as seemingly random as football, it's a rarity to see teams maintain a long stretch ahead of the rest of the pack. With two prime-time drubbings to their name through the first two weeks, Buffalo looked like one of the most complete teams in recent memory.

It doesn't take long for that veneer to peel back, though. Injuries have piled up quickly in Buffalo. Micah Hyde is done for the year, and Dane Jackson is still recovering from the gruesome hit he took in Week 2. Couple that with Tre'Davious White still sidelined, Jordan Poyer ruled out of this game, and Christian Benford breaking his hand in the first half, and a once-dominant Buffalo secondary is a shell of its former self. Losing Mitch Morse and being forced to play with a backup center resulted in multiple fumbled snaps, including one that prohibited Allen from spiking the ball at the end of the first half for a field goal.

The injuries and fatigue were exacerbated by a hot Miami sun. The Bills lost Diggs for stretches due to cramps, and Spencer Brown could not return to action after suffering from heat illness. There's something that made the Bills' blue uniforms look so out of place on that sweltering Hard Rock Stadium field. Their sideline was exposed to sun the entire game, slow-roasting them for three straight hours. That, coupled with their own long offensive drives in the second half, tired the Bills out by the end of play.

Yes, it's a one-off result in an environment that only exists for a quarter of the NFL season, but it offered a potential foreshadowing of how things could go. How effective is this Buffalo team if their top receiving option goes down? Can Josh Allen survive under pressure if his offensive line has some temporary plug-ins? Injuries are a part of the game, but how teams are equipped to respond to them can spell the difference between remaining championship contenders and an early January exit.

In the end, a loss like this in the fashion it happened is probably good for the Bills long-term. The second-half adjustments Miami forced Buffalo to make will prepare the Bills to react to game-plan changes on the fly. The crippling clock management mistakes at the end of both halves should be evidence enough to ensure they never happen again. Most importantly, the Bills now have an excuse to call themselves underdogs again. While they functionally operated as a human buzzsaw for the first two weeks of the season, a loss like this takes away all the pretense of the last two weeks. Losing to a team like this—a team in their own division, to boot—puts the Bills back in the role of scrappy underdog, the position they have thrived in throughout the Josh Allen-Sean McDermott era.


6 comments, Last at 28 Sep 2022, 1:47pm

#1 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 27, 2022 - 4:14pm

No team is immune to an injury apocalypse.

If you're down 5 DBs, two linemen, and two WRs -- you're probably in trouble.

\Maybe prime Manning could have pulled that out, but even his best years required Bob Sanders

Points: 0

#2 by sgonk // Sep 27, 2022 - 4:24pm

The title is a bit confusing. Good article though!


Edit: thanks for updating the title.

Points: 0

#3 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 27, 2022 - 6:39pm

>"the Bills back in the role of scrappy underdog"

>"The Dolphins are overrated. Bills still no.1"


Points: 0

#4 by Mike B. In Va // Sep 28, 2022 - 11:37am

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

The rest of the football world seems to already be dismissing Buffalo, so he has a point.

Points: 0

#5 by PatD86 // Sep 28, 2022 - 12:11pm

Is there any record of a game where the losing team was as box score dominant as the Bills were against the Dolphins? They held the ball for 40 minutes, outgained Miami by nearly 300 yards, and ran more than twice as many plays. Personally can't think of a game like it but would be interested to know of another example.

Points: 0

#6 by Vincent Verhei // Sep 28, 2022 - 1:47pm

Stathead lists eight games where teams outgained their opponents by at least 300 yards and lost.

The record is +382 by the 2000 New York Jets against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens were outgained 524 to 142 and lost the first down battle 22-5, but they got a safety, a 98-yard pick-six by Chris McAlister, and two Jermaine Lewis punt return touchdowns in a 34-20 win.

Points: 0

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