The Miami Dolphins are 3-2 through five games. Fans witnessed a resilient team during the Dolphins’ 3-0 start, but a flawed one during consecutive losses.
It’s impossible to make any judgements regarding the success or failure of the team’s season only five games in, but especially before Miami faces a divisional opponent.
For it’s the six games the Dolphins will play versus the AFC East that could make or break their season. The stakes will be amplified this Sunday, as the rival Buffalo Bills come to town.
It’s an injury-depleted Bills team that the Dolphins have had two weeks to prepare for. A loss would be deemed unacceptable by the fan base, and it would certainly put Miami in a difficult spot heading into a tough two-game stretch versus the Patriots and Bengals.
Let’s break down the Dolphins’ five keys to 4-2 and their first win in the AFC East:
1. Stay committed to the run
The Dolphins have thrown the ball on 67 percent of their offensive snaps so far this season. They must try to drop that figure closer to 50 percent in the 11 remaining weeks.
A one-dimensional offensive approach puts too much pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a struggling pass protection to play mistake-free football for 60 minutes.
Staying committed to the run should be made a priority for the Dolphins in most games from here on out, but that will be especially the case on Sunday versus the Bills. Buffalo has allowed 124.2 rushing yards per contest this season, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Even if the Dolphins struggle to run on the Bills early, abandoning the ground game would be a mistake.
In Week 5, Miami only ran the ball twice in the entire second half, which allowed the Ravens’ pass rush to pin their ears back to get after Tannehill. And that resulted in three sacks from Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs, which ultimately stalled the Dolphins’ attempts to rally from behind.
Miami must stay committed to running the football on Sunday, and, in particular, look to give Lamar Miller, who is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, more than the 10 carries he’s averaging per game.
2. Make Thad Lewis beat defense
Thad Lewis — a South Florida native and the Buffalo Bills’ current starting quarterback — will play in his third career game on Sunday. That factor would appear to drastically favor the Dolphins’ defense, but Lewis played well versus a stingy Bengals defense in Week 6.
Still, though, Kevin Coyle’s unit must bank on that performance being an aberration in order to primarily focus on slowing down the Bills’ running game. Buffalo has ran for nearly 150 yards a game this season thanks to two potential 1,000-yard rushers in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Even if Spiller, who has missed some practice time this week with an ankle injury, isn’t 100 percent, Jackson is more than capable of carrying the load.
The Dolphins haven’t fielded the dominant run defense they projected to be despite three stout run defenders in Paul Soliai, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick at defensive tackle, which means they should look to stack the box with an extra defender on Sunday.
That extra defender will most likely be Reshad Jones, who has underwhelmed in 2013 after a dominant 2012 campaign. It’s time for Jones to be a difference-maker on Sunday, which should help the Dolphins’ defense live up to its potential against the run.
3. Don’t give up the big play
With an extra defender in the box to stop the run, Miami’s secondary will become susceptible to giving up the big play. Quarterback Thad Lewis, while inexperienced, certainly has the ability to throw the deep ball. He connected on two 40-plus yard strikes downfield versus the Bengals on Sunday.
Cincinnati’s defense trusted its cornerbacks to win one-on-one, and when they lost, Lewis made them pay on those two plays. But despite those two plays, the Dolphins should employ a similar strategy, which means cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Nolan Carroll and potentially Dimitri Patterson must consistently win their individual coverage battles versus capable Buffalo receivers like Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods.
If the Dolphins can contain the Bills’ backs by putting an extra defender in the box and can still limit big plays with one safety deep and single coverage on the perimeter, I have little doubt about the unit’s ability to hold Thad Lewis and company to one or two scores on Sunday.
4. Stay turnover free
The Bills rank 27th in total defense, as they currently concede 395.0 yards per game. But the unit’s ability to force turnovers has been a big reason why Buffalo has remained competitive this season.
The Bills have already forced 10 interceptions in only six games, which ranks second only to the Seahawks, who have 11 picks after forcing two in their seventh game of the season on Thursday night. And the Bills just recently got ball-hawking free safety Jairus Byrd back in the lineup. Byrd had five interceptions in 2012, including one on Ryan Tannehill.
In addition to their 10 interceptions, the Bills have also recovered two fumbles, which gives them 12 takeaways on the season.
The Dolphins are a better team than the Bills on paper. But giving away the football is an easy way to level the playing field. Miami has a +1 turnover ratio so far this season, and if they can remain on the positive side of the equation after Sunday, there’s a very good chance they will also be 4-2.
5. Contain Mario Williams
It almost appears to be a certainty that Bills defensive end Mario Williams will provide enough pressure to generate a sack on Sunday. He’s already sacked the quarterback 8.0 times in six games, but has yet to face an offensive line as flawed as Miami’s.
The Dolphins have conceded 24 sacks on the season; half of which, tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo are responsible for (6 each). Williams will rush from both sides of Buffalo’s defensive line on Sunday, which means he’ll look to continue exposing Martin and Clabo as two of league’s worst at their positions.
Williams is going to win his fair share of battles versus the two. That much is a given. He’s simply too talented of a pass rusher. But Martin and Clabo can’t allow him to be so disruptive that it becomes nearly impossible for Ryan Tannehill to establish a rhythm.
Limiting Williams to one sack and a handful of pressures should be the goal — a rather modest objective for most, but an ambitious one for Martin and Clabo.