The Game Matchups Preview series is dedicated to breaking down how the Buffalo Bills match up with their opponent in every game of the 2023 NFL season. This series will look at five key matchups; Bills Pass Offense vs. Opponent Pass Defense, Bills Rush Offense vs. Opponent Rush Defense, Bills Pass Defense vs. Opponent Pass Offense, Bills Rush Defense vs. Opponent Rush Offense, and Bills Special Teams vs. Opponent Special Teams. This entire analysis will conclude with three sections; “Why Buffalo Will Lose”, “Why Buffalo Will Win”, and a score prediction for the game.
Below I present 2023’s 17th edition of this analysis for the Bills Week 18 clash with the Miami Dolphins. Included is my “patented” 👏 scale which ranks the advantage in each matchup from 👏👏👏👏👏 (Massive Advantage) to 👏 (Minimal Advantage).
Bills Pass Offense vs. Dolphins Pass Defense
At 6-6, the sentiment of many was that the Bills’ Week 18 game against the Dolphins would be of little consequence. Four weeks later the Bills sit at 10-6 with a winner-take-all AFC East title game scheduled in Miami on Sunday night. Surprisingly, the four-game win streak that got them here wasn’t spurred by Buffalo’s passing attack but instead by its reinvigorated defense and at times dominant ground game. Over that span, every aspect of the Bills air attack has been inconsistent including Josh Allen’s delivery of the ball, their receiver’s ability to catch, and the offensive line providing adequate time to execute specific play designs. Most concerning of all is that the connection between QB1 and WR1, Stefon Diggs, produced just 127 receiving yards during their winning streak. That needs to be remedied quickly if Buffalo expects to go on a playoff run, with its next opportunity to get right coming against a foe it has historically dominated.
That foe is a Dolphins team that despite injuries still has talented pieces on defense. In the secondary star cornerback Xavien Howard is unlikely to play with a foot injury meaning Jalen Ramsey and Eli Apple will likely be Miami’s starting boundary corners. At 29, Ramsey remains one of the league’s elite corners while Apple possesses some talent but is susceptible to major mistakes. Vic Fangio’s defense often keeps this position connected to the boundary meaning the Bills should be able to move Diggs, Gabe Davis, and Khalil Shakir around formations to produce advantageous matchups. Another matchup to keep an eye on will be in the slot where Buffalo will trot out any number of players, including rookie Dalton Kincaid (TE), to contend with Dolphins nickel corner Kader Kohou who is giving up a whopping 131.1 passer rating against this season. He will have some protection behind him though as Jevon Holland is one of the league’s most promising young safeties while his running mate, DeShon Elliott, is a hard-hitting weapon over the middle. This all sets up for a fairly even playing field in routes run with Buffalo’s one trump card being James Cook out of the backfield. Miami is currently giving up the third-highest yards per reception to running backs (8.92) which is something Buffalo may eye to get its passing attack in a rhythm early.
Where this matchup goes from a slight advantage for the Bills to a major one is in the trenches. Fangio’s defense is predicated on winning with a four-man pass rush which is a primary reason they rank #28 with a blitz rate of just 20.7%. When you have edge rushers like Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips that’s something you can get away with, but with both dealing with season-ending injuries the Dolphins’ current front four doesn’t quite mesh with what Fangio likes to do. That’s not to say they aren’t without talent, after all Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler are dangerous players on the inside whilst Emmanuel Ogbah, Andrew Van Ginkel, and Melvin Ingram are decent depth on the edge. The question is will that be enough to cause concern for an offensive line that ranks 10th in pressure rate allowed (18.8%) and a quarterback with a league-best sack percentage of 3.7%? If it isn’t, Fangio may need to shift from what he wants to do to what he needs to do otherwise Miami could be in for another game where Allen puts up big numbers against them.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏👏
Bills Rush Offense vs. Dolphins Rush Defense
Speaking of the Bills rushing attack, they have been good, but inconsistent. They are riding a seven-game streak of 100+ yards rushing performances while averaging 158.7 rushing yards per contest. That’s the good. The inconsistency comes from their lead back, James Cook, having as many games under 3.1 yards per attempt (two) as he does over 7.1 during that span. If the passing attack can’t pick up their level of play in the coming week(s) it’s this inconsistency that will ultimately doom them on offense. Assuring Cook gets going while he is properly spelled by Ty Johnson and Latavius Murray/Leonard Fournette is paramount for the Bills as they will look to establish the run against teams that they believe they can bully.
And the Bills believe they can bully the Dolphins. This is a team that has held opponents to just 3.8 yards per attempt, good for eighth in the NFL, while ranking 21st in rush defense DOVA (-7.4%). How is that possible? In 16 games this season they have faced just four teams that rank Top-12 in rush offense DVOA. Each of those teams finished with over 90 rushing yards directly contributing to the Dolphin’s 0-4 record in such games. Important to note, however, those teams didn’t win by rushing inside, they won by getting the ball outside the tackle box. The reason for this is the presence of Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler in the center of the Dolphins’ defensive line. One of the better defensive tackle duos, each has the ability to not only take on multiple blockers but push into the backfield on a surprisingly consistent basis. The result, each has 50+ tackles, 8.0+ sacks, and 11 Tackles for Loss. If Buffalo wants to establish the ground game, they need to run away from each of them, attack the edges, and get to the second level.
Reaching the second level as a free runner against the Dolphins is a recipe for success. Amongst their starters in the back seven only safety Jevon Holland has a sub 10.0% missed tackle rate (7.5%). Meanwhile, the Dolphins’ three likely starters at corner have a missed tackle rate north of 14.0% with Kader Kohou the worst of the bunch sitting at 15.1%. The good news for Miami is there is a chance that they will get their versatile starting inside linebacker back in Jerome Baker. His possible return would allow the Dolphins to pair him with David Long as a quality linebacker duo that otherwise would be forced to start journeyman special teams player Duke Riley again. The outcome of Sunday’s game could easily come down to this matchup and while Cook is likely to lead the Bills in carries don’t be surprised if Buffalo uses Allen’s legs early and often to test whether or not Dolphins defenders can slow him down.
ADVANTAGE: Bills 👏👏
Bills Pass Defense vs. Dolphins Pass Offense
When the Bills and Dolphins played in Week 4 Tre White and Christian Benford led the team in snaps played at outside corner. Before the final whistle, each player would end up in the locker room, White with a season-ending Achilles injury and Benford with a temporary shoulder injury. In the weeks that followed the Bills struggled to slow down opposing passing attacks despite Benford’s return. Then Buffalo made a move at the trade deadline, trading for Green Bay Packers’ defensive back Rasul Douglas, and things changed. Buffalo’s pass defense slowly regained its early season form playing more aggressively and without vulnerability in the zone vacated by White. Douglas has filled that zone exceptionally, accounting for four interceptions and two fumble recoveries while giving up just one touchdown since joining the Bills. Buffalo made the move for Douglas to slow down teams with exceptional air attacks, something the Dolphins possess.
Heading into Sunday’s affair the Dolphins led the NFL in net passing yards (4,347) and rank second in net passing yards per attempt (7.6). This should be no surprise considering they are quarterbacked by the highly accurate Tua Tagovailoa as he throws to two burners in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. On the season Tagovailoa has a respectable eighth-best QuBeR ranking (54.83) while ranking second in the league in yards per touch (7.29). This week though there are serious questions regarding who he will be throwing to as neither Hill nor Waddle participated in practice on Thursday. This would be a massive blow for any team but for the Dolphins the result would be losing 60.4% of their receiving production. Going into the game though expect at least one of these players to play, likely Hill, while Miami looks for production from some other personnel. That may come from blocking tight end Durham Smythe, long wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, speedy special teamer Braxton Berrios, or any of Miami’s speedy running backs. Injuries may hamper the Dolphins’ effectiveness but make no mistake they will be dangerous regardless.
Where Buffalo has a chance to decrease the Dolphins’ effectiveness further is in the trenches. The Bills come into this game ranked third in sacks (53) with players capable of getting after the quarterback from any position. That could be Leonard Floyd (10.5 sacks) or A.J Epenesa (6.5) winning off the edge, Ed Oliver (9.5 sacks) dominating up the middle, or through a surprise blitzer like Terrel Bernard (6.5 sacks) coming from the second level. The Dolphins tend to mitigate opposing pass rushes by getting rid of the ball quickly, which will become even more important this week with Miami’s injuries on the offensive line. Terron Armstead (LT), Lester Cotton (LG), Liam Eichenberg (C), Robert Hunt (RG), and Austin Jackson (RT) were all limited as of Thursday, that’s the Dolphins entire starting offensive line. That list doesn’t even include starting center Connor Williams and starting left guard Isaiah Wynn, each of whom are currently on injured reserve. Buffalo has a massive advantage in the trenches this week that if Miami can’t find a way to gameplan around could spell disaster.
ADVANTAGE: Dolphins 👏
Bills Rush Defense vs. Dolphins Rush Offense
The Bills 2023 rushing defense has gone through a similar arc to the Bills passing defense. Early season success met injuries in Week 5 when Buffalo lost both DaQuan Jones (DT) and Matt Milano (LB) for an indefinite period. Buffalo has maintained adequate play despite, thanks in large part to some depth players stepping in and stepping up, ranking 18th in run defense DVOA (-8.1%). This unit can be expected to improve in the coming week(s) however, with the surprise return of Jones to the lineup. Post rehab from a torn pectoral muscle Jones stepped right back into the Bills lineup against the Patriots, bypassing any idea of a limited snap count. Heading into a possible playoff run Jones can be a late-season boon for a defense that looks like it may be playing its best defense heading into 2024.
That defense will be tested this week against one of the league’s best rushing attacks. They currently rank fifth in rushing yards (2200), first in rushing touchdowns (26), and first in yards per attempt (5.0). They’ve accomplished all of this through a masterful scheme that leverages the speed and skillset of their two running backs expertly. The primary of those two backs is Raheem Mostert who at 31 years old is having a career year achieving his first 1,000+ yard rushing season while leading the NFL in scrimmage touchdowns (21). The problem is, he didn’t play last week and has yet to practice this week, bringing into doubt his availability against the Bills. That triggers more carries for stunning rookie De’Von Achane. In his rookie season, Achane has accounted for a solid 936 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns with his most stunning stat being his 8.0 yards per attempt. A 2023 third-round pick, Achane has leveraged his great contact balance along with elite speed (4.32 40-yard dash) to be another homerun threat for an already potent Dolphins offense. He is currently dealing with toe and rib injuries, but the expectation is that he will play and that he could singlehandedly change the outcome of this game.
That speed will put extra pressure on Bills linebackers Terrel Bernard and Tyrel Dodson to be patient and instinctive when diagnosing the Dolphins’ misdirection. Miami uses pre-snap motion at an unheard rate of 83.3%, leading all NFL teams. This is done to confuse opposing defenders and open up lanes not just in the passing game but on the ground as well. This obviously will make the jobs of Bernard and Dodson all the more difficult but will also force the other nine players on the Bills’ defense to maintain both lanes and contain integrity throughout Sunday’s contest. Add to that the occasional jet motion with handoffs to a wide receiver or Tagovailoa’s sneaky ability to pick a yard or two up in a pinch and it becomes a tough task to slow down the Dolphins’ run game. Miami wants to win games through the air but this week their best path may be by winning the game on the ground.
ADVANTAGE: Dolphins 👏👏
Bills Special Teams vs. Dolphins Special Teams
Oddly enough Tyler Bass may be having a better 2023 season than he did 2022 season when you consider kick distance attempted. It has by no means been perfect, but his 82.8% field goal rate and 97.9% extra point rate are solid numbers for the fourth-year kicker. As for the other kicking position, the much-maligned Bills punter, Sam Martin, may have saved their season last week against the Patriots. All six of his punts finished inside the 20-yard line, the most without one landing outside the 20 in NFL history. That’s the best of the Bills’ special teams though as their kick and punt return would be best served fair catching balls moving forward while their kickoff unit should kick the ball out of the back of the endzone to avoid game-changing plays.
That becomes even more important against a team like the Dolphins who has one of the best return men in football. Braxton Berrios is always a threat with the ball and despite his 24.5 yards per kick return average, and long of just 33 yards is not someone worth trifling with. The same applies on punts where Berrios’ long is just 19 and his average return is 10.2 but the threat and ability lay in wait. At kicker for the Dolphins is the ever-reliable Jason Sanders who has an 85.7% and 98.2% field goal and extra point percentage, respectively. He may not have the biggest leg in the NFL, but he undoubtedly has one of the most consistent ones. Lastly for Miami is its punter Jake Bailey whose 45.5 yards per punt and 42.0 net yards per punt are both solid for an offense that rarely needs its punter to flip the field.
ADVANTAGE: Dolphins 👏👏👏
Why Buffalo Will Lose
A team as electric as the Dolphins can beat any team on any day of the week. Assuming Hill does play he may just be the most unguardable player in the current NFL…if not in league history. His speed, agility, ball skills, and open-field shenanigans make him a threat to make a house call on any given play. Now add to that a motion-heavy offense that can break massive runs on the ground and stopping this team is very difficult. Their injuries are a major concern on the offensive side of the ball but with Tagovailoa’s elite quick release and the brilliant mind of Mike McDaniel, anything remains possible.
On the other side of the ball, it’s all about turnovers and forcing Allen into doing something he has been prone to do. The pass rush will likely struggle throughout the day but with talent like Ramsey and Holland behind them they should be afforded more time to get after the quarterback. As for slowing down the run, if Buffalo makes the mistake of trying to win up the middle Wilkins and Sieler will make them pay. Miami’s defense can make a game-changing play or two this weekend, and one may be enough to win this game.
Why Buffalo Will Win
In a game of this magnitude against the Dolphins you have to be willing to bet everything you’ve got on Allen. He has put up historic numbers against Miami in the first six seasons of his career and while the Bills offense has not been clicking as of late, this is the game it should click. Expect Allen to feed Diggs more than usual this week as he waits for one of his other receiving options to be neglected by the defense, that’s when he will pounce. Now add to that a rushing attack led by newly minted Pro-Bowler James Cook, and Buffalo has the talent at every position on offense to beat down a battered Miami defense.
On the other side of the ball, regardless of injuries, Buffalo matches up well with the Dolphins. They have the speed necessary at linebacker in Bernard as well as pseudo-linebacker Taron Johnson to mitigate issues in the middle of the field. Do that and force Tagovialoa to his second read while his banged-up offensive line contends with the vicious defensive line of the Bills and Buffalo could get to him more than any other team has this season. That means stopping the rushing attack will be a focus for Buffalo but with its ability to win up front and willing tacklers at every level, there is reason to believe it could dominate this game.
Prediction: Bills 30 – Dolphins 24
Miami is going to get theirs, that offense is too good not to, but this prediction comes down to Allen. Under the brightest lights, the Bills QB1 often shines and against the Dolphins it’s almost a foregone conclusion that he will. The pressure is ramped up on both teams but only one has proven that they are capable of handling such pressure in high-leverage games. The Bills go into Miami and steal the division from the Dolphins earning the second seed as they begin yet another playoff campaign.