As difficult as the defeat was for Head Coach Dick Jauron's rebuilding Bills, the fact that they were able to play as well as they did on the road against a team that has won 3 Super Bowls and 5 division crowns in the last five years and had their opportunities to win the game, has to be a confidence-builder for the team and has given hope to many of their fans. Conversely, the loss that Miami suffered a week ago Thursday to a Pittsburgh team that was without it's starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in which new Miami QB Daunte Culpepper threw two crucial fourth quarter interceptions, has made this home game against the Bills an almost "must-win" game for Miami Head Coach Nick Saban's Dolphins who have high post-season expectations and some observers have made a chic pick to make it to the Super Bowl.
The young Bills, who still have a long way to go before they become a chic pick to make it to a Super Bowl, are likely to again be without linebacker Takeo Spikes, the emotional leader of their defense who was lost to a hamstring injury on the second series of the game against New England after his sack of Tom Brady resulted in a fumble that LB London Fletcher-Baker returned for a touchdown on the first play of the game. Spikes is questionable and unlikely to play much, if at all, while fellow veteran and team leader Troy Vincent, who also went down with a hamstring injury on the second defensive series against the Pats, will miss the rest of the Bills' season after being put on injured reserve. That means that Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell's defense, which at times had five rookies on the field at the same time against the Pats, may well feature four rookie starters, including two rookie safeties, against the Dolphins' offense which is led by Miami Offensive Coordinator Mike Mularkey, who was the Bills Head Coach last season and resigned after new Bills' GM Marv Levy was hired. While none of the current Bills has been willing to say anything negative about Mularkey this week, it is well known that Bills starting running back Willis McGahee and others who were with the team last season were not particularly fond of Mularkey's play-calling or the way that he ran the team when he was with the Bills. That should make for an interesting sub-plot to what looks to be a very competitive game between two bitter division rivals.
The Buffalo Bills Offense vs the Miami Defense:
While the Bills offense only accounted for 10 points against the Patriots and yielded what turned out to be the decisive points on a fourth quarter sack of QB JP Losman for a safety, there was a lot to like in the performance of the Bills new offense run by OC Steve Fairchild, especially in the first half.
Despite taking two critical sacks and not having a very impressive stat line, Losman looked like a solid NFL quarterback leading his team and not at all like he did last season. He completed more passes, and a higher percentage of his passes for more yards and finished the game with a higher QB rating than Pats' QB Tom Brady. With the Pats double-covering Lee Evans most of the game, Losman spread the ball around, completing 15 of his 23 passes to seven different receivers for 164 yards, with no turnovers. He showed an amazingly strong arm on some passes, zipping the ball into his receivers in the blink of an eye, and made some very good plays, including recovering a bad snap out of the shotgun formation from center Melvin Fowler and winging a bullet to Josh Reed on the run for a 20 yard gain on the Bills first offensive possession. Still, Losman did make some mistakes and was unable to lead the Bills to a victory after taking them out to a 17-7 halftime advantage.
While some have blamed Losman for not throwing the ball away and taking the sack in the end zone that gave the Patriots the decisive points in the game, it is difficult to reasonably understand how he was supposed to get rid of the ball without getting called for intentional grounding when there were three Pats' pass-rushers around him and in his face almost immediately. The same holds true of the sack that Losman took on the Bills' last possession of the game after Losman's throw to Peerless Price to convert a critical third down that would have kept that drive alive was wiped out by a block-in-the-back call on tight end Robert Royal. When given time by his offensive line, Losman played well, but there was little that he could do when his protection broke down. The fact that the defense could not get him the ball back and give him more opportunities to put points on the board magnified Losman's mistakes.
Nevertheless, it was an encouraging first outing of the season for the Bills' young QB, who showed improvement over his performances of last year and even in the preseason. He will have to show continued improvement this week against a Miami secondary that is perhaps the weakest part of a very good defense. With three new starters last week, in cornerbacks Will Allen, Andre Goodman and free safety Reynaldo Hill, joining holdover strong safety Travares Tillman, the former Bill, the Miami secondary allowed Pittsburgh backup QB Charlie Batch to go 15-29 for 209 yards and three TDs against them. Even though 87 of those yards were on one TD strike to tight end Heath Miller, Batch finished with a 126.5 passer rating against the Dolphins. It is reasonable to suspect that, with Miami having a strong front seven, the Bills will try to exploit Miami's weakness against the pass, despite the fact that the Dolphins' secondary may be reinforced by the return of CB Travis Daniels who missed the game against Pittsburgh with a sprained ankle.
If the Bills do try to take advantage of the Miami secondary, wide receiver Lee Evans will have to do a better job of getting open than he did last week against the Patriots. Facing a steady diet of double-coverage for the first time as the Bills' new # 1 wide receiving threat, Evans, who had torched the Pats on previous occasions, caught just two balls for 25 yards. While that helped to open up things for the Bills other receivers, especially Peerless Price and Josh Reed, Evans must do a better job of getting open against double-coverage because he is likely to be double-teamed consistently by Miami and every other team that the Bills face this season. And, the Bills other receivers will also have to step up and do a better job of taking advantage of the openings created when Evans is double-covered. The Bills' offense, which featured the deep pass in the preseason and must throw the ball deep to stretch the field for its running game, did not complete a pass over 20 yards against New England. They must do a better job of throwing the deep ball against Miami to have a chance to win this game.
The key to the Bills passing game and to the success of Steve Fairchild's new offense is the Bills' offensive line which did some good things against the Patriots, but which simply did not get the job done in critical situations. Even though the Bills offensive line did a good job of protecting JP Losman and opening holes for the running game in the first half, when the Bills gained a respectable 71 yards on 14 carries, and the beginning of the third quarter—particularly for RB Anthony Thomas on the Bills' lone TD drive—three plays and one statistic summarize the failure of the offensive line against the Pats and what must be corrected if the Bills are to have a chance to move the ball effectively against Miami this week.
On 4th and 1 from that Patriots' 7 yard line, instead of moving the Patriots defensive line back, the Bills offensive line allowed penetration on the left side of the line, permitting the Pats' defense to plug the hole before Willis McGahee could get through it and pick up the first down yardage. That proved to be the turning point of the game. On 3rd and 11 from the Bills' 8 yard line on the Bills' first possession of the game, the offensive line allowed three Patriots' defenders to blast their way up the middle and get into QB JP Losman's face almost immediately. While Losman was able to avoid one of the three, LB T.Banta-Cain, he was unable to get rid of the ball or get out of the end zone before being taken down for a safety by T.Warren. And, on 3rd and 2 from the New England 48 with 6:22 left and the game on the line, following a penalty that negated a first down conversion on the previous play, the offensive line allowed R.Seymour to sack Losman for a 6 yard loss on what would prove to be the Bills' last possession of the game. Finally, in addition, five of Willis McGahee's ten second-half carries resulted in no gain or a loss of yardage with another gaining a scant 2 yards.
That is unacceptable. And, the Bills will have no chance of competing against Miami, which features a similar type of defense to that of the Patriots, led by perrenial All-Pros DE Jason Taylor and LB Zack Thomas up-front, if their offensive line does not play better more consistently and make big plays in crucial situations instead of allowing the opposition to make them. Minnesota QB Brad Johnson summarized it well when, referring to his own team, he recently said that, at some point in the game, the offensive line is going to have to hit the other team in the mouth and make them bleed in a crucial situation. That is precisely what the Bills need from their offensive line, what they did not get from them against New England, and what they must get from their offensive line if they are going to have a chance to win this game in the heat of south Florida on Sunday.
The Miami defense, which plays a combination of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, depending on the circumstances, features some top-quality, if older, veteran talent in addition to Taylor and Thomas. DTs Vonnie Holiday and Keith Traylor, along with backups Jeff Zgonina and Dan Wilkinson are the kind of mammoth, space-eating interior linemen that have given the Bills' offensive line trouble in the past, including last week against the Pats in the second half. DE Kevin Carter combines with Jason Taylor to give the Dolphins a good pass rush from the outside. Outside linebacker Channing Crowder is the youngster and a budding star next to Thomas in the middle, while Donnie Spragan and former Bill Keith Newman are capable veterans at the other OLB position.
It will be tough for the Bills' RBs Willis McGahee, who gained 70 yards on 20 carries against the Pats, and Anthony Thomas, who impressed with 29 yards, including an 18 yard TD scamper, on just 3 carries, to run against Miami, which gave up 115 yards on the ground to the Steelers' Willie Parker on 29 carries on opening day, if the Bills' offensive line does not do a better job of consistently giving them openings to run through. With a defense that is based on quickness, penetration and running all out to the ball on every play, it is imperative that the Bills run the ball effectively and that they be able to control the ball with their running attack in the heat that can be expected in Miami on Sunday afternoon. To prevent the Dolphins from wearing out their own defensive teammates, the Bills' offense must be able to hold onto the ball with their running game and, in turn, wear down the older Miami defense. But, to do this, they must get a much better game from their offensive line, which is going to have to hit the Miami defenders in the mouth and make them bleed at some point with the game on the line if the Bills want to come away with a win.
The question is whether the Bills' offensive line can do that.
The Buffalo Bills Defense vs The Miami Offense:
The Buffalo defense showed some good things, some bad things, some things to be hopeful about and some things to be very concerned about in their opening performance of the season, which was in some ways a tale of two halves.
On the good side was the pressure that the Bills were able to put on Pats' QB Tom Brady starting with the first play of the game when LB Takeo Spikes, making his return from a torn Achilles tendon injury, flew in untouched on a blitz to knock the ball out of Brady's hand, causing a fumble that London Fletcher-Baker returned for a touchdown and the Bills' first points of the game. Defensive End Aaron Schobel seemed to be everywhere in the first half coming up with a sack, a quarterback hurry, and deflecting two passes as he and his teammates on the Bills' defensive line pressured Brady into throwing for a net of only 3 yards in the first half, despite the fact that Takeo Spikes was forced out of the game by a hamstring injury on the Bills second defensive series and free safety Troy Vincent suffered a similar injury on the same possession. Despite giving up huge chunks of yardage to Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk and especially rookie Laurence Maroney on the ground, 109 yards on just 15 carries, the Bills defense played well enough overall in the first half that the Patriots chose to run out the final 56 seconds of the first half with the Bills leading by 10 points.
Despite the Bills' halftime lead, the seeds of their eventual downfall were readily apparent in the failure of the Bills' defense to stop the Patriots running game. Even though the Bills managed to do a better job of limiting the length of the gains that the Pats were able to get on the ground in the second half, they could not stop the Patriots from running effectively or gaining the yards necessary to control the ball at will. Part of the problem was poor penetration by the defensive line, which was able to put pressure on Brady in the passing game in the first half, but which seemed unable to come close to the Pats' RBs when they were carrying the ball. An even bigger problem was the failure to shut down the cutback lanes, which allowed Dillon and Maroney to still pick up critical yardage and make big plays even when the defensive line succeeded in disrupting the blocking. But, the biggest problem was one that has plagued the Bills far too often in recent years, poor tackling, especially in critical situations.
Good tackling is a requirement of the Bills new "Tampa Cover 2" defense, which is an attacking, gambling style of defense that can be vulnerable to the running game. Speed and all-out pursuit are also essential to make up for the lack of size up front and to compensate for the gambling, attacking style of play of the defensive linemen. Unfortunately, speed and pursuit are of little value if, as was far too often the case, the defender takes the wrong angle to shut down the cutback lane, misses the tackle and ends up having to pursue the running back 20 yards down the field. The Bills' tackling against the Patriots' running back was atrocious. There were far too many "whiffs", arm tackles and tackles that were simply broken. Even though the Bills did a better job of gang-tackling and came up with a few solid run stops in the second half, when push came to shove and they needed to get a stop in the final 6:22 of the game, they were not able to consistently make enough good plays against the run to prevent the Patriots from getting first downs and running out the clock.
Even though the Miami offensive line is not nearly as good as New England's offensive line, they don't have to be for the Dolphins to be able to run the ball effectively if the Bills do not do a much better job of getting penetration from their defensive line, shutting down the cut back lanes with their linebackers and defensive backs and, above all, making good tackles on initial contact. Even though Miami no longer has Rickey Williams in its backfield, in last year's first round draft pick, Ronnie Brown, they have a quality young running back who combines the speed and shiftiness of Laurence Maroney and the power of Corey Dillon. While Mike Mularkey, with the infinite wisdom that he showed in running the Bills offense last season, only chose to let Brown run the ball 15 times for 30 yards against Pittsburgh, it is almost certain that the Bills will see a steady diet of Ronnie Brown, who did score two TDs on the ground against the Steelers, on Sunday. Not even Mike Mularkey can be stupid enough to avoid testing the Bills defense after they yielded 183 yards to the Pats, especially on what should be a hot afternoon in Miami in September. The Bills defense must find a way to do a much better job of stopping the run to keep the Dolphins from wearing them down in the second half.
The loss of Takeo Spikes definitely hurt the Bills defense against the Pats and his absence will hurt if he cannot play against Miami on Sunday, which seems doubtful as he has been listed as questionable for the game. Still, the loss of Spikes and Troy Vincent early in the game and the poor play of Coy Wire and Mario Haggan against the Pats opened the door for the Bills rookie class of defensive players to make an impressive debut in the opening game of the season.
With Coy Wire quickly putting to rest any notions that, no matter how much he impresses the coaches in practice, he is capable of playing strong safety effectively on game-days, Donte Whitner showed Bills fans why the team chose to take him with the 8th pick in the first round of this year's draft. Even though Whitner was beaten for a 34 yard gain on a pass from Brady to TE Ben Watson in the 3rd Quarter, Whitner was around the ball all day, logging 4 solo tackles and 4 assists and making what could have been a game-changing interception in the fourth quarter. After picking off Tom Brady's pass intended for Watson at the Buffalo 44, Whitner leaped over a tackler and raced into the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown that would give the Bills a lead late in the game. Unfortunately, the referees had whistled the play dead, even though Whitner was well in bounds, and made a very questionable penalty call on Nate Clements for a block-in-the-back on the play, negating the touchdown. Nevertheless, Whitner's interception gave the Bills a chance to score and take the lead in the game and showed that he has the kind of play-making ability that the Bills desperately need on defense. It also showed an ability to learn and rebound from getting beat on a play, even though the 34 yard completion to Watson was on a play that Ron Jaworski has repeatedly shown on ESPN's NFL Match-Up as a play that top NFL QBs, like Tom Brady, will use to test even the best safeties in the league and LB Angelo Crowell, who had a bad day in coverage, did a poor job of covering Watson underneath.
With Troy Vincent out of the lineup with his hamstring injury, Ko Simpson made a much earlier debut than he had anticipated against the Pats and more than held his own. While he made some mistakes and was fortunate when TE Daniel Graham dropped a couple of passes, like Whitner, Simpson was around the ball all day, making four solo stops and chipping in 3 assisted tackles. The tackling in the Bills' secondary and close to the line of scrimmage was much better with Simpson and Whitner in the lineup and that will have to continue because, with Troy Vincent going on the injured reserve list, Simpson will now take over as the Bills' starting free safety against Miami. While the Dolphins do not have a pair of tight ends of the quality of New England's Watson and Graham, Miami TE Randy McMichael is a superb pass-catcher and blocker who has given the Bills fits in the past and Justin Peele and rookie Tim Massaquoi give them two other TEs who can be effective catching passes. In addition to their tight ends, Ronnie Brown is a good pass-receiver out of the backfield and Miami likes to go to the speedy Wes Welker, their elusive return specialist, out of the slot. Whitner and Simpson may still be rookies, but they will have to be ready to play like veterans on Sunday against Miami because they will be tested by the Dolphins.
After Mario Haggan stepped in for Takeo Spikes, following Spikes injury, and was beaten for a touchdown by Troy Brown, Keith Ellison stepped into the lineup, taking over at strong-side linebacker for Angelo Crowell, who slid over into Spikes' spot on the weak side. Ellison was in on a total of ten tackles in the game, three of them solos, and will see plenty of action against Miami. With Ellison joining Whitner and Simpson in the lineup and Kyle Williams and John McCargo playing as part of the Bills' four man DT rotation, there were times against the Patriots when the Bills had five rookies on the field on defense at the same time. Even though there is plenty of room for all five of the rookies, as well as their veteran teammates, to improve, Bills fans had to be heartened by the fact that none of the rookies looked out of place. While the rookies and the rest of the Bills defense must play better to be competitive against the Dolphins, overall, the rookies played well in their first action of the season, seeing plenty of playing time. And, they are likely to see just as much, if not more this weekend against a Dolphin offense that will be trying to bounce back from a disappointing opener against the Steelers.
With McMichael, Welker, top-flight WRs Chris Chambers, who destroyed the Bills in the Dolphins comeback win against them in Miami last year, and Marty Booker, as well as rookie Derek Hagan, and running back Ronnie Brown as targets in the passing game, the arrival of QB Daunte Culpepper from Minnesota in the off-season was widely considered to be the critical addition that would make the Dolphins a serious playoff contender this season. Culpepper, who is coming back from major reconstructive knee surgery much sooner than expected, was the triggerman for the Vikings' high-powered offense prior to last season, when he got off to a terrible start before the knee injury ended his season, and is expected to be the best Miami QB since the days of Dan Marino.
Culpepper certainly has the weapons to make the Miami offense explosive and he showed that he is not afraid to spread the ball around to his receivers in his opening game with the club, hitting seven different receivers, including Chambers five times and the pesky Welker four on four occasions as he completed 18 of his 37 passes for 262 yards against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. However, Culpepper disappointed the Miami faithful greatly by throwing two crucial fourth quarter interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown that clinched the game for Pittsburgh, and failing to seize control of the game when it was there for the taking. The interceptions were particularly distressing for Miami fans because, in seven games before getting hurt last year, Culpepper threw 12 interceptions with only 6 TD passes and a less-than-stellar 72.0 passer rating.
While Culpepper has the Miami faithful gnashing their teeth coming into this game, wondering if they got the QB who played so poorly last year instead of the Pro Bowler from the previous five seasons that they were expecting to lead them to the playoffs, the Bills have to be prepared for Culpepper to bounce back from his opening game form and be at his best. Nate Clements will have to forget about the way that WR Chris Chambers beat him like a drum in their last meeting and come prepared to show Chambers and the rest of the NFL why he thinks that he deserves to be paid as much or more than any other cornerback in the league. Terrance McGee and Jabari Greer will have to help to take the pressure off of the Bills' two rookie safeties by keeping Booker and Welker in check as well.
There were a lot of questions about the Bills defense going into their opening game of the season and, while the Bills' rookie class of defenders played quite well, the answers to a lot of those questions about the Bills defense left a lot to be desired by their coaches and their fans. With Miami possessing much more explosive wide receivers than the Patriots had on the field last week, the Bills cannot afford to let the Dolphins run the ball at will with Ronnie Brown and control the tempo of the game the way that the Patriots did last week. If they do, Culpepper will be able to pick-and-choose the best times to go up top to his explosive wide receivers to pick up big chunks of yardage and the Dolphins will be able to wear out the Bills defensive linemen in the Miami heat, making it impossible for them to sustain a good pass rush into the 4th Quarter. The Bills absolutely must do a better job of stopping the run to put the Miami offense into tougher to convert 3rd and long situations so that they can get themselves off of the field.
While the Bills offense can help their defense by running the ball effectively and sustaining some drives, the defense cannot expect the offense to run the ball that well against a tough Miami front seven. That means that the Bills defense must take it upon themselves to stop the Dolphins' running game and prevent Miami from sustaining drives, so that they can get off the field quickly and get some rest. That will be essential because of the heat and may well be a key to the outcome of the game.
The Buffalo Bills Special Teams vs The Miami Special Teams:
The Buffalo Bills special teams, which were the best in the league the last two seasons and return most of their key players, did not perform particularly well last week against New England. While kicker Rian Lindell kicked a 53 yard field goal and put three of his four kickoffs inside the 5 yard line, including one touchback, All Pro punter Brian Moorman had an off day averaging only 40.2 yards on five punts, including two that went out of bounds, and the Bills' punt coverage team allowed Kevin Faulk to return one of Moorman's punts for 14 yards. Roscoe Parrish allowed the only punt to come his way to hit him in the face-mask and the Bills were very lucky that Sam Aiken was "Johnny-on-the-spot" to recover Parrish's muff. Even with the Bills' kick coverage team holding the Pats to an average of 20.5 yards on 4 returns, with a long of 24, and Terrance McGee averaging 27.5 yards on his four returns, including a sparkling 44 yarder that put the Bills in a position to score late in the 3rd Quarter, the Bills special teams did not have the kind of day that Bills fans have come to expect from them. They will have to do a better job, especially in the punting game, against a Miami team that has some good players.
While Miami punter Donnie Jones finished 11th in the NFL in gross punting average last season, his 39.3 yard net average led the league, just ahead of the Bills' Brian Moorman, as opponents averaged just 4.9 return yards per punt. The Dolphins place kicker, Olindo Mare, had a strong comeback season after a couple of off years, hitting 25 of his 30 FG attempts, including a 53 yard long, to go with a perfect 33 of 33 extra points. And, Wes Welker, who returns both kickoffs and punts for Miami, finished 11th in the NFL in punt returns with a 9.1 yard average.
Against Pittsburgh, Jones averaged only 36.7 yards on his six punts, but the Steelers were only able to return 3 of them for a grand total of 5 yards. Mare got off to a good start, too, hitting his two extra points and a 26 yard FG, while Welker averaged 24.7 yards on 3 kickoff returns and returned 3 punts for an even better 26.3 yards, including a big 47 yarder.
While Welker is not as dangerous a kickoff returner that Terrance McGee is for the Bills, he is capable of consistently giving the Dolphins good returns on kicks and especially punts. The Bills' coverage teams can't afford to give him much room on either. If the Bills have any significant advantage over the Miami special teams it is on kickoff returns where, in addition to the Bills having the NFL's best returner in McGee, the Dolphins have been average in both returns and coverage.
The Bills will need to have Brian Moorman bounce back from what was a rough day for the league's best punter in order to win the field position game. That could be crucial on what looks to be a hot afternoon in Miami with both teams having offenses that are still looking to be consistent and get into a groove.