The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills were once among the top rivalries in the NFL, with the two AFC East divisional teams going back and forth. Hall of Fame quarterbacks Dan Marino for Miami and Jim Kelly for the Bills would go toe-to-toe and throw-for-throw as both teams looked to find a path to victory in both the regular season and the postseason. After the retirements of both all-time greats and a generation of both teams trying to find their way back to relevance, the rivalry seems to be once again reaching the lofty heights of the 1980s and 1990s. In Week 4 of the 2023 season, the teams face off again, with Sunday’s winner likely seen as the best team in the league.
The Dolphins are coming off a 70-20 win over the Denver Broncos in Week 3, a ridiculous 50-point margin of victory and a win that caught the attention of the rest of the league. The Bills tallied a 37-3 win over the Washington Commanders last week, a game where they recorded nine sacks and held the Commanders to one conversion on nine third down plays.
Despite this weekend’s game being the 115th regular season meeting between the AFC East rivals, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the 2023 version of the Bills for Dolphins fans. I turned to Buffalo Rumblings, SB Nation’s Bills team site, for some insider perspective of the Bills.
Matt Byham took some time to sit down with me to talk about the Bills. We spoke about the ridiculous defensive performance against the Commanders, who is quarterback Josh Allen this year, why speedster cornerback Kaiir Elam is not playing this year, and more. You can check out my side of the conversation here:
The Bills exploded for nine sacks last week and are second in the league with 12 on the season. What is working so well for Buffalo as they attack opposing offensive lines? (And, it would be awesome if you said it was just how bad the Washington Commanders’ offensive line played, but I feel like that will not be your answer.)
Well, quite honestly, much of it seems to be due to a change in defensive philosophy. That’s not to say the defense lines up differently by and large. It’s to note that head coach Sean McDermott adding the role of defensive coordinator to his resume seems to have benefited the Bills. I don’t want to sidebar too far here, but I do want to point out that none of this is to take away from what defensive coordinator meant to the Bills before he stepped down. But back to 2023. There’s a marked difference in the way Buffalo’s defense is attacking opponents. It’s aggressive, but not so much in terms of all-out blitzes. McDermott seems intent to position individual players so as to leverage their strengths. Guys like defensive tackles Ed Oliver and Da’Quan Jones; edge rushers Leonard Floyd, Greg Rousseau, and A.J. Epenesa; and linebackers Matt Milano and Terrel Bernard. The DTs are better positioned to disrupt behind the LOS, and have really made a masterful contribution towards freeing the linebackers up to play with their hair on fire en route to the football, no matter where it is. As for the defensive ends, they’re utilized more as disruptions in attack mode than in seasons past, where they were frequently asked to absorb in a reactionary role at the LOS.
TLDR: The Bills are applying sustained and exotic pressure looks without always relying on a blitz. Players are allowed to more freely roam within zone looks, especially at linebacker where we’ve seen them in the offensive backfield with far greater frequency.
One minute, it seems like Josh Allen is regressing and playing too much “hero” ball, leading to bad decisions, risky throws and runs, and poor, or at least not up to his normal standards, play. The next, he is looking like an MVP candidate and a player who has the Bills among the favorites to win the Super Bowl. I know we have seen a lot of Allen over the past five years, but who should the Dolphins expect to see on Sunday? And, what are the odds I will wake up sometime early Monday morning from a nightmare of Allen running through the middle of the field with no one around him?
Josh Allen is like no other current NFL quarterback, which is of little surprise to most who follow the league. There are few if any who’ve managed to develop so profoundly from where they were in their rookie season. But I believe the current narrative about Allen having regressed is incorrect at best. Those who don’t follow the Bills, seem to be landlocked on their Week 1 loss to the New York Jets. Many believe Allen’s holding the team back, prone to turnovers at the flick of a switch. That’s not the case. And not every interception by Allen is A: his fault (as with any QB); and B: necessarily a terrible decision (sometimes defenders make great plays, others the idea of an “arm punt” is terrible only to those in fantasy football).
Who should Dolphans (I do feel like that should be a thing, if it’s not) expect to see this weekend? If all goes to plan for the Bills, an efficient and matured Allen who’s found new ways to expose defenses — and who still manages to leverage his incredible scrambling and ability to ad-lib when circumstances best suit them. Under offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, Allen’s expanded his short passing game — which wasn’t possible last season due to his UCL injury. He’s been more willing to take the underneath stuff defenses prefer giving him, and Allen’s found a real interest in establishing a dominant rushing attack — without being its featured runner.
But there’s also this: It’s often pointed out how well Allen’s played against the Dolphins, and it’s possible he feels a little bit of extra juice in facing a team that just scored 70 points. What I’m saying is that his potential to go “superhero” still exist, and no one’s quite sure when it’ll happen and what his ceiling is.
TLDR: Expect to find a version of Josh Allen who’s still a very dangerous quick-strike dual-threat artist, but also someone who’s found new layers to his game that have allowed him to further confuse and decimate a defense.
What is going on with Kaiir Elam? I feel like he has played well against the Dolphins, using his speed to match up with Tyreek Hill, but he has been inactive early this season for the Bills. Am I wrong in thinking he would be asked to keep up with Hill?
Well, what a great question. Kaiir Elam has played his best football against the Dolphins, which is impressive when you consider he’s been asked to shadow Tyreek Hill (and has done so really well, by and large). Elam is stuck in a numbers game. He wasn’t able to win the CB2 job this summer, despite playing well as a rookie while sharing time between Christian Benford and Dane Jackson. Benford won the job, an incredible feat for the former sixth-rounder who doesn’t possess elite measurables. He has the “it” that McDermott loves — consider his full-field chase down of running back Breece Hall in Week 1.
As you alluded to, Elam’s been a healthy scratch through the month of September — and it’s frustrating to fans who don’t quite understand it all. He’s on the short list of first-round draft picks from his class who aren’t starting. The Bills have no shortage of capable cornerbacks, Elam included. It appears that he’s just not developing fast enough to be featured in McDermott’s scheme, which asks players to be elite in zone coverage. Elam’s also very aggressive with receivers, and since he’s not Sauce Gardner, he doesn’t get the benefit of doubt from officials. Most fans and analysts covering the Bills believe this is the week Elam finds his way to the active roster. There’s no one else with his combination of speed and man-cover ability on defense. At worst, it would seem wise to elevate him even if he didn’t start, instead serving as help off the bench.
There are hot takes out there suggesting general manager Brandon Beane and the Bills wanted to draft Trent McDuffie, who went to the Kansas City Chiefs. When the lost out, they moved up one spot to pick Elam, likely seeing him as the last first-round talent at the position. It’s possible he’s just not the right fit for the Bills’ system, even if he continues to show well when given the opportunity.
TLDR: The situation with Kaiir Elam is frustrating, to say the least. The silver lining is that if the Bills did miss on Elam, they may have found a first-round player in sixth-round pick Christian Benford. I’m a firm believer that one person’s first-round grade never makes another team’s list. Success in the NFL is often (always?) based on situation. Unfortunately, this situation is wholly confusing to those outside of One Bills Drive.
Since this is a rivalry game and Dolphins fans are fairly familiar with the Bills, who should we watch for that maybe we do not know already? Who is that breakout player ready to make his mark on the 115th regular season meeting between the two franchises?
Before we go any further — it really is a historically epic rivalry, right? So many classic games, all-time players, frustrating losses and maddening trends. As to your question about a breakout player? It’s difficult to find largely unknown players due to fantasy football, but I’ll give you one on each side of the ball.
On offense it’s second-year running back James Cook, who was barely utilized last season. Cook’s the sort of player head coach Mike McDaniel would probably enjoy bringing to South Beach. His speed and elusiveness are both elite, and he’s one of the more talented pass-catching running backs. Cook’s ability to change direction and near-immediately regain top speed enhances his role as an x-factor. Until this season, most expected Cook to continue in a complementary role, due to a perceived lack of ability as an inside/featured runner. Perhaps his greatest weakness is in pass protection, but he’s wiling as can be to do what’s possible in protecting Allen. Cook ranks third in rushing yards league wide, averaging 89 yards per game, with a 5.8 yards-per-carry average. Cook can get to the edge quicker than most running backs, and he has the stamina to maintain that speed the entire length of the field.
On defense it’s linebacker Terrel Bernard. Now, it’s likely more people know about him after his performance in Week 3. But consider this for a moment — that includes Bills fans. Bernard was a true unknown at the position prior to the 2023 regular season. He had a handful of tackles in a handful of snaps as a rookie. When linebacker Tremaine Edmunds left for the Chicago Bears, all anyone could talk about is how the Bills would replace him. That it wasn’t coming from those players in-house. None of them had the physical ability or makeup of Edmunds. Buffalo instead chose to add smaller linebackers who more physically resembled Matt Milano. Bernard lost the entirety of training camp and every preseason game due to a hamstring injury, and suddenly the sky was falling watching the failed experiments behind him on the depth chart. Against the Jets, Bernard struggled a bit in the first half, but since that point it’s his arrow has pointed steadily up. Then this week, after his fourth NFL start, Bernard was recognized and awarded with AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against the Washington Commanders. Bernard made seven tackles (five solo, two TFL), two sacks, one INT, one FR, and defended one pass. No one saw this coming — even fewer believed he was starting material, nor that he’d keep the role. Like how the Dolphins defeated the Broncos, it’s not likely Bernard’s Week 3 production is sustainable. Against Miami, he’ll be making his fifth professional start — and I’m certain McDaniel will have schemed something up to test him early and often.
TLDR: On offense it’s running back James Cook — elite speed, change of direction, balance, and vision make him an x-factor. On defense it’s linebacker Terrel Bernard, who’s played out of his mind to this point, rendering the loss of linebacker Tremaine Edmunds irrelevant.
This game is hovering right around the three-point home-field advantage mark for the Bills, according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Do you see the Dolphins and Bills as about even at this point, with just the site serving as the difference, or do you expect the spread to be easily covered one way or the other?
I do see them even, and recent history has proven that true. Think back to last season, when the Dolphins and Bills traded wins in the regular season. Those games were decided by a total of five points (2 in Hard Rock Stadium, 3 in Highmark Stadium). The postseason rubber match again favored the home team, with the Bills winning by three points. At that point in the season, both teams were reeling from injury and more, but this time I believe conditions favor a classic AFC East slugfest. Plenty of firepower, and lots of intensity. For how truly different the Dolphins and Bills feels in terms of their rosters, they appear as equals.
This game likely comes down to the head coaches, who will go head-to-head as coordinators. Perhaps the less—recognized game within the game is how Bills OC Ken Dorsey matches up against Dolphins DC Vic Fangio. Most believe it comes down to who has the ball last, but it could just as easily come down to which team scores first. Getting ahead and refusing to look back will be among the highest of priorities on Sunday. In a perfect simulation, the spread seems right, given home-field advantage. I expect that whichever team wins, does so by a field goal or less, given recent history.