The Miami Dolphins took a 14-7 lead over the Buffalo Bills into the fourth quarter of this pivotal contest but found ways to let that slip away. If you’ve been a fan of the Miami Dolphins for very long, you know how they tend to perform in these “must-win” type of late-season games. There is plenty of blame to go around, but we’ll look at who deserves (or doesn’t deserve) the most and what this team can do moving forward.
The Offense’s Second Half Collapse
The sentiment around Dolphins fans was that Mike McDaniel’s play calling fell apart again when he abandoned the running game in the second half. Achane and Wilson were a great 1-2 punch in the first half and they moved the ball well leaning on that running game in the first half. So what gives? Why only two carries in the second half of this game?
Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde may not be as dynamic as they were, but they're still the captains of this Bill's defense. If you want to see where McDermott is attacking your offense, just follow them.— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) January 9, 2024
Here is an example of the light boxes Miami saw in the first half pic.twitter.com/8LcWUtQidj
Coming into this contest, the Bills clearly thought they could slow down Miami’s running game with just their front seven and wanted to prevent any big plays from Tyreek and the passing game. Their long time safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, we’re routinely 10+ yards off the ball in the first half and Miami took advantage by ripping off long run after long run. One of the big things that fans sometimes ignore is the chess match that goes on between offensive and defensive play callers in a contest like this.
Here is what Miami saw in the second half of this game. Buffalo sold out to stop the run and routinely dropped one or both of their veteran safeties in the box. pic.twitter.com/7OwsX51f3V— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) January 9, 2024
Coming into the second half, it was clear that McDermott had shifted his focus on stopping Miami’s running game. Without Jaylen Waddle on the football field they could drop an additional safety into the box to discourage Miami from running the ball, give help over top of a less than 100% Tyreek, and live with single coverage everywhere else. It’s sort of surprising this wasn’t their game plan from the start, but here we are.
McDaniel guessed correctly that this would be Buffalo’s answer and came out passing the football (to the chagrin of the fan base) in the second half. The only way that Miami could force Buffalo back into these advantageous light boxes that they had in the first half, was to execute down the field and have some explosive plays in the passing game... and we know how that turned out. There’s no single person to point the finger at, but Tua, Tyreek, and the other receivers struggled to consistently execute in this situation.
This is all to explain that while it’s easy to say Miami should have ran the ball more, it’s never quite that simple. They had success because they had numbers in the running game during the first half and McDaniel wanted to get that advantage back. With Buffalo dominating the time of possession in the second half, they had limited opportunities to do so and inevitably ran out of time.
An Inspired Defensive Performance
This is really the only positive thing you can take from this loss. Without Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb, the defense was aggressive and found ways to pressure Josh Allen. They forced him into three turnovers and for the most part they covered well on the back end. The interior of the defensive line especially stepped up in this game.
This is one of the best defensive plays I've ever seen. Beautiful chop/swim on the interior, but the really impressive thing is bringing down Josh Allen 1 on 1, forcing a fumble, and recovering that fumble. An extra 2 million AAV for Christian Wilkins. #FinsUp pic.twitter.com/qR9vsm9P80— George Forder (@GeorgeForder3) January 9, 2024
The defense did what they needed to win this game by forcing Josh Allen into turning the football over. They gave up two touchdowns (one of them on a tipped pass), but played really good football for the most part. With even more injuries piling up on this side of the football, they’ll need an even more impressive performance in KC to win that game next week, but no one should be be surprised if they do it.
I was going to break down the special teams gaff, but it really was just an unfortunate series of events with Cam Goode getting hurt and taking out another coverage player. The special teams hasn’t been a positive for Miami in most games though, so don’t be shocked if Danny Crossman is the first Miami coach casualty this offseason.
This one stings and it throws a lot of things into question. There is plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s anemic second half, but some of that blame should fall on Tua Tagovailoa. This doesn’t necessarily spoil a positive season for the young QB (he played all 17 games and led the NFL in passing yards while making the Pro Bowl), but it throws some doubt on the long term viability of this regime. 11-6 and back to back playoff berths is a step forward for the Miami Dolphins, but they’ve accumulated enough talent to do more.
Now the injuries that this team has suffered are surely a part of this late season slump, but there won’t be any asterisk next to their record explaining how unlucky they were. You need to strap up and play with who you have... next man up. This group is going to have another opportunity at redemption against an uncharacteristically vulnerable Kansas City Chiefs team. A win in KC totally changes the narrative around the Miami Dolphins and could give them momentum through the playoffs. If they play like they did against the Bills though, it won’t matter.