‘Thursday Night Football’ Preview: Dolphins’ running game has a chance to get back on track

Brian McIntyre
November 14, 2012

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills

8 p.m. ET, NFL Network

The Dolphins enter Thursday night's game with a 55-36-1 edge in their all-time series with the Bills and have won six of their last eight meetings, including a 30-23 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 18, 2011, the first game after the team fired head coach Tony Sparano. In the offseason, the Dolphins filled their head coach vacancy with former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who brought along Mike Sherman to coordinate the offense. Miami also invested the No. 8 overall pick in quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Through nine games, the offense is about where they were last season (323.9 yards per game this season vs. 317.4 yards per game in 2011), but is scoring a point less per game.

After ranking 26th in total defense in 2011, the Bills changed defensive coordinators (out with George Edwards, in with Dave Wannstedt), defensive schemes (from a 3-4 back to a 4-3) and spent big in free agency ($115 million in contracts to pass-rushing defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson) and the draft (Top 10 pick on cornerback Stephon Gilmore) to turn things around on that side of the ball, but they are not getting results. Entering Week 11, Buffalo ranks 31st in total defense (and are 31st in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA), allowing 410.0 yards per game, and are 32nd against the run, allowing 163.7 yards per game on the ground even though they allowed 33 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns, one of the Bills' three wins on the season.

[Related: Reggie Bush has harsh words for the ladies of Buffalo]

With the weakest areas of both teams slow to improve this season, it's little wonder that the Dolphins enter Thursday night looking to end a two-game losing streak and pull even at .500, while the Bills have a three-game losing streak of their own and are battling with the New York Jets to stay out of the AFC East cellar.

When the Dolphins have the ball

According to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins are mediocre when they pass, and mediocre when they run, ranking 24th in passing DVOA and 25th in rushing DVOA. As a team, the Dolphins have not reached the century mark on the ground since Week 3 and were forced to abandon the running game in last week's 37-3 loss to the Titans after turnovers put them in a 21-0 hole early in the second quarter. Reggie Bush has just 138 yards on 40 carries (3.45 per attempt) over the last four games, a trend could be reversed against a Bills defense that ranks dead last in the league against the run and has allowed opponents to run for an average of 195.3 yards per game over the last six weeks. If ever there was a week for the Dolphins ground game to get on track, this would be it as the Dolphins have upcoming games against the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers.

Remember when Brian Hartline was leading the NFL in receiving yards? Hartline cooled off considerably in October, catching just eight passes for 100 yards in three games, but has shown signs of life over the last two weeks with 16 receptions for 188 yards. If Tannehill isn't throwing the ball to Hartline, it's going to Davone Bess. The two have combined for 152 (50.8 percent) of the Dolphins' 299 pass attempts this season.

When the Bills have the ball

The Bills are ranked sixth in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA through Week 10, and even though Miami's run defense still ranks in the Top 5, running the ball may be the best way for the Bills to win on Thursday night. In Sunday's 37-3 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Dolphins could not seem to bottle up Chris Johnson, who had 126 of the 177 rushing yards the Titans produced on Sunday. With Fred Jackson out with a concussion, C.J. Spiller is expected to carry the rushing load, which could be problematic for the Dolphins. Though Spiller averages just 28.8 yards in four career games against the Dolphins, he had 91 yards and a touchdown in 12 carries the last time Miami visited the Bills and his running style is very similar to Johnson's, but with a bit more speed and explosiveness in the open field.

If the Bills do decide to attack through the air, look for Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw to the receiver not covered by Sean Smith, who should be on Stevie Johnson all night. Johnson received the big contract (five years, $36.25 million, $17.75 million guaranteed) and his 80 targets are the most, by far, on the Bills, but he hasn't been the most efficient receiver in the NFL. Johnson has yet to top 90 receiving yards in a single game this season, has one touchdown since September and ranks 48th in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric, well below teammate Donald Jones. With David Nelson out for the season, Jones has filled his duties in the slot and has 32 receptions for 380 yards and is tied with Johnson with a team-high four touchdown receptions.

[Also: Jets QB Tim Tebow frustrated by 'terrible' criticism]

How it could go

Bills head coach Chan Gailey isn't a fan of having to play on a short week, but this scheduling nuisance actually works out in his team's favor. According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, in non-season openers, the home team is 13-5 in Thursday night games over the last two seasons, including a 6-3 record in 2012. Given that stat, we'd like to take the Bills, who could be motivated to defend the honor of the women of Buffalo, who were unjustly slighted this week by Bush, but the Dolphins are the (slightly) better team and should have little trouble proving it against the league's worst defense on Thursday night. Either way, a multiple-game losing streak will come to an end.

Prediction: Dolphins 24, Bills 23

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