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Miami vs. Buffalo: Keys to the game

The Dolphins return to the football field on Sunday against the Buffalo Bill, The Miami Herald has learned.

These are the keys to the game:

When the Dolphins pass the football: The Dolphins have two goals when they throw the ball: Complete the pass. Keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill from getting hit. It’s debatable which of the two is more important. The Dolphins are allowing more sacks per game than any other NFL team and as the offensive line is unchanged from the previous five games, even coming off a bye week, there is little reason to believe Tannehill won’t get hit this game as he has others. Led by Mario Williams, who is third in the NFL with eight sacks, the Bills are ninth overall in sacks per pass play. The Dolphins will be looking to get some easy completions by running more wide receiver screens than usual and this should offer one way to keep Tannehill from getting hit while still completing passes. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football: Lamar Miller was successful against the Bills the last time he played against them, as he averaged 7.3 yards per carry on 10 carries. But the Miami running game has been a major disappointment so far this season to the point fans are calling for trades for a running back or along the offensive line. The Dolphins might be wise to take a page out of the Buffalo game plan and simply not give up on the running game so easily. The Bills, you see, are
not very good at stopping the run. They rank 28th in the NFL in that department. It must be noted, however, that much of that damage came the first three weeks of the season when New England and New York bulldozed the Bills up front. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Bills run the football:  The Bills are third in the NFL in rushing yards per game and that because they run the ball well and often. C.J. Spiller hasn’t been the weapon he was last year but he still is averaging a healthy 4.2 yards per rush while Fred Jackson is at 4.6 yards per pop. The Bills had six runs of 10 yards or more against Baltimore’s solid defense three weeks ago and had another five runs over 10 yards last week against Cincinnati. The Dolphins are hopeful middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe will be available to them for this game but the fact his status is uncertain and he’s nursing a shoulder injury is troubling because he is the team’s best run-defending linebacker. The Dolphins don’t like sinking the safety into the tackle box to stop the run but this might be a game that calls for exactly that move. ADVANTAGE: Buffalo

When the Bills pass the football: QB Thad Lewis, a South Florida native and Hialeah-Miami Lakes High alumnus, returns to his hometown as a little known and mostly untried professional quarterback. Lewis is playing because rookie E.J. Manuel is out for Buffalo but he also is nursing a foot injury. The Bills weren’t a passing team even with their starting quarterback and now are less so but they still pose a threat deep with rookie Marquise Goodwin, have a proven if also enigmatic veteran in Stevie Johnson and make good use of both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson out of the backfield. The Bills do struggle to protect the QB, however. They are 27th in the NFL in sacks per pass play. The Dolphins are getting healthier up front with Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake both nearing 100 percent. Pass pressure has fallen the last couple of weeks so the Dolphins are hoping for a rebound. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

Special teams: Brandon Fields is the NFL’s leading punter and a weapon in flipping the field in Miami’s favor. The Bills punter is Brian Moorman and he’s averaging a solid 42 net yards per punt but the Bills are lucky to have him because their plan coming out of camp was having Shawn Powell do the job – until Cleveland had 179 yards and a touchdown in return yards. That one went bad. This one went right: The Bills signed former Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter and he’s been excellent in that he’s made 12 of 13 kicks, including all three of his attempts of 50 yards or more. Leodis McKelvin, who returned a punt for a touchdown against Miami last season, is back in the punt return role after missing time with an injury.  He has only four returns and is averaging only 9.5 yards per, but he is dangerous. Miami’s Marcus Thigpen also had a TD return against the Bills last season. ADVANTAGE: Even. Coaching: Former Dolphins reserve offensive lineman Doug Marrone is instilling a solid culture in Buffalo. The team seems more disciplined than in the past and has been especially improved on defense where the secondary has played well despite injuries, veteran Mario Williams is having a solid season and linebacker Kiko Alonso is a rookie of the year candidate. The Dolphins have issues to address – no running game, no ability to protect the quarterback -- and coaches have had a week to get it right. The tweaks and adjustments the staff has made to address the issues will be interesting to see. ADVANTAGE: Even.

Intangibles: The Dolphins are coming off a bye. They’ve had two weeks to prepare for this game and are reasonably healthy. Quarterback Thad Lewis, meanwhile, is returning to his home town as an
unexpected starter for Buffalo – a big moment for him. OVERALL ADVANTAGE: Miami.