MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) The Dolphins have found it difficult to block the Bills in recent meetings, and now Miami will try to do it with a rookie making his first start at left tackle since high school.
First-round draft pick Ja’Wuan James has moved over from the right side to replace Branden Albert, out for the year with a knee injury. James will be responsible for Ryan Tannehill’s blind side Thursday night when Miami attempts to snap a streak of three losses to the Bills.
Both teams are 5-4, coming off a loss and on the fringe of AFC playoff contention. The Dolphins are favored but have been fending off questions why they have so much trouble with the Bills, including a 29-10 loss at Buffalo in Week 2.
Article continues below ...
”I’ve been hearing from a lot of the older guys how important this game is for us,” James said. ”I think it’s important, too, because of last time. I didn’t like what happened last time. Nobody in this locker room did. We have a chance to go back out there and redeem ourselves.”
Some things to watch in the 102nd matchup between these AFC East rivals:
BLOCKING THE BILLS: Buffalo’s front four has given Miami fits over the past two seasons. In the three meetings, Miami is averaging 71 yards per game rushing and 4.8 yards per pass, with six turnovers and 13 sacks.
Buffalo DT Kyle Williams offered an explanation: ”We have talent. We’ve got guys that can win one-on-one matchups.”
Tannehill is optimistic the Dolphins can come up with a winning formula against Buffalo.
”That’s the beauty of division games – it’s a chess match,” Tannehill said. ”You play each other one time, make adjustments and then you go back and play again. That’s why it’s fun.”
The rest of the league also has trouble blocking the Bills, who lead the NFL with 34 sacks. Now they’ll face a revamped offensive line following the loss of Albert last Sunday.
James moves to left tackle. Dallas Thomas switches from left guard to right tackle. Shelley Smith takes over at left guard.
James has played well this year at right tackle, and he started for four years at that spot at Tennessee. He was a senior in the Georgia high school playoffs the last time he started on the left side; the opponent had a nice team but no Mario Williams.
”It’s going to be tough,” James said, ”but I’m willing to do it.”
RED ZONE WOES: Both teams have been awful in the red zone. The Bills ranks last in red-zone touchdown efficiency at 41 percent, while the Dolphins rank last in red-zone scoring at 4.16 points per trip.
The Dolphins’ 43 trips to the red zone lead the league, but those possessions have produced only 20 touchdowns .
”As you get to the red zone,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said, ”things happen faster, windows are tighter and we better get better fast.”
FIRST TIME FACING DOLPHINS: Kyle Orton’s 81st NFL game will be his first against Miami. The journeyman replaced E.J. Manuel as Bills starter after Week 4 and has played well, throwing for more than 250 yards in four of his five starts.
Orton has brought out the best in first-round pick Sammy Watkins. In four games with Manuel, Watkins had 17 catches for 197 yards and two scores. In five games with Orton, the rookie has 25 catches for 420 yards and three scores.
MISFIRING DEEP: As has happened often in the past two years, Tannehill overthrew an open Mike Wallace deep last week. Tannehill is 6 for 23 (26 percent) with no touchdowns on passes thrown over 20 yards this year, and 34 for 122 (28 percent) in his career.
Lazor predicts Tannehill will improve soon.
”I feel good about where we’re headed,” Lazor said. ”I wish we would have hit the last one we threw, but we didn’t, and so we just have to keep working. We’ve addressed the mechanics. We’ve addressed getting people on the same page as far as the landmarks of where we’re trying to throw the football. We’ve repped it in practice, and I choose to operate with the belief that we’ll prove to everybody that we can do it.”
CONFIDENT BILLS: Every rivalry deserves a little trash talking, and Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin stirred things up when he predicted a victory for Buffalo.
That made sense to teammate Aaron Williams, given the outcome when the teams met in September.
”We were pretty dominant the first time we played,” Williams said. ”And I don’t see why we can’t be dominant the second time.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve-Wine