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MIAMI GARDENS — This game is probably not going to define the Miami Dolphins season.
But is this debacle speaking loudly about a rebuild three seasons in the making? Yes.
Is it a clear, glowing-in-neon sign that key decisions made in that rebuild have not worked? Definitely.
The Buffalo Bills beat the Miami Dolphins 35-0 Sunday in Miami’s 2021 home-opener at Hard Rock Stadium. And although both teams are now 1-1 and tied with New England atop the AFC East, this one is very troubling for the Dolphins.
— Because the starting quarterback that everyone said wasn’t big and durable enough to withstand the punishment of an NFL season, left the game in the first quarter with an injury to his ribs.
— Because the offensive line the Dolphins have spent multiple high draft picks and free agent dollars to build is apparently not very good right now.
— Because general manager Chris Grier’s draft picks from the last three years, which coach Brian Flores said before the season were going to be the reason the team succeeded or didn’t, haven’t exactly played well this season.
— And because the discipline Flores has built his team around since 2019 was absent this game.
So the question needs to be asked: Where’s the progress?
The Dolphins finished the 2020 season with a 30-point loss to Buffalo in 2020. This one, against a Buffalo team that didn’t exactly play a clean game, was regression from that blowout loss.
The problem, however, does not begin at quarterback. That has to be said because it’s easy to point to Tua Tagovailoa as the problem when he’s not it. The problem is deeper. Worse.
Because even if the Dolphins had Dan Marino in his prime right now, he’d get pummeled behind a very poor offensive line.
The Miami offensive line was overmatched by Buffalo. The Bills collected six sacks.
On the first play of the game, the Bills sacked Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
On the second play of the game, the Bills sacked Tagovailoa again.
And the sacks came on blitzes in which Buffalo defensive backs had free runs at the Miami quarterback.
That’s not all.
The Bills had another free run at Tagovailoa that knocked him six yards back as he released the football and the ball fell incomplete. And even when the Dolphins actually started getting hats on hats, the Bills were all over a collapsing Miami pass pocket.
Eventually, on one hit, Buffalo defensive end A.J. Epenesa clobbered Tagovailoa and injured his ribs. The blow knocked Tagovailoa from the game.
That put backup Jacoby Brissett in the game and he is 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds and more able to withstand the punishment of a defensive onslaught. And that’s exactly what the Bills brought, hitting Brissett on a vast majority of his drop backs.
So what happened to all the rebuilding of the offensive line?
The Dolphins spent a first-round pick on left tackle Austin Jackson. He’s not better than Laremy Tunsil, which the team traded away. He’s worse. They spent a second-round pick on right guard Robert Hunt and he’s not exactly blowing away defenders.
Jackson had a penalty and Hunt had two this game.
The Dolphins offensive line, years in the making and remaking, is neither made nor remade yet.
Tagovailoa’s status for next week’s game at Las Vegas is uncertain.
But when he eventually returns, is he built to withstand the kind of punishment teams will almost definitely want to bring once they see Sunday’s tape?
Grier made the conscious decision to draft an undersized quarterback with an college injury history. And he has not built an offensive line to protect him.
And now we wonder where are the answers?
Did the Dolphins draft a bell cow running back who can carry the load of the offense and relieve pressure off the quarterback?
Did the addition of cornerback Noah Igbinoghene in the first round last season help the running game, or the defense that gave up two Josh Allen touchdown passes and a touchdown run?
Igbinoghene, by the way, was inactive for the second consecutive game Sunday.
The Dolphins drafted linebacker Jaelan Phillips with the No. 18 overall selection in April. He has been practically invisible so far this season. The Bills, meanwhile, selected University of Miami teammate Gregory Rousseau with the No. 30 overall selection in the same draft.
Rousseau had two sacks on Sunday.
And this is not merely a Phillips problem.
This is a Dolphins’ first-round pick problem because Tagovailoa, Jackson, Jaylen Waddle, Igbinoghene and Phillips did not factor against a division opponent the Dolphins need to catch to be playoff relevant.
About that: The Dolphins had the No. 6 overall scoring defense in 2020.
But in the last two games against the Bills they’ve yielded 91 points and been outscored by 65 points.
The galling thing for Dolphins fans is the Bills didn’t play exceedingly well. Quarterback Josh Allen was bad in the first half. He completed 7 of 16 passes for 62 yards with one TD and one interception. That was a 49.5 rating which was actually lower than Brissett’s of 58.9.
And yet this was never really a game. The Dolphins didn’t play well and didn’t show discipline.
Miami had nine penalties for 83 yards, including a facemask penalty, a late hit, and an unsportsmanlike penalty.
The Dolphins never really seemed to be in it other than at the opening kickoff. The Dolphins rebuild never really seemed to be working this day.