There will surely be some emotions felt when the Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) take the field at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, to face the Miami Dolphins (8-4). The last time they played there, they were showered in confetti as they celebrated the victory in Super Bowl LIV.
Now, they’ll need this victory to give themselves the best chance at winning another championship. With four regular-season games remaining, the Chiefs are racing with the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) for the top seed — and lone bye week — in the AFC playoffs. The problem: the Steelers may have the same record, but their only loss is to an NFC opponent — which gives them the tiebreaker over Kansas City if both teams win out.
Besides hoping the Steelers fall again, the only thing the Chiefs can do on their end is win every game they play — especially against AFC opponents. On top of that, the Dolphins are making a run at a playoff spot and could be a team that the Chiefs see again in January.
In the Chiefs’ first matchup with the Dolphins in Miami since 2014, I have five things to watch:
1. The Patriotsesque defensive strategy
In the summer of 2019, head coach Brian Flores was hired away by Miami from his spot with the New England Patriots as their defensive play-caller and linebackers coach. In his last season in New England, he helped slow down quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs enough to beat them two times — including at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC championship.
Now, his defense in Miami is playing at the level of some of those New England teams — and with a similar style.
Teams that play the most man coverage:— Jacob Gibbs (@jagibbs_23) December 11, 2020
51.6% - Miami Dolphins
47.7% - Detroit Lions
46.6% - Philadelphia Eagles
44.6% - New England Patriots
44% - Arizona Cardinals
44% - Baltimore Ravens
40% - Cincinnati Bengals
38.4% - Tennessee Titans
37% - New Orleans Saints
36% - KC Chiefs
The Dolphins are allowing less than 18 points per game, which is the second-lowest mark in the NFL. They’ve forced the second-most turnovers, have only allowed 14 passing touchdowns all season and allowed a score on the lowest percentage of their drives in the NFL. They follow the New England model by playing a lot of man coverage and blitzing at the second-highest rate in the league.
They certainly have some talent to help the cause. Starting boundary cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are currently two of the six highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL. While Jones has been unproductive this season, Howard has totaled eight interceptions and eight other passes defended — while also allowing a passer rating of 48.9 on the 71 times he’s been targeted in coverage.
The Chiefs will need their pass-catchers to win individual coverage matchups on Sunday. There’s no reason to believe they can’t.
2. Rattling the rookie quarterback
Since taking over for initial starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 8, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been solid with flashes of high-level play. He’s thrown seven touchdowns to zero interceptions so far this season and has made enough plays to win four of his five starts.
That being said, he was bad enough in their loss to the Denver Broncos two weeks ago to be benched in favor of Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter. He finished with 83 passing yards and an 80.1 passer rating while being sacked six times. The Dolphins’ run game and quick passing have been able to keep Tagovailoa safe from dealing with the pass rush— but in the 44 dropbacks he has faced pressure, he only has 13 completions, no touchdowns, and a passer rating of 55.8.
You don’t need to hear it again, but it’s as true as it ever has been: the Chiefs’ pass rush needs to step up and affect the opposing quarterback more. Right now, the only way they are getting pressure is with blitzing, which cannot be the case with talent like defensive linemen Frank Clark and Chris Jones.
The Dolphins have been effective at minimizing sacks with scheme, but it’s still a very exploitable front five. Watch to see if the Chiefs’ defensive line can take advantage.
3. Containing an old friend
Last season, the Chiefs’ best pass rusher midway through the season was current Dolphins defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. He finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks despite missing the final six games of the year with a torn pectoral muscle and wasn’t re-signed this offseason.
Now, he’s tearing it up under Flores’ multiple defensive front — which is 3-4 in base where Ogbah is inside on the guard but will get him on the edge with the offensive tackle when in nickel and dime. Coming from the offense’s right side mostly, he’s eighth in the NFL with eight sacks and sixth overall with 53 pressures, per PFF. He will be a very tough test for Chiefs’ right tackle Mike Remmers, who has filled in admirably for Mitchell Schwartz so far.
Besides Ogbah, defensive end Shaq Lawson has made his presence felt on opposing passers this season. They have some talented interior linemen with Christian Wilkins and rookie Raekwon Davis that will absolutely present a challenge to the Chiefs’ interior group. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has been a very effective blitzer for Miami — as Kansas City remembers from his play in the 2018 AFC championship — but he is questionable to play with a hip injury.
The entire pass rush group will be a key to the Dolphins’ success in this game, but especially the play of Ogbah.
4. A Chiefs’ secondary at less than full strength
In Friday’s practice, safety Tyrann Mathieu was all of a sudden limited due to a hip injury that has made him questionable for Sunday’s game. This was obviously surprising; it’s not often that Mathieu appears on the injury report at all. Even if he can play, it will be important to monitor whether or not he is at full strength.
If he isn’t, his inability to close fast or change direction quickly — traits that make him an elite safety — could get exposed by the explosive pass-catchers for the Dolphins.
First off, tight end Mike Gesicki is averaging nearly 14 yards per reception on 39 catches while being both a YAC threat and a jump-ball guy. Wide receiver Jakeem Grant is a threat from the slot to beat you in open space and down the middle of the field as a deep threat. Plus, they’ve had a solid rotation of running backs who are hard to tackle at the second and third level of the defense.
Mathieu being at full health would help to defend those specific players, but there should be confidence in cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland matching up with Miami receiver DeVante Parker. Parker’s size and speed combination doesn’t overcome either of their own sets of length and athleticism.
It will be intriguing to see if Mathieu can go on Sunday — or how effective he is as a hampered player.
5. Willie Gay Jr.’s increased role
Another blow to the Chiefs defense is the absence of starting linebacker Damien Wilson — who did not practice all week with a knee injury and was officially ruled out on Friday. Head coach Andy Reid confirmed that Willie Gay is likely to directly replace Wilson’s role this week.
Gay has had three games this year where he’s seen close to half of the team’s defensive snaps, but the Wilson injury should have him seeing the field more than he ever has as an NFL player. It will be a great test to see how far Gay has come from Week 1, where he wasn’t trusted to play any snaps at all.
He’ll be needed to help in coverage with the tight end, Gesicki. Gay’s ability to keep up with Gesicki’s athleticism on vertical routes down the middle of the field could be a huge factor in how this game plays out.
Watch to see how Gay does in what should be the biggest single-game volume of his rookie season.