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The 3 biggest questions of the Chiefs-Dolphins matchup

What are the biggest unknowns about Saturday’s Wild Card matchup between Kansas City and Miami?

Miami Dolphins v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images

In the postseason, our normal Question of the Week becomes a playoff preview in which we’ll consider the biggest questions regarding each Kansas City Chiefs game. Let’s take a look at Saturday night’s Wild Card matchup against the Miami Dolphins.

1. What does Miami do without their edge rushers?

The Dolphins’ defense had been improving significantly. Since cornerback Jalen Ramsey joined the lineup in Week 8, the Dolphins have ranked eighth in expected points added (EPA) per play and seventh in success rate. (That was up from 23rd and 27th before then). Miami also ranked third in both rushing EPA and success rate, while still being decent against the pass (seventh in dropback EPA, 13th in success rate).

But injuries have hit the team — particularly at edge rusher. Jaelan Phillips tore an Achilles, and Bradley Chubb tore an ACL. Their terrific situational pass rusher Andrew Van Ginkel will also be out of Saturday’s game. So Miami was down to having only Emmanuel Ogbah and Melvin Ingram as their defensive ends. Against the Bills on Sunday, they combined for four pressures on 52 snaps.

Miami’s defense was built around playing zone coverage and winning with four on the line, but that’s no longer an option. In 26 dropbacks against the Dolphins’ four-man rush on Sunday, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen was pressured nine times, going 19 of 22 for 174 yards, one touchdown and one interception. While being blitzed over 19 dropbacks, he was pressured 11 times, completing 11 of 16 passes for 185 yards, a touchdown and an interception. When Miami sends four, they’re not nearly as effective in getting pressure.

In 2017, Ogbah and Ingram would’ve been fantastic — but now at the ages of 30 and 34, they’re just not the same. On Tuesday, the Dolphins signed two outside linebackers: 34-year-old Justin Houston (a former Chief who was most recently with the Carolina Panthers) and 36-year-old Bruce Irvin, who was recently released from the Detroit Lions.

How will Miami’s defense adjust? Will Vic Fangio send more blitzes and simulated pressures to hurt Kansas City? Will the Chiefs have the protection packages to pick those up?

Expect Kansas City to run some long-shot plays downfield to attack a defense that will have difficulty getting any pressure off the edge.

2. What difference will De’Von Achane make?

While Miami is dealing with a variety of injuries, one guy who didn’t play against the Chiefs in Week 9 will be back: rookie running back De’Von Achane.

A third-rounder from Texas A&M, I rated Achane as the second-best back in last spring’s NFL Draft. He is one of the fastest running backs in NFL history. During one game this season, he was clocked at 21.93 miles per hour.

Because of a knee injury that put him on Miami’s Reserve/Injured list, Achane hasn’t been a high-usage player for the Dolphins. But in low volumes, he’s been fantastic. He is currently averaging 7.9 yards per carry. His 4.9 yards before contact is 1.4 yards higher than the second-place running back. His 54.4% success rate ranks sixth among the league’s running backs.

Achane — along with wideouts Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle — allow the Dolphins’ offense is use speed and misdirection to create havoc; when these players are running in every direction, the offense is hard to stop. In Week 9, the Chiefs didn’t have to face all three — but still surrendered 5.6 yards per carry, including 7.1 to running back Raheem Mostert.

If Miami features Achane, will the Chiefs have the speed to stop him? Are they prepared for misdirection from three different speed merchants? How can the Chiefs limit explosive runs in space?

Considering Saturday’s weather conditions, I would bet that the Dolphins will have an extensive package for Achane. It’ll be up to the Chiefs to stop him.

3. Can the Chiefs force Tua Tagovailoa’s throws outside the numbers?

The Dolphins’ quarterback has clear strengths and weaknesses. He displays a quick release, accuracy and anticipation over the middle of the field. Head coach Mike McDaniel has built a scheme around these strengths that maximize yards-after-catch opportunities for Hill and Waddle.

But Tagovailoa’s weaknesses are on throws outside the numbers. Here are his stats for intermediate and deep throws outside.

Tua Tagovalioa outside the numbers

Location (Pct) Att Cmp Pct Yds Y/A TDs Ints
Deep left (3.6%) 20 8 40.0% 324 16.2 4 3
Deep right (5.0%) 28 18 64.3% 617 22.0 5 1
Middle left (4.8%) 27 9 33.3% 154 5.7 0 0
Middle right (3.0%) 17 6 35.3% 99 5.8 3 3

All data courtesy Pro Football Focus.

Tagovailoa lacks the arm strength or velocity to punish teams with far perimeter throws. So the defenses of the Bills and Baltimore Ravens forced him to throw outside the numbers — and Miami’s passing game cratered. Look at his passing charts from those games.

When you can close the middle of the field, you can get Miami to throw these more difficult throws — or check it down.

Can the Chiefs get Tagovailoa to attempt these passes? Will they be able to stop the middle of the field well enough to force the Dolphins to take those opportunities?

In the cold weather at Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City will want to test Tagovailoa’s arm strength beyond the numbers — but the Chiefs will need to force those opportunities. That will be the challenge for defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

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