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Mark Gaughan's X's and O's: Banged up O-lines cause uptick in sacks

Sacks are up this season in the NFL.

It’s more a reflection of injuries on the offensive line throughout the league than any uptick in edge rushing talent.

The league is on pace for 40.3 sacks per team with one week to go in the season, which would be the most in the past five years and the second most in the past 20 years. It’s an 8 percent increase over the average of the past 10 years (37.13). Not huge but noteworthy.

Sack numbers have remained remarkably steady over the past 20 years, hovering around that 37-per-team mark.

Two of the NFL’s best offensive lines from last season – Dallas and Jacksonville – both have been plagued by injuries and have given up 20 and 24 more sacks, respectively, than last year. That alone accounts for about half of the increase.

Sunday’s regular-season finale in New Era Field offers a chance for the Bills and Dolphins to pad their sack totals.

The Dolphins have allowed 48 sacks, 15 more than last year, and rank 30th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass attempt. Part of the problem is injuries. Miami lost its best guard, Josh Sitton, and starting center Daniel Kilgore to injuries in September. Right tackle Ju’Wuan James is a liability in pass protection.

Contrary to what some fans might expect, the Bills have given up fewer sacks this year, despite the inexperience at quarterback. Buffalo has allowed 40. Last year they allowed 47, 46 by Tyrod Taylor.

Buffalo ranks 22nd in sacks allowed per pass play. Last year it was 30th.

The 30,000-foot view: Adam Gase is a good offensive head coach. Presuming he survives, he will be searching for a new starting QB. What’s more, the Dolphins have a lot of work to do on defense. Miami ranks 30th in yards allowed, 27th in sacks per pass attempt. The best player on the defensive line is Cameron Wake, who turns 37 in January and whose contract is up. The other edge starter, Robert Quinn, has been decent rushing the passer but a liability against the run. A top-end defensive tackle is a dire need. At linebacker, third-round pick Robert Baker has had a promising rookie year, but the other two starters (Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan) can be suspect. Defensive coordinator Matt Burke is on a very hot seat. But as we saw in Buffalo during The Drought, when a head coach with limited job security goes looking for a new coordinator, the candidates aren’t always great. Furthermore, Miami is in the bottom eight in cap space for 2019, with about $20 million in room, before offseason cuts are made.

Weak link: Run defense. Miami is 31st in rushing yards allowed and 24th in yards per rush allowed. On first and 10, Miami has allowed 1,043 rush yards, fourth most in the league. If LeSean McCoy wants to make a statement that he can bring value to the Bills in 2019, the season finale would be a fine time to do it.

The run-defense problems have put Miami in too many disadvantageous third-down situations. The Dolphin defense is 28th on third downs.

“This year we haven’t done a good job on first and second down,” Gase told The News on a conference call this week. “The opponents’ run game has been able to do way too much against us. We’ve been trying to get that fixed for basically the entire season. We’ve allowed way too many explosive runs, which has allowed teams to basically go first down, second down, first down too much. Then when we get to third down, it’s third and short too often.”

Matchup watch

Robert Foster vs. Miami CBs. Miami’s Xavien Howard was named to his first Pro Bowl last week and is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven. But he has missed the past three games with a knee injury and might not play. He had two interceptions on Josh Allen a month ago, although one was on a Hail Mary pass. The Dolphins’ No. 2 corner, T.J. McDonald, is even more questionable to play due to an ankle injury. If they’re out Bobby McCain and Torry McTyer fill in.

Josh Allen vs. Miami LBs. Allen rushed for 135 yards on Miami in the first meeting. Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso spent part of the game chasing him around. With the cornerbacks banged up, look for Miami to play more zone coverage against the Bills to try to better contain Allen. Alonso leads Miami with 120 tackles but missed last week’s game with ankle and hamstring injuries. If he can’t go, Mike Hull takes his spot.

Kenyan Drake vs. Lorenzo Alexander. The speedy Drake leads Miami in yards from scrimmage with 492 yards rushing and 48 catches for 425 yards. He has nine TDs. Look for Miami to try to isolate Drake in space against either Alexander or Corey Thompson. Getting the ball out of Ryan Tannehill’s hands quickly is the focus for a Dolphins pass game that is geared around short to intermediate passes.

Stat for the road: Miami is 1-6 on the road and 6-2 at home. The Dolphins have scored 23 ppg at home and 16 ppg on the road. Over the past three seasons, Miami is 16-7 at home and 7-16 on the road.

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