Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins need offensive playmakers to step up to clinch playoff berth vs. Bills

Safid Deen, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has struggled trying to stretch the Miami Dolphins’ offense downfield during the first eight starts of his career.

On one hand, Tagovailoa has only three turnovers. One the other hand, however, he hasn’t thrown more than two touchdowns in any game, has just one game with more than 300 yards passing and hasn’t thrown a completion longer than 35 yards.

Tagovailoa may not need to do those things in order to lead the Dolphins (10-5) to victory in a must-win game on the road against the Buffalo Bills (12-3) on Sunday at 1 p.m.

But if Tagovailoa is going to lead Miami to a playoff berth during coach Brian Flores’ second season, he’ll need to depend on a depleted Dolphins receiving core to move the offense.

“You get the ball in the hands of our playmakers and you let them make plays. I would say that’s how you do it. That’s one way,” Tagovailoa said this week, when asked how he can deliver big plays in the run-pass-option scheme the Dolphins use for him.

“Then other ways are just pushing the ball downfield, and I would say that’s what I need to do a better job with. Especially this past game and games prior.”

Sunday’s game could come down to the performance of two key Dolphins playmakers this season. If not, the Dolphins will need a loss by the Browns, Ravens or Colts to enter the playoffs. All three teams are favored this week.

Starting tight end Mike Gesicki, who leads the Dolphins with six touchdown catches this season, was able to play through a right shoulder injury last week against the Las Vegas Raiders. He became a full participant in practice this week.

And leading receiver DeVante Parker, who has 57 catches for 677 yards, enters the Bills game as questionable to play with a nagging hamstring injury that caused him to miss the past two games.

“That’s the league and that’s Week 17 of an NFL season. Guys are in and out, guys get banged up and hopefully we’ll get some guys back, but everyone’s got to step up,” Dolphins center Ted Karras said.

Gesicki initially thought he had a dead arm when he was tackled and landed on his right shoulder during the Dolphins’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Dec. 13. He could not move his arm, and a Dolphins trainer held it in place as he walked off the field.

Gesicki praised Dolphins trainer Kyle Johnston and assistant athletic trainer Troy Maurer for helping him rehabilitate and strengthen the injury.

Gesicki had four catches for 54 yards, including a 31-yard catch from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick that set up a field goal in Miami’s comeback win over the Las Vegas Raiders last week.

“Honestly, I’m just going out there, and I’ve just got to make plays when they come,” Gesicki said.

“Whether it’s once or 10 times or whatever it is, once you’re out there and you agree to go out there and play, it doesn’t matter what percentage you’re at or how you’re feeling or whatever it is. Nobody cares. You’ve got to go out there and make plays.”

As for Parker, the Dolphins’ 2015 first-round pick who dealt with nagging injuries over the course of his career, the end of the 2020 season is no different.

Although Parker was able to practice during Raiders week, he did not suit up after traveling with the team to Las Vegas.

Parker was able to play for an entire season and eclipse 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career in 2019. He had career highs of 72 receptions for 1,202 yards with nine touchdowns, while being targeted 128 times last season.

Tagovailoa and the Dolphins need Parker to be as close to healthy as possible for the regular season finale and any playoff games that might follow.

“He’s doing everything he can and he’s getting close,” Flores said of Parker. “And when he’s ready, we’ll get him out there.”

Behind Parker and Gesicki, Tagovailoa’s receiving core is relatively thin.

Receiver Jakeem Grant is dealing with a high ankle sprain and is questionable to play against Buffalo, while second-year Preston Williams ended the season on injured reserve with a foot injury sustained on Nov. 8.

Dolphins veteran Isaiah Ford returned to the team after a midseason trade to the New England Patriots, and his experience has been valuable, particularly with helping other players line up at times during games.

Rookie Lynn Bowden Jr. has seen some success as a slot or gadget playmaker for the Dolphins, while veteran Mack Hollins recovered from two drops to make the game-changing 34-yard catch from Fitzpatrick in the final seconds in Las Vegas to help deliver a win.

Along with the receivers, Tagovailoa will rely on running backs Myles Gaskin, who scored two touchdowns last week against the Raiders and Salvon Ahmed, who gained 122 yards against the Patriots on Dec. 20.

Tight ends Adam Shaheen, who has three touchdown catches, and Durham Smythe, who has two, could also be depended on.

“We have to put our best foot forward, have our best efforts, our best execution against a very good football team – that’s whoever we have out there,” Flores said.

“We have to execute against a good football team.”