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Navy grad Malcolm Perry is among the young special teams players who could decide Dolphins' playoff fate

Miami Dolphins running back Malcolm Perry at training camp in August, 2020.

ALLEN EYESTONE/THE PALM BEACH POST

By JOE SCHAD | Palm Beach Post | Published: December 30, 2020

PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — It will be cold and it may be snowy and it certainly will be windy at times in Buffalo on Sunday, in what is likely a must-win game for the Dolphins.

There will be plenty of focus on how Tua Tagovailoa does as a starter and if Ryan Fitzpatrick relieves him. There will be plenty of attention paid to if Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen starts, and how long he plays, with rest a possible priority.

But Miami's postseason odds could be determined by how young players, notably rookies, perform on special teams. With return standout Jakeem Grant expected to miss the game with a high ankle injury, rookie Malcolm Perry is likely next man up.

Perry has one fair catch in an NFL game, last Saturday at Las Vegas, and no returns. Perry also never returned a punt return in college, at Navy. So, basically, the first college or pro return of his life could be at Buffalo, in January, with a season on the line.

What is Dolphins coach Brian Flores' message to Perry and fellow rookies Noah Igbinoghene and Lynn Bowden, all candidates to return punts and kickoffs on Sunday afternoon in frigid Western New York? Flores did not mince words.

"Those three rookies that you mentioned, look, we talk about ball security every day here, how important that is," Flores said. "So make smart decisions with the football when you have it. Catching it. Putting it away. The entire fate of the team is in your hand when have it so you have to protect it. That's the message to those three guys and everyone on the team."

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The way Flores put it — the entire fate of the team — gives an indication of how strongly he stresses ball security. Miami has been one of the NFL's best in that category in 2020.

Miami has been one of the best special teams units in the NFL all season, ranked fourth in the Football Outsiders formula. But Buffalo is also strong, ranked fifth.

The loss of Grant, one of the elite returners in the league, could remove Miami's edge. The Dolphins have not been strong in kickoff returns and the Bills are tops in the league in that area, though it is true kickoff returns are rare now.

Miami will use rookie Noah Igbinoghene on kickoff returns. At Auburn, he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Both squads are excellent in coverage. But Miami should have an edge at kicker. Jason Sanders has missed only three tries, while Tyler Bass has missed six.

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And the Dolphins are better at punter. Matt Haack has 24 punts inside the 20-yard line as opposed to Buffalo's Corey Bojorquez has 16 such punts.

It is possible Miami uses Perry as a safety returner, expected to most often fair catch. If the Dolphins need to play for a big return, rookie Lynn Bowden is an intriguing option.

At Kentucky, Bowden had nine punts returns and scored two touchdowns.

The last time the Dolphins made the playoffs, in 2016, a spot was earned with a victory at Buffalo the day before Christmas. Miami's Andrew Franks booted a 55-yarder with 10 seconds left to force overtime.

"I remember the kick," said Sanders, the Dolphins' kicker. I remember I saw a video of the kick."

Sanders did not recall that Franks, then in his second season in Miami, kicked a traditional football as opposed to the usual kick-prepped "K-Ball." The Dolphins did not have time to swap in the other ball before the kick.

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Sanders, who said he's never kicked a "quarterback ball" isn't too worried about the cold or potential precipitation on Sunday.

"I don’t think the cold will be as big of a factor as maybe the wind," Sanders said. "It’s just staying smooth with your process. It’s a pregame thing where you identify how it’s working, how the ball is flying off your foot and you’ve got to make it happen from there. So I’m going to identify where the wind is blowing and probably just go off that and hopefully all my kicks go in."

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: How young special teams players could decide Dolphins' fate at Bills

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