In what could be considered the surprise game of the week, the 5-3 Dolphins travel to Detroit to take on the 6-2 Lions. Both teams have been playing good football of late, and a win would put either club in great position to make a postseason run.
Lions Offense vs Dolphins Defense:
The last time the Lions played, they did not have Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, or their top 3 tight ends. They also didn’t have their starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle. While the three tight ends are listed as questionable, Johnson, Bush, and Waddle will return to the lineup Sunday, which is important for an offense that has been somewhat inconsistent this season.
The inconsistency starts with quarterback Matthew Stafford. When he is seeing the field and not forcing balls, he’s as good as any quarterback in the league. When he force passes or misses throws physically, like he did all throughout the first half against Atlanta in Week 8, he can be as bad as any quarterback in the NFL. As he goes, this offense goes.
The good news for Stafford is that he’ll be getting his top target and star wide receiver Calvin Johnson back. Besides being a physical freak, Johnson draws double teams regularly, which creates 1-on-1 matchups elsewhere, and takes defenders away from helping out in the running game.
The running game will get some help with Reggie Bush back in the lineup, but the struggles in Detroit’s rushing attack have more to do with their offensive line. The O-line is not very physical or athletic. They don’t move the line of scrimmage or get to the second level. Against the Dolphins defensive line, which is one of the best in the NFL, their task of getting things going on the ground will be extremely difficult.
The Lions have had protection issues on the edge all season. Because of injuries, the right tackle position has been somewhat of a revolving door. Normal starter LaAdrian Waddle returns this week, but his task will be to stop the Dolphins’ dominant defensive end Cameron Wake. This is something that few tackles in the NFL have been able to handle this year, so Waddle will need help from his backs and tight ends chipping or staying in to double-team.
If Wake was the only defender Detroit had to worry about, they might be fine in protection. But defensive end #50 Olivier Vernon on the other side is a handful himself. He’s athletic and explosive. Left tackle Riley Reiff struggled in Week 8 against Osi Umenyiora (who has very little explosion left), so he’ll also need help in pass protection on his side. This is easier said than done because leaving blockers in or having them chip sends fewer receivers out into routes, which makes it easier to defend the passing game. Not to mention, the Dolphins interior defensive line creates plenty of issues in protection with the 1-on-1 matchups they get.
Dolphins Offense vs Lions Defense:
The Dolphins offense has significantly improved since their 1-2 start. Much of that has come from Ryan Tannehill. The 3rd-year signal caller has steadily gotten better, with the most dramatic difference being his footwork. Now, when Tannehill scans the field with his eyes, his feet go with him, and this means he’s ready to throw at all times. Tannehill has succeeded later in play on passes from the pocket more frequently as a result.
Miami’s running game is built around the read-option. That’s right, the read-option; the play that quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick seemingly used to run on every down. Most of the time, Tannehill gives the ball to his running back Lamar Miller, and Miller has found plenty of room to run based on how well his offensive line has been blocking. Several times, Tannehill has kept the ball for big chunks of yards. In case you were wondering, he has rushed for only 12 yards less than Cam Newton this season on 26 fewer carries. This has helped keep backside defenders from pursuing Miller on read-options, which creates more room for cutbacks.
The Dolphins offensive line certainly has a tall order in front of it against the Lions D-line on Sunday. Their greatest weakness is at the left guard position in backup Dallas Thomas. When Ndamukong Suh aligns over him, Thomas will need help to double-team. Detroit has a lot of speed at the linebacker position as well, which enables them to attack the line of scrimmage quickly against the run. This doesn’t give offensive linemen much time to get to the second level. Tannehill keeping the ball more often could help prevent Detroit linebackers from pursuing Lamar Miller as quickly.
Miami’s biggest mismatch piece in the passing game is tight end Charles Clay. Clay has a lot of speed and quickness for a tight end, and the Dolphins have done a great job of isolating him 1-on-1 with linebackers. However, with the speed Detroit has at the linebacker position, they might be able to match up well with Clay. They Lions also play lots of 2-man coverage. This means man coverage underneath with 2 safeties over the top. In 2-man, the underneath defenders play between the receivers and the quarterback, in effect trailing their respective receivers knowing that they have safety help over the top. Receivers then have to work across the field with horizontal routes to get open. Yet, horizontal routes are exactly what these trailing underneath defenders are ready to try and take away. The Lions’ use of 2-man might help neutralize Clay’s effect. Expect this look in 3rd down situations on Sunday.
Ultimately, this is an interesting matchup between two teams playing really good football right now. Two of the league’s top defenses should help keep this game close.