Miami Dolphins

Keys to the game: Dolphins vs. Detroit Lions

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford AP

When the Lions pass the football

This team with Matthew Stafford at quarterback has been unspectacular passing the football so far. Yes, there are a couple of dynamic TD passes of 73 yards to Golden Tate and 67 yards to Calvin Johnson but two plays does not a passing game make. The mistake would be to believe the Lions would continue to be merely functional because now they benefit from the return of Johnson, who has missed three games with an ankle injury. He’s a difference-maker. Detroit is also hoping at least one or two tight ends can return to health this week and that can help open up the seam passes. Even the return of Reggie Bush adds a dimension for the passing game in that screen passes are once again a weapon. The Miami secondary has feasted in recent weeks --- collecting six interceptions in four games. Yes, they give up yardage. Indeed, cornerback Cortland Finnegan allows opposing quarterbacks a rating of over 100 throwing against him. But the big plays from the entire secondary, including Finnegan, often erase the memory and effect of multiple completed 12-yard outs or slants. Stafford, by the way, has been known to be a streaky thrower. ADVANTAGE: Detroit.

When the Lions run the football

Dolphins fans know as well as anyone that Reggie Bush is a hard worker. He doesn’t shy away from a lot of carries and, indeed, wants as many as he can get. He also runs between the tackles when he has to. But does Reggie Bush really scare anyone? He’s averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season. And backfield mate Joique Bell is a heftier tackling assignment at 229 pounds but he’s not been dynamic either, averaging 3.2 yards per carry with his longest run of the year being 17 yards. The Lions don’t run as their first option. The Lions don’t even run to set up the pass. They are the No. 31 running team in the NFL. They run because no one passes on every down. The Dolphins struggled to stop the run the past two seasons and actually got progressively worse at it. But they’ve stemmed that tide this year and are now more representative against the run than in past years, ranking No. 12 in the NFL in the category. They should dominate this category. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

When the Dolphins pass the football

The early season questions about whether Ryan Tannehill could play well and be a good quarterback have faded in the past month. With Jacksonville as a notable exception, Tannehill has been very good. He’s been on fire and he’s coming off a game where he posted his highest career quarterback rating. So he’s pointed in a very positive direction. The new question is can it continue? (Yeah, until and unless Tannehill reaches elite status there will always be new questions). Tannehill had a similar streak in early December of last season and then cooled off the final two weeks. Can he stay hot for an extended period? The Lions are excellent against the pass, primarily because they pressure the QB. That doesn’t diminish the fact they are No. 3 in pass TDs allowed per game, No. 5 in passing yards allowed per game, and No. 7 in interception percentage. This is the best pass defense Miami has faced so far. ADVANTAGE: Even.

When the Dolphins run the football

Ryan Tannehill has added a dimension that is more than gimmickry to the run game because he has at least one explosive run in each of the past four games. Indeed, Tannehill has a run of 20 yards or more in each of the past four games. That means the Lions and all opponents, really, have to respect the quarterback keep on the read option and have to spend time during the practice week preparing for it. On a more conventional level, Lamar Miller has always been considered a finesse runner even though he is breaking tackles at a higher rate this year. His toughness will be tested because his left shoulder suffered a minor separation last week and it happens to be the same shoulder that Miller injured at the University of Miami and required surgery. The Dolphins would be wise to have Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams ready for action. And the longstanding complaint that Miller doesn’t get the football often enough might have to take a break this week because it might be wise for Miller not to carry too often. The Lions have the No. 2 overall run defense in the NFL now. Enough said. ADVANTAGE: Detroit.

Special teams

The Dolphins invested a fifth-round draft pick on kicker Caleb Sturgis last year. The results have been mixed. Sturgis is a great kickoff man. But he has been inconsistent on field goals as his missed 45-yarder last week testifies. The Lions used a fifth-round pick last year on punter Sam Martin. It has been a good pickup so far. He is third in the NFL with a 47.6 gross punting average and eighth in the NFL with a 41.4 net average. Detroit kicker Matt Prater is a recent roster addition. He was 3-for-3, including a game winner against Atlanta but actually missed a shorter field goal to win the game that was nullified by penalty. Prater has been inconsistent, connecting on 5 of 7 kicks. The Lions are very good returning punts and kicks. The Dolphins are very good returning kicks but need to improve on punt returns. ADVANTAGE: Detroit.

Coaching

The Dolphins coaching staff has rallied behind head coach Joe Philbin as he stepped away the past two weeks for both the passing and funeral of his father. DC Kevin Coyle stepped up as team spokesman and staff elder statesman although he said he has no interest in ever being a head coach, which is odd considering most coaches are very ambitious. The staff seems to be closer now. Detroit’s Jim Caldwell has brought a calm and discipline to the Lions that they lacked before. If a team reflects the personality of its coach, the Lions will be playing smart, classy football under Caldwell. Are they there yet? Not quite yet. ADVANTAGE: Miami.

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