On Paper preview: Detroit Lions vs. Miami Dolphins

Pride of Detroit

The Detroit Lions desperately need to course correct, starting the year out with a disappointing 1-5. The start has been so bad that owner Sheila Hamp felt the need this week to step in front of the media and provide a vote of confidence in the current regime to the fanbase.

“I know this is difficult. Our rebuild is hard, but we really believe in our process,” Hamp said Wednesday. “We really believe in–we’re going to turn this thing around the right way, through the draft. It requires patience.”

Patience is a tough thing to sell to fans who have been waiting 65 years. Eventually, the signs of progress need to turn into actual, tangible wins.

This week’s contest against the Miami Dolphins provides another opportunity to get back on the winning side. Detroit made some strides last week, but can they take those and actually beat an opponent? Let’s take a look in our Lions vs. Dolphins On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (19th) vs. Dolphins pass defense (25th)

After a strong start to the season, Jared Goff has nose-dived in the past couple weeks. Even though he only had modest production when healthy, the absence of DJ Chark has undoubtedly affected Goff and his desire to throw downfield.

From The Detroit News’ Justin Rogers: the Lions attempted 26 passes of 20+ yards through the first four games. In the last two, they’ve attempted one (and it was picked off). Some of that may be more matchup based—they wanted a more conservative game plan against New England and Dallas, but that was also likely personnel dictated, and the lack of Chark is notable.

Goff, who once ranked in the top 10 in most statistical categories, now ranks near the middle or bottom.

  • Completion percentage: 62.3 (25th)
  • Yards per attempt: 7.5 (13th)
  • Passer rating: 90.6 (15th)
  • TD percentage: 5.2 (7th)
  • INT percentage: 2.8 (27th)

Detroit’s offensive line has been up and down all season—partially due to injuries—but has mostly been good. They’re 16th in pressure percentage allowed (21.1%), but 19th in pass block win rate (56%). Some of those numbers are dragged down by players who aren’t in the starting lineup anymore (see: Logan Stenberg and Dan Skipper).

Injuries have depleted the Dolphins secondary, and as a result, their pass defense has been among the worst in the NFL. Four of seven opponents outgained their averages in both passing yards and passer rating. They don’t have a truly dominant performance on their resume yet, as each opponent has either tallied a ton of passing yards or outgained their passer rating average.

Overall, the Dolphins rank 27th in EPA allowed per dropback, 27th in yards per attempt (7.6), 26th in passer rating (98.9), and have just 14 sacks on the season (20th).

It’s a little tough to gauge their pass rush based on stats alone. While their sack numbers are relatively low, they rank seventh in pass rush win rate and have the ninth-highest PFF pass rush grade. But their pressure percentage (15.5%) ranks 29th. One thing is for certain, Miami likes to blitz a lot, as two safeties Brandon Jones (now on IR) and Jevon Holland rank among their top five sackers. Don’t sleep on guys like Melvin Ingram (79.2 pass rush grade) and Christian Wilkins (74.7) though.

Player to watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Lions are expected to get St. Brown back after the star receiver was dealing with a sprained ankle and was taken out of last week’s game under the new concussion protocol. Though the Dolphins could shadow him with talented corner Xavien Howard, I’m guessing the Lions move Brown enough to free him up and put him against a less-talented Dolphins defensive back.

Advantage: Lions +1. Miami’s pass rush could certainly disrupt Goff in a way we’ve seen over the past two weeks, but they aren’t quite as dangerous as Dallas and New England. Instead, I expect Goff to have a bounce-back game, but modestly so.

Lions run offense (12th) vs. Dolphins run defense (7th)

Despite not having D’Andre Swift since Week 3 (and he was very limited in that contest), the Lions rushing attack has managed to keep its head above water. They’ve really only had one poor performance (Patriots), and that was likely in part to the game script falling away from them when they fell behind multiple scores.

Detroit’s run blocking unit has been among the best in the league, ranking 14th in run block win rate, 12th in PFF run blocking, and—most relevantly—third in yards before content per rush.

Swift is lined up to return this week, giving the Lions an explosive dynamic to a unit that has been missing that edge over the past few games.

The Lions’ kryptonite is still short-yardage runs. They rank 29th in short-yardage success, which is bad news this week. The Dolphins run defense ranks No. 1 in stopping short-yardage plays.

The Dolphins have allowed 100 rushing yards just three times this season, although they have allowed over 4.5 yards per carry three times, as well. Truly, only the Ravens and Bills were able to consistently run effectively against the Dolphins run defense, and the leading rusher in both of those games was the quarterback. Safe to say, the Lions don’t have that dimension to their running game.

Miami ranks fourth in adjusted line yards, third in “stuffed” rank, and ninth in yards per carry allowed (4.2)—but they have allowed eight rushing touchdowns this year (t-24th).

Maybe that’s why Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said this:

“I think upfront this might be the most stout run defense we faced all season,”

Player to watch: Christian Wilkins. The former first-round defensive tackle is one of the bigger menaces on this Dolphins defense. Both he (2nd) and defensive tackle Zach Sieler (8th) rank among the top 10 in ESPN’s run stop win rate among interior defenders.

Advantage: Even. When fully healthy at the beginning of the year, the Lions rushing attack was among the best in the league. This week, with Swift presumably back, they’ll be going against an elite run defense. This is truly strength vs. strength and should tell us a lot about how good this Lions run offense truly is when at full strength.

Dolphin pass offense (3rd) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

Week 4: Tua Tagovailoa left in the first half
Week 5: Mostly Skylar Thompson after Teddy Bridgewater was injured on first snap
Week 6: Mostly Teddy Bridgewater after Skylar Thompson suffered injury in second quarter

If you take away the three games he didn’t finish, Tua Tagovailoa has produced a passer rating above the defense’s averages in each of his four games—and many of those against very good pass defenses. By pass defense DVOA, the Patriots rank fifth, Ravens eighth, Bills fourth, and Steelers 15th. Tagovailoa—more or less—vanquished them all.

Overall, here’s where Tua ranks statistically:

  • Completion percentage: 67.3 (6th)
  • Yards per attempt: 8.6 (1st)
  • Passer rating: 105.9 (4th)
  • TD percentage: 6.0 (4th)
  • INT percentage: 2.0 (18th)

That said, Tagovailoa is prone to making mistakes. As pointed out by Erik Schlitt in his five keys to victory, Tagovailoa has the second-highest turnover-worthy plays percentage.

Of course, the highlight of the Dolphins passing attack is their two-headed hydra of receivers. Tyreek Hill currently leads the league in receiving yards, while Jaylen Waddle is fourth.

The Lions passing defense has been really, really bad all season, and there isn’t just one reason for it. They’ve struggled to rush the passer (31st in pass rush win rate), they’ve struggled to cover (32nd in PFF coverage grade), and injuries have plagued them everywhere.

This week, the Lions look to be hurting, especially at the safety position. Tracy Walker will remain on IR for the rest of the season, and other starting safety DeShon Elliott has missed the first two practices this week with a finger injury. Good luck, rookie Kerby Joseph and… JuJu Hughes?

That said, there’s a little bit of hope for this unit after a promising performance last week against the Cowboys. They were far from perfect, but by putting Aidan Hutchinson in a new position and getting back both Josh Paschal and John Cominsky, they were able to generate some legitimate pass rush.

Player to watch: Amani Oruwariye. While Jeff Okudah has played well this year, Oruwariye has not. And given that Okudah cannot cover both Hill and Waddle at the same time, it would make sense for Tagovailoa to target Oruwariye, who despite a nice game last week, still ranks dead last in PFF grade (28.6).

Advantage: Dolphins +4. It’s hard to imagine a more nightmarish matchup for the Lions. This Dolphins passing offense is speedy, electric, and when they get into a rhythm, even the best pass defenses have trouble keeping up. The Lions are definitely not one of the best passing defenses in the league, so I don’t see how they win this matchup. Even their potentially-improved pass rush may not matter, as Tagovailoa gets the ball out faster than all but five quarterbacks this year.

Dolphins run offense (17th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

By almost any metric, this is a pretty below-average rushing attack from the Dolphins. They’re 25th in yards per carry (3.9), 25th in expected points average per rush, and they’re also dead last in short-yardage success, converting those opportunities just 44 percent of the time.

They’ve been a little better as of late, though. In the past four weeks, Raheem Mostert—who has established himself as the RB1 over Chase Edmunds—has tallied 310 rushing yards on 63 carries (4.9 YPC).

Even though it felt like the Lions run defense took a step last week, at least some of that was due to a rushing attack that is average, at best. Still, it was a step in the right direction—going from horrible to just meh.

Because the Lions made so many defensive adjustments last week, it’s hard to know how much predictive power last week’s results have. The Lions have said they plan on keeping with the same strategy going forward, but how effective will they be with game film out there and against different schemes and talent?

At this point, I have very little faith in any predictive power over this defense, other than I expect it to continue to be a below-average unit.

Player to watch: Jeff Okudah. Last week, Okudah posted a 90.1 PFF run defense grade—by far the best among Week 7 cornerbacks. Detroit clearly recognized his talent as a tackler and want to use that as a weapon.

Advantage: Draw. Even if the Dolphins have a slight advantage here—and I think they may—Miami runs the ball so infrequently, that I don’t think this matchup will have a big enough impact on the overall outcome to move the needle in either direction. Among teams who have played seven games thus far, the Dolphins rank third-to-last in rushing attempts despite holding the lead often.

Last week’s prediction

Last week, I predicted a 30-17 Cowboys win, which wasn’t all that far off from the 24-6 final score. I did allow for the possibility that the Lions defense would come out of the bye week having figured things out, but I didn’t act on that, because there was no evidence of it actually happening. And when you look at the charts from last week, the defensive improvement was somewhat mild when taking into account Dallas’ mediocre offensive input all year. And while I gave the Cowboys a +2 advantage against the Lions pass offense, it probably should have been more, considering how disruptive their pass rush is.

In the comment section, MI Brew won the On Paper challenge with their impressive 28-6 Cowboys prediction. I’m going to wildly assume “MI Brew” is a Michigan fan based on their name, and because it’s Wolverine vs. Spartan week (and I am not an impartial party), here is your prize, MI Brew:

This week’s prediction:

The Dolphins come out with a +3 advantage, all because of their electric passing offense. That’s how you win in today’s NFL, so it makes sense that their emphasis is on that unit. Detroit has their own advantage in the passing game, but with injuries to their biggest weapons and inconsistent play from their quarterback, it’s hard to imagine them keeping pace with Miami—even if they were able to do that against their first few opponents this year.

The only path to success I see from Detroit is if they can capitalize on some inevitable bad plays from Tagovailoa and steal a possession or two. Unfortunately, the Lions rank 29th in takeaways per game, so I don’t see that happening. Dolphins 38, Lions 24.

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