Allen Park — It’s hardly unusual for an NFL team to have one speedy receiver, but the Miami Dolphins offense is uniquely built to test defenses with an unprecedented amount of speed, both with its receiving corps and backfield.
The trio of Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert are three of the fastest players in the game, confirmed by GPS tracking data provided by the league, and the Lions are tasked with finding a way to neutralize them if they hope to snap a four-game losing streak on Sunday.
Coming into the game, Hill and Waddle rank first and fourth in receiving yardage. Hill’s 773 yards are more than 100 more than anyone else in the league and have him on pace to smash his previous career high and threaten Lions Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson’s single-season mark set in 2012.
Waddle, in his second season, has chipped in another 621 yards and his 18.3 yards per catch is the most for any pass-catcher with at least 20 receptions.
Asked what the Lions need to do to slow down the playmaking ability of Miami’s outside threats, defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant offered three keys: “Make them beat us left-handed, disrupt when the opportunities are there and understand why they’re one of the most explosive offenses in the league.”
Comically, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is left-handed, the only southpaw starter in the league. Still, it’s easy to understand what Pleasant is getting at. The Lions have to be aware of the ways Hill and Waddle have been successful and do everything they can to minimize those strengths.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who covered plenty of blazing fast receivers during his 15-year NFL career, offered an even simpler approach to limiting the damage.
“Well, there’s a couple of things you can do,” Glenn said. “First all, back up. That’s just the truth. Secondly, get your hands on them. Don’t let them utilize what they have. You always want to put yourself in an advantageous situation, and our guys are bigger, lengthier guys, so that’s something that we’re going to get a chance to do on those guys, be able to get our hands on them, just disrupt them.
“The one thing that you can’t do is just allow receivers into the teeth of your defense.”
The added challenge is the Dolphins can accomplish that a number of ways with their receivers, from traditional deep routes to schemed catch-and-run situations. That includes an extensive amount of motions that allow them to be at or near top speed when the ball is snapped, increasing the importance of pre-snap identification and post-snap communication.
Obviously, the pass rush has a role as well. Detroit’s has been slightly better this season, but Tagovailoa presents problems with his speed, as well. That doesn’t necessary mean with his feet, although he can do that too when pressured and presented a lane to scramble, but more specifically only a handful of quarterbacks get rid of the ball as quickly as he does.
“It’s a part of being a pass rusher is guys who get that ball out quick and not getting frustrated,” Lions rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “But when you do get those long drop backs with those long, developing routes, that’s when we’ve got to win. That’s when it’s the most important point.”
The Lions are tapping into all their resources this week as they construct a game plan. The goal, according to cornerback Jeff Okudah, is keeping Hill and Waddle off balance with their coverage looks on top of playing physical at the line when those opportunities are there.
And Okudah has a unique resource as he’s prepared this week in teammate Mike Hughes, who played with Hill in Kansas City last year and had to the opportunity to cover Hill on hundred of routes on the practice field.
“Since I’ve been in the league, I haven’t really covered anyone like that,” Okudah said. “Really going to lean on the guys who have guarded him in our room. I know Mike was in Kansas City, so he said he’s been able to see him live at practice. Going to lean on the guys who have gone against him and have a little more experience on his style of play and kind of make my plan based off of that.”
And the Lions can’t forget about Mostert coming out of the backfield. He’s averaging 4.5 yards per handoff and has 11 gains of 10 or more yards on 87 carries. And although his longest run this season has been 25 yards, he’s a constant threat to break a big one, just like he did in 2020 when he recorded the fastest time of any ball carrier that year on an 80-yard touchdown scamper.
“When you’ve got that kind of speed on the perimeter, it forces you to play in a lighter box a lot of times,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “Which means now your front six, if you’re in nickel, has got to take care of the stuff in the middle. It creates creases and you’ve got a pretty good run game in there. The tight end, Mostert, those guys, (Chase) Edmonds can hit it. So it presents a challenge. I mean, just about the time you think you’re building an umbrella over the top of Waddle and Tyreek, man, they can hurt you inside.”