Detroit Lions vs. Miami Dolphins: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions (1-5) at Miami Dolphins (4-3)

The coaches: Lions — Dan Campbell (9-25-1 overall, 4-18-1 with Lions); Dolphins — Mike McDaniel (4-3 overall, 4-3 with Dolphins).

Last game: Lions lost to Dallas Cowboys, 24-6. Dolphins beat Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-10.

Last meeting: Oct. 21, 2018: Lions won, 32-21.

Key matchups

Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill vs. Lions CB Jeff Okudah: Okudah had his best game as a Lion last week against the Cowboys, when he made 15 tackles, was strong in run support and held the receivers he was covering to three catches for 22 yards. Okudah has settled in as the Lions’ No. 1 cornerback this fall, but he might have his toughest challenge of the season Sunday against Miami’s speedy receiving corps. Hill is a blur in the open field, and the Dolphins use motions and the quick passing game to get him the ball in space. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn touted his big cornerbacks’ physical play as a way to stymie Hill and Jaylen Waddle, and if Okudah and Amani Oruwariye don’t get their hands on Miami’s receivers early they could be in for a long day.

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Lions WR Josh Reynolds vs. Dolphins CB Noah Igbinoghene: The Lions have topped 100 yards rushing in every game this year, but their passing game has been less reliable with Jared Goff at quarterback and an injury-depleted receiving corps. Amon-Ra St. Brown is back this week, and the Lions surely will move him around to get him the ball. But top Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard has a habit of shutting down good receivers, which makes it incumbent on opponents to get production out of the No. 2 spot. Reynolds is more than halfway to a career-high total in receiving yards. He’s averaged 14.3 yards per catch this season and gives the Lions some semblance of a deep threat while DJ Chark and Jameson Williams are out.

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Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Dolphins run defense

D’Andre Swift was a full participant in practice this week and should be back in the lineup for the first time since spraining his shoulder in a Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions have run the ball effectively in Swift’s absence, but have lacked a big-play threat in their backfield.

Swift has home run ability every time he touches the ball, but likely won’t get a full workload in his first game in more than a month. Jamaal Williams has handled the bulk of the rushing duties in Swift’s absence and looked good doing so. He’s averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry, and his ball security issues last week (two fumbles, one lost) are not indicative of who he is as a runner.

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The Dolphins have the NFL’s eighth-ranked run defense at 103.3 yards per game. They play primarily out of their base 3-4 defense rather than nickel, and Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said Miami’s read-and-react front is “excellent at the jobs that they’re asked to do.” Fourth-year defensive lineman Christian Wilkins is playing at a Pro Bowl level with six tackles for loss.  Edge: Lions.

Lions pass offense vs. Dolphins pass defense

Goff’s turnover issues — he has six in the past two games — have hamstrung the Lions offense in recent weeks. He said some of those issues are due to drifting too deep in the pocket, and Campbell said he’s confident they will be fixed. If they’re not, the Lions passing game will continue to struggle even with the expected return of Swift and St. Brown.

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It’s hard to understate what St. Brown means to this offense. He had eight straight games with eight or more catches before suffering a high ankle sprain against the Vikings and is Goff’s go-to receiver in important situations. Reynolds and tight end T.J. Hockenson have battled injuries as well, but the Lions still have enough weapons outside to attack Miami’s defense in multiple ways.

The Dolphins have been vulnerable through the air at times this season, but do a good job mixing their coverages to try and slow down opposing offenses. Howard is one of the top five cornerbacks in the game, while Miami has used a cast of corners led by Igbinoghene and undrafted rookie Kader Kohou to fill in for the injured Byron Jones. Kohou is questionable to play with an oblique injury, and the Dolphins need more pass rush with safety Brandon Jones out for the season.  Edge: Dolphins.

Dolphins run offense vs. Lions run defense

McDaniel came from the San Francisco 49ers, where he learned under Kyle Shanahan, and he brought San Francisco’s outside zone rushing scheme and running back Raheem Mostert with him. Mostert has emerged as Miami’s lead back with 14 or more carries in four straight weeks and is averaging a respectable 4.5 yards per rush for the season.

Chase Edmonds plays as a spell back, and the Dolphins have the threat of using Hill and Waddle on jet sweeps and reverses, though the two receivers have six combined carries this season. The Lions must be wary of committing too heavily to the run with their safeties, given Hill and Waddle’s speed.

The Lions played improved run defense last week, when they made a slight tweak to their scheme giving their defensive ends more outside contain responsibility and allowing their cornerbacks to get involved as surface run defenders. Still, they rank 31st in the NFL at 162.8 yards per game allowed. Interior linemen Alim McNeill and Isaiah Buggs have played well this season, but perimeter busts have been an issue. Edge: Dolphins.

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Dolphins pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Tua Tagovailoa suffered a scary brain injury in the Dolphins’ Sept. 29 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, but was playing the best football of his career before the injury. He threw for 261 yards in his return last week and is completing more than 67% of his passes this season. Tagovailoa gets the ball out of his hands as quick as any quarterback in the NFL, and his receiving corps is among the most electric around.

Hill has not caught a touchdown pass since Week 2, but he is one of the NFL’s premier gamebreakers. He has three games of 160 or more receiving yards already this season. Waddle is just as dangerous, though he was limited in practice by a shoulder injury this week. Glenn said it’s imperative the Lions do not let the ball get over their head, so expect plenty of two-high safety looks.

The Lions have had a revolving door in their secondary this season between injuries and benchings, and they could be without safety DeShon Elliott (finger) on Sunday. Juju Hughes would join rookie Kerby Joseph in the starting lineup if Elliott can’t play. Up front, Terron Armstead is back at left tackle for the Dolphins, but the Lions should be able to create favorable matchups for rookie Aidan Hutchinson if they can get Miami in third-and-longs. Edge: Dolphins.

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Special teams

The Lions have hit a rough patch on special teams of late as they’ve cycled through placekickers and struggled to contain Cowboys return man KaVontae Turpin last week. Michael Badgley was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts in his Lions debut against Dallas, and coordinator Dave Fipp is hopeful Badgley can settle down the kicking game. Jack Fox signed an extension last week that made him, deservedly, one of the highest-paid punters in the NFL. But the Lions lost top cover man Bobby Price to a season-ending knee injury.

The Dolphins rank last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, though Fipp touted their speed earlier this week. They allowed a 103-yard kick return touchdown to the Ravens. and kicker Jason Sanders is 0-for-3 on field goals of 50-plus yards. The Dolphins are dangerous in the return game, however, especially when they send Hill or Waddle back to return punts. Edge: Lions.

Prediction

The Lions need a win in the worst way after four straight losses, but they’ve shown little to believe one is coming this week. They rank at or near the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories, and Miami’s offense, while not the most potent, is a matchup nightmare given its speed. The Lions can’t allow any big plays on defense that Goff feels the need to chase, and offensively they can’t afford any of the mistakes that have doomed them the past few weeks. With Swift and St. Brown back, the Lions should break their touchdown drought. But Goff’s ball security is a legitimate concern and the Lions secondary remains in bad shape. Pick: Dolphins 28, Lions 24.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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