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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over the Dolphins

Identifying the five key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Miami Dolphins in Week 8.

Philadelphia Eagles v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions welcome the Miami Dolphins into Ford Field in Week 8 and they will look to get back in the win column after four straight losses. The Dolphins snapped their three-game losing streak last week when their starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returned from injury and led them to victory over the Steelers on Sunday night.

Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Dolphins in order to stop their losing streak. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Dolphins’ base schemes

First-year Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel is a disciple of offensive guru Mike Shanahan (former Broncos coach) and his son Kyle Shanahan (49ers coach), and he has the Dolphins running a modified version of their offense.

At its core, the Dolphins use outside zone concepts in the run game, while trying to stretch defenses with elite speed at wide receiver. By utilizing fakes and pre-snap motion, the Dolphins offense tries to create enough movement that it freezes the linebackers while threatening speed on the outside and stretching the secondary. This opens up gaps over the middle of the field and puts defenses on their heels.

On defense, McDaniel retained Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer who kept the defense intact, deploying a base 34, that typically operates as a 33 due to the amount of time spent in subpackages.

The three down linemen will shift with the offensive front but for the most part, they clog the middle and stay inside the tackle box. At the linebacker level, they operate with a dedicated MIKE and pass-rushing linebacker, then fluctuate the third linebacker between an off-the-ball linebacker or pass-rushing linebacker. Regardless of the player they use as the third linebacker, they often lineup at the line-of-scrimmage, showing a five-man front and allowing them to drop a linebacker from either side of the ball or bring five on the rush.

In the secondary, they play a ton of man coverage, but don’t always play matchup football, instead opting to play the man in front of them. In the picture above, they drop the safety (Brandon Jones, who is now on injured reserve) into the slot and shift the nickel corner over the tight end. Against the Lions that would be a potential advantage for T.J. Hockenson, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and D’Andre Swift.

This brings us to our key matchup:

Key Matchup: Feed your best offensive skill players

Not only does the Dolphins scheme present a potential advantage for the Lions top offensive weapons, but Miami is also dealing with a plethora of injuries in the secondary. Starting corner Xavien Howard has been limited and playing through a groin injury. Opposite-side starting corner Byron Jones is on the PUP list. Starting nickel corner Nik Needham recently landed on injured reserve. Brandon Jones, their starting safety injured his knee last week and was placed on injured reserve. And even their replacement players, like Kader Kohou and Clayton Fejedelem, have been limited in practice this week.

With all the injuries, it’s no surprise they have struggled, and as Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his mid-week scouting report, they are at their worst against tight ends and running backs:

“The Dolphins rank 23rd in pass defense DVOA against tight ends and 28th against running backs. They have allowed the fourth-most receiving yards to running backs (49.4 yards per game). This would be a good week for D’Andre Swift to return.”

And Swift looks on track to return after putting in back-to-back full practices this week. Tight end T.J. Hockenson is also back to practicing after taking a rest day on Wednesday, while Amon-Ra St. Brown is progressing through the league's concussion protocol and is expected to play as well.

While Hockenson has been playing through injuries, the Lions have been less explosive without St. Brown and Swift. On Thursday, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson talked about what it would be like to get those two players back this week:

“Oh yeah, they’re issues for defensive coordinators, so the quicker we can get both of those guys to full health, the better off we’re going to be, and we’ll get back to where we started this season for sure because both of those guys, you get the ball in their hands and they’re dynamite, so we’ll use all the guys that are available as we’ve been doing, and continue to highlight what they do best.”

With the Lions offense failing to execute over the last two weeks, getting their best weapons healthy and in a matchup that should favor them, there will be an opportunity to get back on track.

Get Jared Goff back on track

After scoring a touchdown in 15 of the Lions’ first 16 quarters to open the season, the Lions have failed to score a touchdown in the last eight. Some of that lack of production can be blamed on the top offensive talent being injured, but at its core, Jared Goff has been less efficient. Through the first four games of the season, Goff had 11 touchdowns, three turnovers, and a pass rating average of 100.6. Over the last two games, he has had zero touchdowns, six turnovers, and a passer rating average of 67.

So, how does Goff fix these issues? Ben Johnson spoke with the media on that topic:

“Here’s what I would say, is (that) the only way to fix any issue is recognizing that there is a problem and he’s done that. (Goff) acknowledges the fact that he’s turned the ball over too many times. He acknowledges the fact that his pocket presence can be better. So, once that happens now we can work on finding solutions and it starts with practice. Putting him in situations that are tough, challenging looks, so that his reaction on gameday is what we need it to be.”

Most of Goff’s problems appear to stem from confidence and concentration issues. He gets loose with the ball when pressured, often drifts too deep into the pocket, and has a hard time pulling himself out of a spiral of bad plays.

At the end of the day, no matter how much prep Johnson sets up for Goff, his success will be determined by how well he adapts and adjusts.

Win the turnover battle

While Goff has nine turnovers (six interceptions) and a turnover-worthy rate of 5.3% (fifth-most among quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 passes), his counterpart, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, has just three interceptions, but a turnover-worthy rate of 6.0% (second-most).

Tagovailoa is very efficient when throwing the ball, but he also has an unrelenting desire to make plays, and that leads to him gambling on throws. Just last game, Tagovailoa threw at least three passes that Steelers defenders had in their possession but failed to secure the ball when they hit the ground.

Therefore, while Goff needs to self-correct his errors, the Lions secondary also needs to capitalize on Tagovailoa’s gambles. Turnovers are game-changers, and if the Lions want to be able to keep pace with the Dolphins offensive attack, a few takeaways could go a long way.

Stay disciplined in gaps and coverage

The Dolphins offensive attack utilizes speed to stretch a defense and open gaps in coverage and at the line of scrimmage.

In the passing game, the Dolphins speed threat forces secondaries to fall back further than normal to adjust. Then Miami adds in pre-snap motion to force linebackers to make quick reads, which often leads to them freezing at their spot while figuring out how to react. This combination of secondary dropping and linebackers hesitating opens the middle of the field at the second level.

“First thing is don’t let the ball go over our head,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn explained. “I mean, knowing those two receivers (Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle), I think they’re both 4.2 runners or whatnot, so that’s the first thing. The second thing is the catch-and-run that creates explosive plays for those guys. We have to be able to rally and create population to the ball. We have to tackle really, really well, something that I do think we’ve improved on also. Some of the coverage changed that we’re doing on defense is going to allow us to do that.”

The Lions’ split-zone concepts can account for the motion but the defensive players need to trust that their teammates will do their job and make a play. If each player stays home, they can tighten the passing windows, making things a bit harder on Tagovailoa, and potentially putting him in position to force the ball.

On the ground, the Dolphins outside zone will stretch the Lions defensive line laterally and they’ll need to set the edge and hold their gaps. Easier said than done, especially for one of the worst run defenses in the league. But last week, the Lions new scheme showed they can funnel plays inside and have the talent—hello, Jeff Okudah—to make tackles.

Keep Aidan Hutchinson and Jeff Okudah in new roles

Last week, the Lions made some key adjustments on defense that immediately paid dividends.

The first was adjusting Jeff Okudah inside to a pseudo-box safety role when he didn’t have a coverage responsibility in front of him. With the bigger bodies up front funneling the rushing traffic inside, it was up to Okudah to make the run stop and he delivered, to the tune of 15 tackles. The Lions aren’t going to want to get into a lateral chase game with the Dolphins, so executing this same concept will be an important factor moving forward.

“He showed up, and he’s tough as nails,” Glenn said of Okudah’s performance last Sunday. “He loves the one-on-one matchup. Is he always going to win them? No, I mean that’s just the life of a corner, but he’s trending in the right direction for us, and each week, you just see his confidence just getting – just growing higher and higher, and we have to keep him that way. We have to make sure we do the things that allows him to be in that zone that he’s in, so he continues to move forward for us.”

The second big adjustment was shifting Hutchinson to the open, or “rush” end. This, of course, was made possible by the return of Josh Paschal and John Cominsky from injury, but it allowed the Lions to deploy their best weapon in one-on-one matchups, rather than asking him to fight through double teams. He also delivered, registering one and a half sacks, and three quarterback hits.

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