Like I talked about yesterday, these final two games are certainly not "meaningless" even though the Dolphins are out of playoff contention. There are plenty of things to watch for as the Dolphins close out the season. The most important thing, though, is winning. I don't care Miami can't accomplish any of their team goals this year - I still want to win.
There's a big difference between 9-7 and 7-9. I'm sure head coach Tony Sparano would strongly agree with that. His job could be on the line.
With that said, it is a big holiday weekend and many of you will probably be traveling today. So I will try to keep this post on the shorter side.
Calvin Johnson vs Vontae Davis/Sean Smith
This is obviously the matchup that concerns every defensive coordinator when they go up against the Lions. Johnson is one of the game's top two or three wide receivers in the league. He's got great hands, great size, great speed, and a great leaping ability. But other than that, Calvin is nothing special.
I'm interested to see how Mike Nolan tries to take him away from likely starting quarterback Shaun Hill (though it could be Drew Stanton). Sean Smith has the size you need to defend him but probably doesn't have the strength. Vontae Davis has the speed and physicality to cover him but gives up half a foot to Johnson. And then there's the third down nickel package that sees Smith move to safety and puts Nolan Carroll on the outside - which is a matchup Detroit would love to exploit.
Also be sure to take note of how the Lions' quarterback (whoever it may be on Sunday) will still throw the football up to a covered Calvin Johnson. Why? Because even when he's covered, he's open. You think Chad Henne could learn a thing or two from seeing how the Lions utilize Johnson and put into practice some of those ideas with Brandon Marshall? I'd say so.
Cameron Wake vs Jeff Backus
Last season the Lions allowed 43 sacks. This year, they've only surrendered 24 sacks. But that doesn't necessarily mean Detroit's offensive line is playing better. What it does mean is that Detroit's quarterbacks are getting rid of the football quicker. The line is still anchored by perhaps the worst starting left tackle in the NFL, Jeff Backus.
Cameron Wake, meanwhile, is coming off of his first game without a sack since back in week ten against Tennessee. Still, he leads the league in sacks with 14 and is second in tackles for a loss with 12. And the best way, of course, to prevent Calvin Johnson from making big plays is to sack - or at least pressure - the quarterback on a consistent basis. That mission will be spearheaded by Wake - a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Defend the middle and the flats. This particular situation worries me. The Lions really love to get their tight end and running backs involved in the passing game. Brandon Pettigrew is second on the team with 64 receptions for 629 yards. Rookie running back Jahvid Best, meanwhile, is third on the team in receptions with 51 receptions.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, could be without inside linebacker Karlos Dansby - whose strength is his ability to cover. Dansby hasn't practiced at all this week while nursing toe and wrist injuries. Even if he does play, he could be limited to third downs only as he was in a couple of games already. That means Channing Crowder and Tim Dobbins will be asked to do a lot more. I also expect to see Koa Misi utilize his athleticism and drop into coverage possibly more often than he has all season.
2. Protect Henne and attack vertically. These two go hand in hand. The Lions have the 13th ranked defense against the pass, allowing 220 yards per game. But they've also allowed the fifth most yards per attempt in the league, 7.6. And only six teams have allowed more 40+ yard passes than Detroit's nine. Detroit's secondary is vulnerable and Chad Henne needs a strong finish to his season - a perfect combination.
However, the Lions can get to the quarterback - something we haven't been able to say very often these past few years. Led by Cliff Avril and likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh - each with eight sacks - the Lions are 6th in the NFL in sacks, having gotten to the quarterback 39 times already this season.
Miami's offensive line has struggled in recent weeks protecting the quarterback. Jake Long is playing hurt. Vernon Carey is done for the year. And Joe Berger is a turnstile in the middle of that line. If this unit doesn't perform better than they have been recently, Henne is going to get killed back there - and turnovers will likely follow.