Last Sunday night was not the easiest game to watch, but think of it this way: it was a whole boatload tougher for Pittsburgh Steelers fans to watch.
In their primetime matchup against Pittsburgh last Sunday night, our Miami Dolphins eked out a 16-10 victory that featured a second half that belonged in the Thursday Night Football Snoozer Hall of Fame. After a rousing opening nine minutes, featuring a clinical touchdown drive by the Fins offense and a three-and-out by the defense, the game turned quickly into a slog and far more of a nail-biter than I cared for.
There's plenty to break down about the game, and that has been happening all week within other posts by The Phinsider's regular writers and contributors. I'll keep my observations to these two things: (1) this defense is really good, and it was the reason we won; and (2) If Tua doesn't soon get to playing markedly better than he did Sunday night, then he isn't the guy.
A tad more on that second point, seeing as how Tua is source of bottomless controversy. If just looking at the stats, they seem OK. He completed 21 of 35 passes for 261 yards, one TD and no INTs. He didn't take any sacks, and he even rushed for 15 yards on 4 carries. Not too bad, right? Well, any of us who watched the game knows better. Although Tua did a nice job getting rid of the ball quickly, his passes were rarely on the money, and there were three and arguably even four passes that should have been intercepted. He also had his two or three "WTF?!" throws that he seems to have every game, where it's hard to fathom just what he was seeing or thinking. That kind of play will work against a bad team, or a team that's playing a bit out of sync, but good defenses will feast on them. It wasn't all bad, for sure; it just wasn't good enough to beat a good team. To me at this point, the rest of the season is a ten-game extended tryout for Tua's campaign to be the Fins' franchise QB for years to come. Let him get as healthy as possible and see what he can do with this offense, and then make a real decision on him.
Fortunately, this defense is continuing to impress. Despite losing one or two DBs to injury nearly every week, they continue to clamp down on opposing offenses. Thankfully, the offense did manage to do enough so that the defense wasn't gassed by the fourth quarter, as they had been in all three of the previous three games' losses. Let's hope that continues, and that some form of calvary is on the way in the coming week or two, whether that's a free agent signing or the return of Byron Jones (yes, he's still on the team, as far as I know).
The end result was the first win in four weeks, sending our guys to 4-3 and back in the mix in an AFC East with only one team with a losing record (heh heh). They look to build on the current win next week, when they head into Detroit to face the Lions. What should we expect?
All stats except net turnovers are per game, per pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, and nflpenalties.com:
The Dolphins made some progress in a few areas last week, most notably in the areas of penalties and turnovers. Still, the numbers speak of a team with a good passing game and run defense but also several areas with plenty of room for improvement. The Lions, though? The stats suggest a classic example of a team that has a solid offense but suffers from crippling problems on defense and other areas. Despite having impressive running yards and overall points per game, they seem to be dreadful at stopping the run and generally preventing opponents from scoring. Mix in the low net turnover and penalty numbers, and it's not hard to see why the Lions are 1-5 on the season thus far.
Do the numbers tell any lies about the Lions, though? I took a look at what they did in their last two games:
Lions vs Patriots & Cowboys
Two weeks ago, before their early bye week, the Lions pranced into Foxboro and got shot, stuffed, and mounted by the Patriots, losing 29-0. I didn't watch the game, but the box score tells an interesting tale. The total yardage is curiously similar, with 312 for Detroit to 364 by the Pats, and the total time of possession was 28:31 to 31:29. That would certainly suggest a game far closer than a 29-point, humiliating shutout. When you look a little closer, though, you see that Detroit lost all of the little battles. Two sacks surrendered to New England's zero. Two turnovers to one by the Pats. 82 penalty yards to the Pats' 46. Dan Campbell went for it on fourth down six times (!) and converted on exactly none of them. This is exactly how a well-coached, disciplined team crushes one that lacks those qualities, even when there's not a tremendous talent discrepancy.
How about how the Lions look on the tape? I watched a replay of the Lions week 7, 24-6 loss to the Cowboys to get a sense.
The score might suggest a one-way beating, but this was hardly the case. To the half, the game was a contest of offensive constipation, with the score a nap-inducing 6-3, Detroit. After three quarters, it was still only 10-6, Dallas. With multiple chances to go ahead and take control in the final quarter, though, the Lions stepped on their own tail over and over. A fumble on the Cowboys' goal-line, followed not long after by a bad interception by Jared Goff sealed their fate in the final five minutes of a game that was still very close. An otherwise struggling Dallas offense (with Dak Prescott back, no less) finally put it together enough to convert Detroit's mistakes into 14 points and hand them their fifth loss, dropping them to 1-5.
I have a few main takeaways from this loss to the Cowboys. One is that it's no accident that the Lions' offense is ranked in the top ten in passing yards, rushing yards, and total points per game. The offense is quite good, in terms of talent and running good concepts. Their O line is formidable, which makes everything else run well. The defense isn't outright horrible, but they have tackling issues. The primary reasons for the Lions' poor record is a combination of poor tackling, lots of penalties, and a bad turnover differential. This was on full display against Dallas, where Detroit hung right with them (albeit in ugly fashion) until a fumble and two interceptions were eventually converted into the winning points.
How do our Dolphins stack up against this?
Dolphins Offense vs. Lions Defense
In short, our offense really should be able to put up points against this defense. Not that Detroit's D is horrible in terms of effort or scheme. It's just that they're a bit talent deficient and have had serious problems tackling this year. A team that has this kind of trouble is unlikely to do well against an offense that features Tyreek Hill, Jalen Waddle, and Raheem Mostert - three players who are famously quick and tough to get ahold of. If Tua can clean up the inaccurate throws we saw last week and hit our guys more in stride, then this could potentially be a big day for the passing game. In the run game, the Dolphins O line turned in its best performance last Sunday, thanks in no small part to having Terron Armstead back at left tackle. Detroit is especially poor against the run, so this is a great opportunity to see some balanced, complimentary offense where everyone gets a taste.
Major advantage: Dolphins
Dolphins Defense vs. Lions Offense
Until I watched this game and listened to the commentary by Jim Nance and Tony Romo, I really didn't know how good Detroit's offensive line was. They are no joke, and very much the answer to my question, "How does an offense with Jared Goff at QB and no receivers to speak of generate so many yards?" The answer is that the O line is excellent at creating running lanes for a running back corps that is solid, even minus star RB D'Andre Swift (who, by the way, looks set to return this week). This takes the pressure of Goff and allows him to play game manager, rather than trying to oversee a pass-heavy offense. That said, he is still Jared Goff. You can pressure him into mistakes, and fortunately the Dolphins have several players adept at applying pressure. The ranks are still a bit thin due to injuries, especially in the defensive backfield, but the current crew should be able to force some errors. I might think differently if the Lions had any healthy high-end wide receivers or pass-catching tight ends, but they don't. Amon-Ra St. Brown is the closest thing, but he's been battling injuries and is now dealing with concussion protocols. For the Fins defense, new "next man up" guy Eric Rowe should be able to slide in rather easily and pitch in to limit the Lions passing attack, giving the stout front seven a chance to flex their run-stopping skills and hector Goff into a turnover or two.
Special Teams, Injuries, Coaching, and other Factors
It's clear at this point that special teams isn't the clear strength that it was for years for the Dolphins. It isn't bad, but with Sanders suddenly unable to make a field goal over 50 yards and a bit of suspect punt reception, the Fins aren't quite as scary as recent years. While the Lions don't boast a great place kicking game, they do have a few dangerous kick returners to keep eyes on. This area of the game might be a wash.
For he first time since week 1, the Dolphins might be the slightly healthier team in a football game. The final, Friday injury report has nobody listed as OUT, and only six players as QUESTIONABLE. Even those six, though, all practiced in some fashion through the week, and all of them practiced on Friday. The main name on the list is Xavien Howard, but he's been doing this all year and still playing strong ball, if not exactly at his normal All Pro level. The Lions, though, have six players listed as OUT, including several starters. They do look to be getting talented young running back D'Andre Swift back, but overall they're in rougher shape than the Dolphins at this point.
Coaching is a curious one. I think the honeymoon is over with Mike McDaniel now, and we can see some of the little miscues in terms of decision-making and clock management. He does seem like a very intelligent and self-reflective guy, so I'm hoping that he's able to learn and improve on these. On the other side, we have Dan Campbell.
Dan. Campbell. Please allow me a moment here. Any Dolphins fan who was old enough to closely watch the 2016 season should have a warm place in their heart for the man who took over after the mid-season firing of human Nilla Wafer Joe Philbin. That interim head coach was Dan Campbell - the living example of if you took an army drill sergeant from the 1950s and gave him a heart transplant from a Care Bear. I'm actually shocked that the NFL Network hasn't given him a weekly Wednesday night prime time sitcom named "S#*t My Coach Says." The guy's emotions are all out there for everyone, especially his team, whom he treats as if they were his own sons. The problem is that when everyone knows that every misstep and turnover will probably result in dad crying himself to sleep the rest of the week, sphincters can start to tighten up. My associates degree in armchair psychology gives me the background to surmise, without hard evidence, that this may be part of why the Lions suffer mistake after mistake and cost them game after game.
This is all a long way to say that I think the Fins have the advantage here.
The game is in Detroit, in the domed Ford Field. No elements to worry about here, for the first time this season for the Dolphins. This should only help the team that incorporates more passing, especially deep passing, into its offense. That's Miami, so advantage us. I have faith that the travel won't bother our guys much, given the decent amount of experience around the roster at this point.
One other thing about Tua. He didn't have a great game last week, but I think it's worth giving him the benefit of the doubt and seeing if he doesn't sharpen up a bit this week. Of the four games that he's started and finished this year, the Steelers game was easily his shakiest. That's one questionable game compared to three solid to very good games, and it was coming after nearly three weeks of bizarre attention following the entire concussion thing. I'm willing to suggest that he'll look better against a Detroit defense that's easily the weakest he'll have faced thus far.
Prediction: Dolphins 27, Lions 20
I tend to be pretty conservative with my predictions, and I can't break type after we just saw our guys win a 16-10 game against an unimpressive Steelers team. I do think the offense will find more of the stride we were seeing in the early season, with another full week of practice with Tua at the helm with the starters. While I think the Lions will improve and end up winning some games this season, I don't see it happening against a Dolphins team that can apply pressure on both sides of the field in multiple ways.
How are you feeling about this Sunday's game in Detroit? Do our guys continue to get back on track, or do they get sniped by a Lions team that cleans up its nagging mistakes? Let me know in the comments below, and Fins Up!!