The Miami Dolphins are preparing to face the Detroit Lions this afternoon as a part of the NFL’s Week 8 schedule. The Dolphins are 4-3 on the year after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers last week in a Sunday Night Football contest. While the team will take the win every time, there were things that were concerning coming out of the game. This week, facing the 1-5 Lions who are desperate to get a win, they cannot afford to have the same problems creep up.
With kickoff in 90 minutes, we take a look at five things to watch for the Dolphins this afternoon. Will they be able to move to two games over 0.500 on the year, or will they slide back down to a 4-4 mark and still have questions that need to be answered?
Tua Tagovailoa shaking off the rust
Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa returned to the lineup in Week 7 after missing two weeks with a concussion. The opening drive against the Steelers was masterful, with the team moving 71 yards on nine plays in 4:15. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, tight end Mike Gesicki, and running back Raheem Mostert were all involved in the drive and Tagovailoa looked sharp in leading the team to an opening-drive touchdown. The second and third drives for Miami were similar, with the team going 59 yards on eight plays and 30 yards on seven plays, with both possessions ending in field goals. After that, however, the lack of playing time seemed to hit Tagovaioa. He threw four passes during the game that should have been interceptions and, despite being willing to run head-first into defenders on scrambles, he did not always look comfortable in the pocket. Miami came away with the win, but it was more about the defense holding on to a lead down the stretch than it was about the Dolphins' offense being explosive. Tagovailoa was a little rusty after sitting for a couple of weeks. Now, with a game and two full weeks of practice to work out the issues, Tagovailoa needs to show he is back to playing like he was in the first three weeks of the season, back to playing like one of the top quarterbacks in the league.
Mike McDaniel play calling and adjustments
Early in the season, Dolphins first-year head coach Mike McDaniel appeared to be comfortable in his play calling, in his game management, and in himself. Miami made adjustments at halftime and came out each week looking to continue to put points on the board. Following Tagovailoa’s concussion, it seems like something changed with the play calling and the ability to adjust to what a defense is doing to Miami’s offense. It continued last week, with the Steelers’ defense changing their coverage on Hill to bottle him up as best they could, and the Dolphins did not seem to make many changes to keep getting their number one receiver open. He still finished the game with seven receptions for 72 yards, but three of those seven receptions came on the opening drive.
Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward explained during his Not Just Football podcast that Pittsburgh dropped their secondary and linebacker off the line of scrimmage some, leaving the defensive line to stop Miami’s rushing attack, while the rest of the defense turned its attention to the passing game. The Dolphins have to be prepared for defensive adjustments like that, responding with their own shifts to what the offense is trying to do. They seemed to struggle with that against the Steelers. Maybe it was the rust of Tagovailoa. Maybe it was the play calling from McDaniel. Whatever caused the Dolphins offense to stagnate for the entire second half, they cannot afford to have that happen again. McDaniel needs to make sure he adjusts when the opponents adjust.
Next man up secondary
The Dolphins’ secondary has been triaged almost as often as they have covered receivers through the first seven weeks of the season. The injuries to the unit include cornerback Byron Jones on the physically unable to perform list after an ankle surgery that just will not seem to heal, cornerback Trill Williams on injured reserve with a torn ACL, cornerback Nik Needham on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon, safety Brandon Jones on injured reserve with a torn ACL, cornerback Xavien Howard who has been battling injuries to both groin muscles that have slowed him and caused him to miss a game, cornerback Kader Kohou has an oblique muscle injury that forced him to miss last week’s game, and cornerback Keion Crossen missed last week’s game with a knee injury. Add in safety/special teams ace Clayton Fejedelem who is questionable for today with a groin injury, and the Dolphins secondary is a pieced-together unit just trying to find a healthy player who can cover. Howard, who is questionable for today with the groin issue and did not travel with the team as he attended a funeral on Saturday following a death in his family, will likely be asked to shut down Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was cleared from the concussion protocol on Saturday and safety Jevon Holland will man the back end of the defense, or create pressure on safety blitzes. After that, the next-man-up secondary, including Noah Igbinoghene and Justin Bethel at cornerback and Eric Rowe and Elijah Campbell at safety, is going to be forced into action and asked to force turnovers.
Raheem Mostert getting off to a fast start
The Lions, like every team on Miami’s schedule this year, are going to focus on Hill and Waddle, trying to find ways to shut them down. They are going to look to see what the Steelers did in the second half and they are going to try to do things to make it difficult for Tagovailoa to use his top two weapons. The easiest way for Miami to counter that is going to be getting running back Raheem Mostert established early in the game. The offensive line has to prove it is ready to open lanes for Miami’s leading rusher, and the Dolphins need to concentrate on making sure the Lions know he is a threat. If the Dolphins start out the game using the run, the Lions will be forced to add defenders up front to stop him, allowing the receivers to have more space in the secondary. Getting Mostert off to a fast start could be the key to Miami’s offense returning to the explosive unit it was early in the season.
Forcing turnovers and pressuring Jared Goff
Lions quarterback Jared Goff is struggling with turnovers this year. He has thrown six interceptions and lost three fumbles in six games. Lions head coach Dan Campbell and Goff both discussed the turnover issues, including six in the last two games, to try to find the cause and correct it. The feeling is it comes to pocket presence, with Goff not stepping away from pressure well enough, something Miami needs to exploit this afternoon. They have to get into Goff’s face, make him feel uncomfortable, and see if those turnover issues are still going to be a thing in Week 8. Miami’s defense over the last couple of years has been a master of creating turnovers. This year, they have struggled but came away with three interceptions last week. Continuing that this week could be the key to winning this game.