By Kent Lee Platte
With Calvin Johnson sidelined, few had high hopes for the Detroit Lions, who had long suffered whenever their best players were ff the field. To the surprise of everyone, most notably the Saints and Falcons, the Lions lumbered on to a 3-0 record without the future hall of famer. The #1 defense and free agent addition Golden Tate at wide receiver carried the team to a 6-2 record at the midpoint of the season. Time enough for a Bye to regain health and rest. They won’t have an easy day for their first game back, as they go up against a hot Miami Dolphins team coming off a blowout victory against the Chargers. This was an exciting game to plan for, as there are so many strong match ups on both sides of the ball. Even so there are plenty of hidden stories to look forward to in this key game.
Tahir Whitehead vs. Ryan Tannehill
In the past few seasons, the Lions had little to fear from scrambling quarterbacks due to the presence of an athletic, smart middle linebacker in Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch left the season early, however, with a torn ACL, leaving those duties to a far more athletic but far rawer Tahir Whitehead. He has been sharing duties with Josh Bynes, but I find it hard to think the team will match up Bynes, who has strong instincts but poor speed, against Tannehill. Instead, it’s likely Whitehead who will draw this tough assignment, which will stretch his development to the limits. Can Whitehead show he’s developed to more than just a fill in role and really own that middle linebacker spot?
Golden Tate vs. Cortland Finnegan
A starting wide receiver, especially one presently rated in the top five, is rarely considered a hidden match up. In Tate’s case, he’s back to playing second fiddle to Calvin Johnson in the elite receivers return to the field. With as much as Tate has shown, it’s interesting to me to see him back in the number two role. It’s even more interesting to see him matched up with a player like Finmegan, who is known for his on field antics. Tate is a fiery competitor, and despite being one of the worst cornerbacks in football as a Ram, Finnegan has only been mediocre instead of terrible as a Dolphin. It won’t be long before this one gets chippy.
Kyle Van Noy vs. The Road Back
I have written before about how the Detroit Lions are asking a LOT out of their rookie linebacker. He has been injured, so we haven’t been able to see if he has grown at all, but I doubt the team suddenly expects less of him. Van Noy was doing it all in camp, dropping into coverage, rushing from the edge, cutting gaps, just everything. He showed how difficult the transition was with his preseason struggles, but we’ll finally get to see some regular season action. Van Noy has modeled his play (and his beard) after DeAndre Levy, who continues to play at an all pro level. Will the rookie shine early, or will the struggle continue?
The Quarterbacks vs. The Schemes
It should come as a surprise to no one that Matthew Stafford has struggled against good pass defenses. Ryan Tannehill is in the same boat, as he found far less success against weaker defenses than he did against strong ones. It seems pretty intuitive that it would be an issue, but I’m not talking about a small dropoff for either signal caller. This will be, for both players, their toughest match up of the season. The only top tier pass defenses the two have faced are the Bills and the Packers. Both lost against the Bills, while Stafford was able to notch a win against the rival Packers. It’s a tough match up on both sides.
Joe Lombardi vs. Louis Delmas
It’s still strange to see Delmas in a different uniform. The former Western Michigan Bronco had spent his entire pro career with the Lions before moving to the Dolphins in free agency this past offseason. Delmas has been a solid acquisition for the Dolphins, but some of his old tendencies are still present. Joe Lombardi has not lived up to his namesake, but I still hold out hope he can exploit a match up so obvious that even casual fans can see it. I would love to see some more creative routes on the inside of the field, drawing the safeties in so when the receiver changes direction we can see a safety slip sliding the wrong way. Delmas has been better coached in Miami than he ever was in Detroit, but he still makes some of those mistakes. It’d be good for karma, anyway, it owes us some.
The Lions Defense vs. A Whole Lot of History
The Lions defense is presently ranked first in both yards per game and points per game. It’s the first time the team has ever had this distinction since becoming the Detroit Lions, with its last mention being the 1931 Portsmouth Spartans. Traditionally, the team has had their collapses and it has always started on the defensive side of the ball. The time is now for the team to give tradition the middle finger and really ram home how dominant they can be. Despite the sore loss of Nick Fairley, this is too good of an opportunity for a statement to be made. Not even necessarily a win, though that would obviously be best. National outlets are already trying to find other defenses they think are the best, because it just can’t be the Lions, can it? This team needs to put their defense firmly on the map and mop the floor with Tannehill and co.