Lions must be wary of Dolphins' pick-happy defense

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Xavien Howard leads the Dolphins' defense with three interceptions.

Allen Park — The Miami Dolphins are picking off passes at a prodigious rate, needing just six games to eclipse last season's total. 

Miami leads the league with 11 interceptions, a year after recording nine.

So what's been the key? According to the Detroit Lions coaching staff, it's a marriage of the team's pass rush and coverage. 

"I think they’re working really well together from a front end, back end perspective," Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said ahead of Sunday's game in Miami. "The defensive line creating pressure on the quarterback, unfortunately that quarterback may need to throw it a little bit earlier than he wants or maybe to a little bit different spot than he wants. And then the secondary and the linebacker corps, they’re really going up and getting the ball, making some nice plays.

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"I’ve seen some really impressive interceptions on tape on plays you maybe wouldn’t expect guys to be able to make or to even get their hands on. These guys are catching everything. They’re opportunistic when the ball is in the air."

Lions coach Matt Patricia also has raved about the Dolphins' ability to pressure the quarterback this season, but the metrics don't necessarily back that up. The team's 10 sacks rank 26th in the NFL. And it's not likely they're moving opposing QBs off their spots at an impressive rate and just failing to finish. According to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins are generating pressure on 25.3 percent of pass-rush snaps, 24th in the league. 

Maybe this is a case where perception impacts reality. 

First, there's the personnel, with two accomplished sack artists coming of the edges in Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn. Wake, who missed the past two games with a knee injury, returned to practice on Wednesday.

Second, it's the team's scheme, an aggressive, upfield attack headed by a pair of former Lions coaches, Matt Burke and Kris Kocurek, who were both came up the ranks running a front that features the ends rushing from a Wide-9 alignment. 

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“I would say definitely Quinn and Wake, as they’re rolling off the edge in those wide alignments, there’s a lot of pressure there," Patricia said. "And what’s categorized as pressure and what’s not, I can’t tell you, but if you’re a quarterback standing back there and you’re watching both of those coming at you, you feel it. You definitely feel those guys coming off, getting off on the edges and the push in the middle — the vertical penetration that they’re getting, also. It affects the quarterbacks, you can see it on tape."

The Dolphins' back seven is spreading the love when it comes to generating turnovers. The team has four different players with multiple interceptions, led by third-year cornerback Xavien Howard's three. 

"In the back end too, they also do a good job with the disguises," Patricia said. "They have a couple different variations, with some of their zone coverages especially, where they’re maybe dropping guys in different areas that it doesn’t look like it pre-snap and you have to read it post-snap."

For Dolphins coach Adam Gase, the biggest thing has been taking advantage of opportunities better than in the past. 

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"Our guys are doing a better job this year of actually just holding on to them," Gase said. "We've had opportunities in previous seasons to probably have more interceptions than what we did and we didn't finish the play. This year, the whole defensive staff has done a great job of emphasizing running to the football and, really, we've got some deflections where, because of effort, guys are in the right spots and ball has come to them."

As always, the turnover battle will be critical in Sunday's matchup. After a forgettable start to the season, a four-interception outing in the opener against the New York Jets, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has done a much better job protecting the football the past four games, throwing just one pick during the stretch.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers