Justin Rogers and John Niyo break down the Lions' upcoming matchup with the Dolphins. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — The Detroit Lions practiced hard this offseason, more physical and grueling sessions than years past. Throughout the process, first-year head coach Matt Patricia harped on the value of conditioning. He wanted to establish his roster would be one of the league’s best conditioned.
That gets put to the test this week, when the team travels to Miami to battle the Dolphins on Sunday (1 p.m., Fox/760).
The Dolphins are tough to beat at home. Tougher than you would expect. Lions receiver Golden Tate went as far as to say the Dolphins look like the best team in the league when they’re at home.
Miami has gone 13-6 at their place during the past three seasons, including 3-0 to start this year, in part because of the conditions.
“I think our guys believe that the fact we train down here and we’re living in this that it’s to our advantage,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said during a conference call with Detroit reporters. “And I think it’s one of things where it kind of reminds me of when we were in Denver, whether the altitude thing was real or not, our guys felt like it was.
"They knew that if it’s a four-quarter game, that they felt like they had an advantage. I think our guys are starting to really see that and feel that way. That’s the biggest thing for us, we try to make it a four-quarter game and try to prove that we’re in the best shape possible to finish the game out the right way.”
The heat in Miami can be sweltering. Temperatures are expected to reach the upper 80s on Sunday, with humidity close to 70 percent. The Lions practiced in those conditions during training camp, when guys would leave the field drenched in sweat and occasionally gasping for breath, but temperatures are now 40 degrees colder. It’s impossible to for the team to simulate Sunday’s forecast during a Michigan October.
Instead Patricia has increased the pace of practice to compensate. There are fewer breaks this week, the timing between drills, and even between plays, has been shortened. It’s all part of the effort to ensure his team is prepared.
“We’re just going to have to do a good job here of working through practice a high pace and a high tempo and making sure that we’re in great condition when we go down there,” Patricia said. “That will be a big part of it.
"And I think as you can see as the games go on down there, the teams in the end — conditioning will be a big part of the game.”
Another factor that will play into the Dolphins favor is Hard Rock Stadium’s construction. The home team’s sideline is protected by shade, while opponents are under the sun, slowly baking throughout the game.
Of course, the opposition is free to get creative, like the Bears did last week, having staffers hold up temporary shade over the benches. Tate joked he might pack one of those squirt bottles with a fan you see parents using in the bleachers during youth sporting events.
Patricia, the former engineer, wouldn’t reveal whether he had any contraptions in the works to give his players respite from the sun’s rays, but given his extensive experience playing road games against the Dolphins, from his days as an assistant in New England, he probably has an idea or two he’ll deploy this weekend.
Another critical component, beyond basic conditioning, will be hydration. Bears lineman Bobbie Massie claims he lost 12 pounds just through sweating a week ago.
If you don’t want to be a guy getting an IV at halftime, you can’t just pound a couple bottles of Gatorade before the game. Prepping your body for this kind of heat is a process that begins much earlier in the week.
“Hydration is the biggest thing and that starts now,” Lions receiver Golden Tate said after Wednesday’s practice. “If you wait until Saturday night, it’s too late.”
Former Lions coach Jim Caldwell liked to say he was trying coach an indoor team with an outdoor mentality. In the NFC North, your mind immediately goes to the annual cold-weather battles with the Bears and Packers, but this week in Miami applies just the same.
The Lions will be looking to overcome the limitations of their habitat, to show the Dolphins and the NFL they’re a team built to win, regardless of the conditions or setting.