DETROIT – When Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell outlined all the problems the Miami Dolphins may pose this weekend, he could have just as easily been describing his own team.
"They have an outstanding pass rush," Caldwell said. "They're beefy up front, linebackers that can run — and obviously a skilled and athletic secondary as well."
The Lions and Dolphins have both exceeded expectations this season, and they've done it in a similar fashion. Detroit has the top-ranked defense in the NFL, while Miami's is No. 1 in the AFC.
Both teams are in position to make a run at the playoffs — but they each face a decent amount of skepticism heading into Sunday's matchup at Ford Field.
"It's a pretty even match in terms of the type of teams facing each other," Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. "We're both strong on defense, both have explosive-play ability on offense. I think it's going to be a heck of a matchup."
The Lions (6-2) should look a bit more threatening on offense this weekend, with Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush both expected back from injuries.
It's been an impressive start for Caldwell in his first season as Detroit's coach. The Lions have dealt with kicking problems and an inconsistent offense, but still find themselves leading the NFC North at the midway point of the season.
Detroit started 6-3 last year but ended up 7-9, so the Lions still have a lot to prove. Sunday's game is the start of a difficult three-game stretch that also includes road games against Arizona and New England.
Miami (5-3) is tied with Buffalo for second in the AFC East, but the Dolphins are coming off a 37-0 rout against San Diego, their most lopsided victory since 1995. They've scored at least 24 points in five consecutive games, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is completing 63 percent of his passes on the season.
Miami has mixed rollouts, read options and short passes to take advantage of Tannehill's strengths. Tannehill has run for a gain of at least 20 yards in each of the past four games, so he'll test Ndamukong Suh and Detroit's defensive front with his mobility.
"He's a guy that we definitely have to respect no matter what," Suh said. "Obviously, he can pass the ball, he can run the ball and they've been doing a great job of getting him out with their zone-read and things of that nature."
Here are a few more things to watch Sunday when the Lions host the Dolphins:
MEGATRON'S RETURN: Johnson hasn't played since Oct. 5 because of an ankle injury, but he's expected to return this weekend. Receiver Golden Tate has been terrific in Johnson's absence, but now the Lions face Miami's excellent secondary.
Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan, the Dolphins' two 5-foot-10 cornerbacks, will have their hands full against Tate and the 6-foot-5 Johnson. Miami safety Louis Delmas used to play for the Lions and had his share of battles with Johnson.
"Throughout practice — but I pretty much lost every one. He's a heck of a player," Delmas said. "He's one of the more talented players I've ever faced. We're talented too. We've just got to go out there and play our game and hopefully the best man wins."
FIRST THING'S FIRST: The Dolphins owe some of their success to their remarkable efficiency on first down. They have gained at least 4 yards on 57 percent of their first-down plays, the best mark in the NFL. Miami is also No. 1 in the league in this category on the opposite side of the ball — Dolphins opponents have gained at least 4 yards on only 41 percent of their first-down plays.
FAMILIAR FACE: Bush has been banged up lately, but like Johnson, he has been able to practice this week. Bush played two seasons with the Dolphins, rushing for a career-high 1,086 yards in 2011, before he signed with the Lions prior to the 2013 season.
TOUGH MATCHUP: Mike Pouncey, the anchor of Miami's offensive line, moved from center to guard this year and has played well, but the interior linemen will have to deal with Suh this weekend.
"We have to go out and play our best against him. He's going to be the best defender we play against all year," Pouncey said.
COMEBACKS: The Lions are coming off an open date, but before that they managed a pair of one-point victories over Atlanta and New Orleans. Against the Saints, they trailed by 13 late in the fourth quarter before scoring two touchdowns. Against the Falcons, Detroit was down 21-0 at halftime, but rallied to win on a last-second field goal.
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