The Lions used the end of the 2010 season to exorcise several of their demons. The road losing streak, the divisional opponent losing streak and ending their streak of not winning consecutive games. Coming into 2011, the Lions still have two streaks alive and well that need exorcising too. The Lions haven’t beaten the Packers on the road since 1991 and the Vikings on the road since 1997. The Lions get the opportunity to end their road woes against the Vikings this week, while adding another game to their current win streak.
Despite the Packers being the best team in the division over the last several years, the Vikings are the bullies. They have a couple good years and talk trash about everybody and then slink away when they get put in their place. The Lions have taken the brunt of the bullying, especially from Paul Allen, the Vikings play by play announcer. Nobody will ever forget his shot at the Lions in the NFC Championship Game when Favre threw his traditional season ending interception against the Saints. The Lions helped silence Mr. Allen by stuffing his foot in his mouth last December, beating the Vikings 24-17 and sending the Vikings to last place in the division.
The Vikings built their team around making a championship run in the short term when they felt they were loaded with talent and just lacking a quarterback. Brett Favre gave them a typical Brett season in 2009 with a dominating regular season and postseason meltdown and the Vikings thought they’d bounce back in 2010 and take the next step. Instead they found they didn’t have nearly as good a team as they thought and Favre fell apart behind a terrible offensive line and lack of talent everywhere but running back.
The Vikings are now paying the piper for their short term approach, and the Lions are trying to capitalize on their long term approach to building a team by going to 3-0 for the first time since 1980.
The Vikings possessed one of the better defenses in the league the last few years due to their dominating defensive line. The Vikings strength took a hit this offseason when they lost DE Ray Edwards to Atlanta and Pat Williams to suspension/retirement. Brian Robison replaces Edwards and Remi Ayodele replaces Williams. Jared Allen returns as well as Kevin Williams who returns from suspension this week. The Lions are bracing for the return of Williams, but he will not be as big a factor as usual because he is not in football shape yet.
The Lions offense has some great matchups with a weak back seven for the Vikings. MLB EJ Henderson is a solid player, but he is much better against the run than the pass. Chad Greenway is a top 10 OLB and has a knack for big plays, he will have his hands full with covering Jahvid Best or the tight ends tomorrow. Antoine Winfield is on the decline, but he’s still the best player in the secondary for the Vikings. He is tough and physical, but he gives up a ton of size and speed to Calvin Johnson and will face a difficult task when CJ lines up across from him.
I expect the Lions to do more of what they have been doing so far this season, use the pass game to build a lead and then spread the field and run the ball in the second half to grind the pace of the game down. The Lions are aware of the problems that the noise in the Metrodome can cause, so they definitely want to be aggressive early and take the crowd out of the game early.
Kieland Williams got his first action in garbage time last week against the Chiefs and he looked good. With Best and Jerome Harrison struggling to gain the tough yards in obvious running situations look for Williams workload to increase each week. Maurice Morris hasn’t played since Week 1 when he fumbled twice while recovering from a broken hand, if he has gotten the strength back he may replace Williams on the active roster.
The Vikings pass rush is nowhere near as fearsome as it was in years past, so don’t expect the Lions to game plan around it as much. The Lions definitely will try to exploit Jared Allen’s aggressiveness with draws and screens, but without Edwards and Williams coming from the other side, offenses can slide protection Allen’s way. The Vikings are tied with the Lions with four sacks, but they haven’t been getting as consistent pressure and forcing turnovers as well as in the past.
The Vikings are allowing a staggering 69.6% completion to their opponents, but they actually rank in the middle of the pack in pass defense. They are allowing a lot of completions underneath, but have been tackling well and avoiding the big plays. Nate Burleson’s run after the catch ability and CJ’s immense talent will challenge the tackling of the Vikings secondary.
Obviously everything starts with Adrian Peterson, who has been a Lion killer since he was drafted in 2006. Peterson had a huge week against the Bucs last week, and the Vikings rank 3rd in the league in rushing right now. The Lions were plagued with poor linebacker play for several years and look no further than the Adrian Peterson highlights from those games. You frequently see Peterson break through the line and run freely into the secondary where they basically bounce off him or chase him down after he built up a head of steam without being slowed down by the linebackers. The Lions have improved significantly against the run, but they are still allowing 4.6 yards per carry.
The Lions gave up a lot of yardage last week on end arounds and rushing plays on the edges, which could pose a problem with Peterson’s speed and Percy Harvin’s versatility. The Lions generally are willing to concede some of that yardage because they want to attack the quarterback and they don’t want to lose that aggressiveness by worrying too much about the run. That strategy may have to be tempered a little when facing one of the best backs in the league. The Vikings want to establish the run and use play action passes off of the focus on the run, but if they are gashing teams on the ground they will stick with it.
The Lions match up well against the Vikings passing game, especially Donovan McNabb. McNabb is most comfortable throwing downfield and gets flustered easily by a strong pass rush. This was evident last year when he was with the Redskins and the Lions sacked him several times and he was eventually benched. The Vikings lack any true receiving threat other than Percy Harvin who is more of a threat after the catch rather than a deep threat. The Lions will continue to do what they do on the defensive line and attack the Vikings weak line. The Vikings are 31st in the league in passing, 27th in yards per attempt, 26th in completion percentage and 30th in quarterback rating. It’s no mystery why the Lions want to build an early lead and force the Vikings to pass.
The wild card is the Lions linebackers vs Adrian Peterson. The Vikings really need Peterson to set the tone and have a lot of success on the ground to slow the pace of the game down and keep it close. The Lions linebackers are drastically improved over last year, but they had a rough week against the Chiefs. Whoever wins this matchup, should have an edge in establishing the pace of the game and ultimately who is in control of the game.
The Vikings held leads going into halftime in both games this season and blew both of them. Their awful passing game allows defenses to focus on Peterson and they become too predictable as a result. The defense does what they can while the offense controls the clock, but eventually the dam bursts and they are just over matched. The Chargers’ offense shredded the secondary and they scored 17 unanswered points in the second half. I imagine this game will be similar with a close first half before the Lions’ offense overwhelms a struggling Vikings defense.