The Lions returned to .500 last Sunday with a victory over Jacksonville, and have an opportunity this week to get into position for a stretch run that is overloaded with home games. Believe it or not, if the Lions win on Sunday, they will actually be in possession of the final wild card spot for the NFC with seven games remaining. The downside is the Lions have the toughest remaining schedule out of the embattled NFC teams, facing six opponents with winning records to end the season. Regardless of the uphill climb ahead of the team, this is an opportunity to shun the disappointing start to the season, and possibly have relevant games in December once again this year.
Detroit Linebackers vs. Adrian Peterson
Whenever a team faces the Vikings, Adrian Peterson is priority number 1. Corralling AP will be even more of an emphasis this week for two main reasons. First, Christian Ponder’s efficiency has cooled in recent weeks, and he has started to show flashes of his rookie self. In two of the last three games, Ponder has thrown for less than 60 yards. One of those lackluster performances came with the benefit of Adrian Peterson running wild, and Ponder was still unable to take advantage of a defense focused on the run. The Lions’ pass coverage has not been nearly as porous as expected this season, outside of the loss at Tennessee. The Lions defense is growing more and more confident by the day, which has shown through Gunther Cunningham’s willingness to bring more blitzes, mix coverages, and commit to playing towards the defense’s strengths, rather than playing to hide their weaknesses.
The second contributing factor to the increased emphasis on stopping AP, is the expected absence of playmaker Percy Harvin. With Harvin out, the Vikings and Ponder have limited options in the passing game. Kyle Rudolph will have increased importance in the middle of the field, but without a true outside vertical threat, the Lions can commit linebackers and safeties to the box in an effort to limit Peterson, and the short passing game. The Vikings will most likely take early deep shots to stretch and expose the back end of the Lion secondary, but this will open up opportunities to blitz Ponder, and pressure him into mistakes.
The Minnesota Vikings offense does not function without Adrian Peterson. The passing game is predicated on the success of the running game. The success of the Viking defense is also dependent on the running game, as far as building a lead, possessing the ball, and bleeding the clock. If the Lions can turn this game into a shootout, or build a lead with a strong first half performance, the Vikings will be pulled from their comfort zone, and Christian Ponder will be asked to shoulder the burden of carrying his offense, which he has yet to prove that he can do.
Mikell LeShoure vs. Vikings Front Seven
The Lions proved last year that they could win despite a lackluster running game. It wasn’t something that was necessary to open up their passing game. The ability to throw at will, even without any threat of a running attack, seems to have made the Lions and Scott Linehan complacent. Things are different this season. Defenses have adjusted, and Linehan has not. Defenses are scheming ways to take away the Lions downfield passing game, and limit the damage done by Calvin Johnson. Linehan has been unable to make the necessary adjustments to counter this through the first half of the season, and thus the Lions have been unsuccessful due to the lack of an intermediate passing game. The one thing that has helped open up the offense this season is the existence of a legitimate running attack.
Mikell Leshoure is the key here, as the Lions must be able to run the ball. Defenses are daring the Lions to run, and until last week, they hadn’t been able to. LeShoure needs to gouge opposing defense for large chunks of yardage, in order to force adjustments. Grinding out three or four yards at a time simply is not enough to force defensive coordinators to pull a safety off of Calvin Johnson, and commit him to the run game. As seen in Jacksonville, the threat must be much larger. LeShoure needs to break free for big gains in order to force the hand of the Vikings defense, and open up the downfield game for Johnson and Young to take advantage of.
Things are different this season for the Lions offense. The ground game is needed to take the pressure off of Matthew Stafford, and also to slow opposing pass rushers. It seems that Scott Linehan is finally realizing that, and may be finally making the necessary adjustments that should have been made in the off-season.
Other Factors to Watch
Special teams will be in the spotlight once again, despite solid performances over the past few weeks. He first time these two teams met, the Lions lost a 20-13 game as a result of two special teams touchdowns for the Vikings. Eyes will be focused on Danny Crossman once again, but this time he may not have to worry about Percy Harvin.