Run the football; Stop the Run to defeat Vikings

There is a reason the Minnesota Vikings (2-0) come into Sunday's contest atop the NFC North. They are playing great football. Lions' insider Mike Fowler breaks down the Vikings, and previews Sunday's clash at Ford Field.

MATCHUP:
: DETROIT LIONS (1-1) VS MINNESOTA VIKINGS (2-0)
: SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, FORD FIELD, DETROIT, MI 1:00 PM EST
: ALL TIME: VIKINGS 52-29-2:
: LAST MEETING: MINNESOTA 38 - DETROIT 36

(ALLEN PARK) - There is a reason the Minnesota Vikings (2-0) come into Sunday's contest atop the NFC North. They are playing great football.

The Vikings are running the football extremely well (178.0 yards per game) and they have the weapons to strike quickly. New starting running back Moe Williams (4th in the NFC) rushed for 108 yards on 21 carries in Sunday night's 24-13 win over the Chicago Bears and currently ranks 8th among all NFL running backs with 188 yards in two games.

"It's awesome to be running behind these guys," said Williams after defeating the Chicago Bears Sunday night. "You can just look at them in the huddle and see how confident they are."

Incidentally, Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper (No. 1 passer rating in NFC 114.4) (67 yards on 16 carries) has rushed for more yards than any of the Detroit Lions running backs (Olandis Gary 21 carries for 52 yards, Shawn Bryson 12 carries 51 yards). Change of pace back Onterrio Smith, who was Joey Harrington's main rushing threat at Oregon, also is a factor, rushing for 47 yards on just nine carries so far.

Minnesota has emphasized scoring early in the ballgame. Head coach Mike Tice felt that the Vikings had to come from behind too many times last year and has stressed getting off to a fast start. The approach has worked. Minnesota has yet to trail in a game this season leading directly to their 2-0 start.

The Vikings ability to run the ball effectively is likely to be a real nusiance to the Lions. Minnesota's offensive line is not just big, it's the biggest in the NFL. The Vikings offensive front (Bryant McKinnie, former 7th round Lion draft pick Chris Liwienski, Matt Birk, David Dixon and Mike Rosenthal) average 315.3 pounds and are mauling opponents up front.

"Well, if it was up to me, we would throw the ball twice in the game and run it every other play," said Tice, a former tight end who revels in the run game. "I think if you're going to go anywhere in this league, you have to be able to run the ball and be physical with people," Tice said. "But you have to throw the ball to win games, too."

Therein lies the rub for the Lions.

Last week, the Chicago Bears successfully limited the amount of damage that superstar wide receiver Randy Moss was able to do to them. Moss caught just four balls and did not get into the end zone. In years past, this would have been a recipe for disaster in the Viking locker room. But the older and more mature Moss took it all in stride as tight end Jim Kleinsasser caught two TD passes and the Vikings held onto the lead by pounding Williams at the Bears for the win.

"This year, we're more patient," Moss said, "and with the strength of our offensive line, we're able to do really anything that we want to do."

With Moss willing and able to be a decoy if necessary and a threat when needed, Minnesota could be a dark horse pick in the NFC playoff race.

DEFENSING THE VIKES:
Detroit realizes that they must stop Minnesota's run attack (Lions allow 147.5 yards rushing per game). Minnesota will be looking to establish the run in a noisy Ford Field to try to quiet the Lion faithful and wear out the Lions big front seven. If Detroit's two big tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson can get a push inside and get some assistance from backups Kelvin Pritchett and rookie Cory Redding, Minnesota might be forced to alter that strategy. But is that a good thing?

There is still the deep threat of Moss (13 catches for 177 yards, avg 13.6 per catch), who has to lick his chops going against Detroit's two deep coverage with struggling safeties Corey Harris and Brian Walker. Detroit likely wants to match star corner Dre' Bly in coverage against the taller Moss most of the time, but Moss likely will want to work against the less experienced and less talented Andre Goodman, who played well in Detroit's 31-6 loss to Green Bay. Kelly Campbell (3 catches 61 yards) and D'Wayne Bates (4 catches, 33 yards) round out the Viking receiving corps.

Bly continues to show he was worth every cent Detroit invested in him. He leads the NFC with two interceptions and his four passes deflected rank 3rd in the conference along with his seven tackles.

Detroit's linebacking corps will also have their hands full chasing the slippery Kleinsasser (four catches, 29 yards, 2 TDs) who has shown the ability to get into the seams of a zone and has displayed sure hands if not the fastest speed afoot. Kleinsasser will work mostly against rookie Boss Bailey and veteran Barrett Green.

Also, both Williams and Smith have shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. In the red zone, veteran John Avery has been inserted into the package and has already caught one touchdown pass from the tailback position.

If the Vikings have an achilles heel, it is the propensity for turnovers. Daunte Culpepper is the only player in NFL history to average at least one fumble for every game he plays. Culpepper fumbled three times in the win over Chicago recovering two himself. So far, Culpepper has fumbled five times in two games. The Lions currently rank fourth in the NFC in take-aways/give-aways ratio. Detroit has two interceptions (both by Bly) and three fumble recoveries versus three interceptions.

The problem for Detroit will be getting a blue shirt near the former Central Florida product. Detroit has just one sack (Dan Wilkinson) in two contests and never threatened quarterback Brett Favre last Sunday.

Detroit desperately needs Kalimba Edwards, James Hall and Robert Porcher to put pressure on the $102 million man Culpepper and hope they can force mistakes.

OFFENSIVELY SPEAKING:
Lions head coach Steve Mariucci has vowed to get Detroit inept run game (last in the NFC in Rushing Yards per game) on track. After Monday's press conference, Mariucci sat down with the entire offensive starting unit and went through every running play in the playbook to determine the problem.

Realistically, all Detroit can hope for is that they can be respectable. The loss of James Stewart (separated shoulder, placed on injured reserve) will affect the team more than they would have hoped. With neither Olandis Gary or Shawn Bryson taking the bull by the horns, Detroit will revert to the 'three-headed monster' approach with Avon Cobourne joining the aforementioned duo. Minnesota is allowing just 71 yards rushing per game.

The Lions want to avoid having second-year quarterback Joey Harrington chuck it 55 times (falling from 1st to 18th in the NFC in passer rating 66.6), the way he did in the 31-6 loss to Green Bay. Although Harrington was not sacked, he threw three interceptions. The Lions would like to avoid turnovers and cause a few of their own.

Detroit has to account for the best defensive tackle in the NFC, the Vikings Chris Hovan. Hovan is coming off a breakout season (73 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks) in 2002 but hasn't yet displayed the same form he showed a year ago to date.

Detroit is pinning some of its hope on the return of last year's prized free agent acquisition Az-Zahir Hakim. Hakim has been running drills in practice and says he feels close to 100% healthy. If he can go, that will take the burden off rookie No. 1 draft pick Charles Rogers who has been feeling the pressure of double team coverage.

If Hakim and Rogers can spread the field, Detroit's run game will likely improve. A return to form from Mikhael Ricks, who was putrid in last week's loss before being benched, also could help energize the Lions offense. Ricks can stretch the defense with his speed and pass catching ability when he's on his game.

The onus though, is on Detroit's offensive front five (Jeff Backus, Eric Beverly, Dominic Raiola, Ray Brown and Stockar McDougle) to open some holes in the interior line to run through.

Former Lions linebacker Chris Claiborne is reeking havoc as a Viking. After being allowed to leave as a free agent in one of the worst decisions of the Matt Millen era, Claiborne is off to a fast start at the weak side linebacker position and leads the team with two sacks and fourteen tackles.

Conversely, Detroit's linebacking corps (Earl Holmes 12, Barrett Green 12 and Boss Bailey 10 tackles) has been a disappointment thus far. None of the linebackers are among even the top 50 tacklers in the NFC and none has even one sack. Safety Corey Harris leads the team with a respectable 14 tackles.

ANALYSIS:
Detroit has to feed off the energy of the sellout 65,000 strong crowd and come out with energy and desire. They need to force turnovers and use their one advantage, their special teams (2nd in the NFL in kick returns), as a weapon against the Vikings. Detroit cannot match the Vikings run game and unless their defense plays their best game to date, they have little hope of holding the Vikings under 30 without great special teams play and turnovers. Look for Claiborne, who has revenge on his mind, to wreak havoc on the Lions offense.

Detroit will score, but the problem will be getting the ball back from the potent Viking offense enough to win.

It will take a minor miracle for the Lions to beat the best team in the NFC North, even at home. Detroit doesn't have any miracles on tap.

PICK: Minnesota 30 - Detroit 20


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