Lions Defense Will Be Tested Sunday Against Vikes

The Detroit Lions may not have to deal with super wide receiver Randy Moss but that doesn't mean they are out of the woods. The Minnesota Vikings have amassed a collection of offensive talent rarely seen on one club in today's NFL. In-depth preview inside.

WHAT: DETROIT LIONS (4-5) VS MINNESOTA VIKINGS (5-4)
WHERE: METRODOME, MINNEAPOLIS, MN
WHEN: 1:00PM EST SUNDAY, TELEVISED: FOX
LAST MEETING: MINNESOTA 24- DETROIT 14
ALL TIME: VIKINGS LEAD 54-29-2

NOTABLE: Minnesota S Corey Chavous and CB Brian Williams each returned interceptions for touchdowns to give Minnesota a 24-7 lead. Detroit scored a touchdown late when QB Joey Harrington hit WR Az-Zahir Hakim for a five-yard score, to make it a 24-14 game.

INJURY REPORT: DETROIT - LB Boss Bailey (knee) is out. WR Az-Zahir Hakim (hip) is doubtful. DE Jared DeVries (groin), WR Tai Streets (hamstring), FB Stephen Trejo (knee) and S Bracy Walker (calf) are questionable. DT Marcus Bell (neck), LB Donté Curry (knee) and DT Shaun Rogers (neck) are probable.

MINNESOTA - LB Raonall Smith (concussion) is out. WR Randy Moss (hamstring) is doubtful. RB Mewelde Moore (ankle) is questionable and C Matt Birk (abdomen) is probable.

(ALLEN PARK) - The Detroit Lions may not have to deal with super wide receiver Randy Moss but that doesn't mean they are out of the woods. The Minnesota Vikings have amassed a collection of offensive talent rarely seen on one club in today's NFL.

Not only do the Vikings have one of the NFL's most efficient passers in Daunte Culpepper (rank #1 in NFL in passer rating 115.4), the fifth-year veteran from Central Florida (25 TD passes). In addition to rookie starter Mewelde Moore (questionable with an ankle injury) they also have a bevy of running backs that could start for many NFL teams, riding their bench.

The game takes on added importance for Detroit because it is a divisional contest and because the team is currently riding a three-game losing streak. Much of the blame for Detroit's woes has fallen upon the shoulders of third-year quarterback Joey Harrington. Harrington was miserable in compiling a 32.5 passer rating last week, throwing 33 times, but completing just 11 passes on the afternoon.

Harrington took the brunt of criticism in the media from fans and pundits who say that he will never progress to warrant being picked third overall in the 2001 NFL draft. While Harrington has had two straight poor starts, it's too soon to tell if he is the 'real deal' or not. Harrington played sensational football against the New York Giants and was the third rated QB in the NFC prior to having two straight disastrous outings which plummeted his rating to the middle of the pack.

Against the porous Vikings defense, Harrington ought to be able to jump start the Lions anemic offense (rank #31 in NFL) and pad his stats.

Equally a concern for the Lions is the play of their defense of late, particularly against the run. A string of running backs have lit up the Lions starting front seven beginning with Dallas' Eddie George (99 yards rushing), Washington's Clinton Portis (144 yards rushing) and last week, Jacksonville's Fred Taylor (142 yards rushing).

While the Lions have been solid in the middle, Dallas discovered that they could make hay running towards Detroit's ends James Hall and especially second-year man Cory Redding. This is a trend Detroit must counter with better play at the point of attack by the ends, and good solid run support from linebackers James Davis, Teddy Lehman and Alex Lewis.

Detroit's Boss Bailey could make a difference when he returns (likely against the Arizona Cardinals) but will Detroit still be playing meaningful games at that point? Not likely, unless they can snap the losing streak in Minnesota. Former Lions linebacker Chris Claiborne has guaranteed that the Vikings will win by ten points or more

WHEN MINNESOTA HAS THE FOOTBALL
The Vikings may not have Randy Moss, but they do have second-year standout Nate Burleson (Nevada) who has played well in Moss' absence. Burleson led the Vikes with 11 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown in a last second loss the Green Bay a week ago. Tight end Jermaine Wiggins chipped in with six catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and Moe Williams added four more and a touchdown as Culpepper threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns on the day. Marcus Robinson, who had been a playmaker earlier in the season, has been unproductive of late.

However, with Detroit's $50 million secondary tandem of Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant intact and healthy for this one, the Vikings may elect to keep the ball on the ground and challenge Detroit's run defense.

Detroit will likely play second-year safety Terrence Holt (N.C. State) more than they have to date. Detroit's starting strong safety Bracey Walker hobbled off the field in practice on Thursday and Holt took more of the reps. Holt was being mixed into the defensive rotation anyway, but this should accelerate his participation.

"[Walker's] got a tight calf, so we've pulled him off the field and threw some ice on him. We'll see where it goes. We're going to get an ultrasound later today to see if we can learn something from that. It was something (that happened) today. He felt tight, so we just backed him off," said coach Steve Mariucci.

Minnesota only ran the ball 16 times against Green Bay's shoddy defensive secondary, but that may change against Detroit. With Moore questionable for this contest after missing the last two with a high ankle sprain, Michael Bennett (Wisconsin) and Onterrio Smith, the former Oregon standout are likely to split duties and carries against Detroit. Both had five carries for an identical 21 yards.

Detroit's defensive ends, Cory Redding and James Hall have come under pressure from opposing offenses who feel they can run the ball on the outside of Detroit's defense. Detroit needs better run support from weak side linebacker James Davis and middle linebacker/strong side linebacker Teddy Lehman. Lehman is the only rookie linebacker to start every game for his respective team this season. Lehman's 54 tackles ranks third in the NFL and first in the NFC among rookie linebackers.

Detroit must account for Wiggins, since historically Detroit has had a tough time handling opposition tight ends. Lehman though did an extremely creditable job on New York's Jeremy Shockey but struggled in coverage against Dallas' Jason Whitten.

If Detroit can keep Minnesota from beating them with the long ball, they have a shot at the upset.

WHEN DETROIT HAS THE FOOTBALL
The Lions want desperately to snap out of the slow starting ways offensively that has doomed them to playing catch-up football in several contest. Look for Detroit to try to jump start the offense in a number of ways including using no-huddle, trick plays and surprisingly focusing on the run.

Detroit has settled on rookie Kevin Jones as their featured back and Jones loves being in the role of the bell cow. His 19 carries last week for 81 yards were the most of any Lions running back this season. Jones' response shows that he is capable of making plays, but needs plenty of touches early on to get into a rhythm.

Detroit may use a bit of a faster pace including some no-huddle in a bid to shake off the doldrums. The Lions would like to get the ball to receiver Roy Williams and let him try to make a play. But Harrington must account for playmakers in the Vikings secondary including safety Corey Chavous who victimized Harrington a season ago (see notable above).

Free agent acquisition Antoine Winfield (63 tackles, 7 passes defensed) will likely be paired up against Williams in coverage with Chavous over the top. That could open things up for Reggie Swinton, who will be matched up against Brian Russell. Detroit could use a good game from tight end Stephen Alexander matched up against weak side linebacker Dontarrious Thomas.

Alexander would love to redeem himself after dropping a pass wide open in the end zone. They'll need a strong blocking game from Alexander to counteract the pass rush of Vikings rookie defensive end Kenechi Udeze (3 sacks).

KEY MATCHUPS
DT CHRIS HOVAN VS. G DAMIEN WOODY
In one of the best matchups of the afternoon, two former collegiate teammates (Boston College) will square off on Sunday. Woody has made "setting a tone" and "imposing your will on an opponent" the mantra of the attitude he is try to instill in the Lions offensive front line.

Here's is Woody's opportunity to lead by example against on of the NFL's premier interior linemen in Hovan. If Woody can indeed establish the tone for the game by getting the best of Hovan, it will help spark Detroit's run game since Detroit prefers to run to the right side of its offensive line where its strength lies.

WR NATE BURLESON vs. CB DRE' BLY
While their is some late talk that Randy Moss could play, this is going to be the key match up. Burleson impressive 11 catch performance was the talk of the league and the 6-foot-2 rookie had a field day against the Packers. Bly, who is coming off a couple of shaky performance as he tries to get "some of the rust" off, would love to show he's still one of the premier corners in the league by shutting down Burleson and taking away one of Culpepper's biggest weapons

LB TEDDY LEHMAN vs. TE JERMAINE WIGGINS
Another of Woody's teammates, Wiggins has become more of a factor in Minnesota's offense in the absence of Moss. His six catch performance kept the chains moving for the Vikings and kept Green Bay off the field. Lehman has shown good cover ability when playing the strong side position. He had an outstanding game against New York's Jeremy Shockey but struggled against Dallas' Jason Whitten, typical of a rookie. Nine games in, look for Lehman to battle Wiggins in the passing game in a key match up of the day.

KICKING GAME
Detroit's Jason Hanson hasn't been as accurate as he has in past years. Some of that may be due to age, to a new long snapper and breaking in a new holder, all factors in a strong kicking game. Minnesota's Morten Anderson has been solid after being signed off the waiver wire by Minnesota just prior to the season opener.

Detroit also needs to do a better job in special teams coverage that has broken down a few times this season. Minnesota's Burleson has the ability to take it the distance. However, no one is more effective in the punt and kick return game than pro bowler-to-be Eddie Drummond. Drummond nearly single-handedly saved the Lions from defeat in Jacksonville, only to be denied a chance to win the game in overtime as Detroit never touched the ball

PICK
If the Lions lose this one, its four straight and makes any chance of a playoff spot unlikely. In addition, falling two games under .500 after a 3-1 start would be disheartening to the team. Linebacker Chris Claiborne's foolish prediction, Joey Harrington's play-well-or-be-benched ultimatum and the return of Dre' Bly to prominence all combine to give Detroit a much needed upset...on the road no less.

DETROIT 26 - MINNESOTA 24

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