Historically, seeing the Detroit Lions on the schedule has meant one thing – add a "W" to Minnesota's ledger sheet. Although the Vikings have struggled to beat the Lions in recent years, beat them they have. The Vikings have won the last five meetings, 15 of the last 16 and 19 of the last 21 meetings. But the Lions are a team that is on the rise. They may well still be in the formative steps, but they are catching up to the rest of the league faster than their 0-2 record would indicate.
The Lions are trying the building process on the right arm of quarterback Matthew Stafford. The first pick in the 2009 draft, Stafford was thrown to the wolves as a rookie and started 10 games before going down to injury. Unfortunately for Stafford, the same has happened this season. He was knocked out in the season opener and replaced by former Viking Shaun Hill. He hasn't lit up opponents – throwing three interceptions in a game-and-a-half, but he is a game manager. He doesn't have a deep arm, but is capable of leading his team on time-consuming drives that move the chains. That will give the Vikings defense opportunities to make plays to get off the field, but Hill shouldn't be underestimated. He excelled in the complicated Mike Martz offense and was the choice of Scott Linehan, the Lions' offensive coordinator and former O.C. with the Vikings. Hill knows the offense inside and out and Kevin Williams speculated that the offensive playbook will be more wide open with Hill than it would be with the younger Stafford. There is no reason to believe Hill will torch the Vikings through the air, but he is experienced and knows what the Vikings defense will throw at him. Those are the kind of quarterbacks that can be dangerous in a short-term exposure.
The biggest pleasant surprise for the Lions offense has been how quickly Jahvid Best has made a name for himself. He leads the NFL with five touchdowns and has been as big a focus of any offense in the league. He has 31 carries through two games – no other Lions RB has more than five – and leads the team with 14 receptions. As a team, the Lions have gained 612 yards of offense – 268 of those yards (44 percent) have been created by Best. He has shown his explosiveness despite being held in check on the ground. He has gained just 98 yards on 31 carries, but four of those runs have been touchdowns. His biggest contribution has been as a receiver, where he has caught 14 passes for 170 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown. The Lions have used him much in the same way the Eagles have used Brian Westbrook, and Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway compared him to Reggie Bush. He is the type of player who can be stopped cold for a dozen carries/receptions in a row for little to no gain, but then take one all the way to the house. Former starter Kevin Smith has yet to have a carry this season and veteran Maurice Morris has just five carries for 5 yards. Expect Best for almost the entire game. The Vikings are expecting 20 or more touches from him and keeping him in check is a top-end priority.
When the Lions pass, they have one of the game's top receiving threats in 6-foot-5 Calvin Johnson. A strong, fast player with exceptional skills, he has made the jump to the elite among the young crop of wide receivers in the league. He creates mismatch problems and can wear out defenders with the long bomb. He and Stafford are going to be a lethal mix for years, but, for the most part, Johnson has been forced to catch underneath routes. His longest catch so far is just 19 yards. Expect the Vikings to blanket him on most plays to reduce his yards-after -catch. Johnson's job got considerably more difficult because former Viking Nate Burleson, who was signed as a free agent in the offseason, will miss Sunday's game with an ankle injury, depleting the thin depth the Lions have at the position. Former Cardinal and 49er Bryant Johnson moves into the starting role and second-year pro Derrick Williams and Stefan Logan provide the only remaining roster depth. As a result, the role of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler is likely to increase. Pettrigrew and Scheffler have combined to catch 15 passes and, with Burleson sidelined, look for them to test Greenway and Ben Leber, who will already be working overtime to contain Best. If there is a big play from the Lions offense, it may well come from the athletic tight ends down the deep seam.
The Lions have a veteran offensive line, but it has struggled to open running lanes. As a team, the Lions have averaged less than 3 yards a carry. It is a veteran group with tackles Jeff Backus (10th year) and Gosder Cherilus (3rd), guards Stephen Peterman (6th) and Rob Sims (5th) and center Dominic Raiola (10th). There is a question at right guard, where Peterman is questionable with a foot injury. If he can't go, fourth-year pro Manny Ramirez, who started 12 games last year, would take over.
The biggest difference in the Lions from last year would have to be their ability to pressure the passer. Against both the Bears and Eagles, the Lions were able to consistently pressure the quarterback. They have 10 sacks in two games and have been led in the middle by rookie Ndamukong Suh, who has two sacks. The Lions run a rotation along the line, with Suh and seven-year veteran Corey Williams at the tackle spots and Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril starting at the end spots. Avril is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury and will likely be replaced by fourth-year man Turk McBride, who is tied with Suh for the team lead with two sacks. The line has been questionable against the run, allowing 4.5 yards per carry and more than 130 yards a game against lesser backs than Adrian Peterson. LeShon McCoy ripped them up for 120 yards on just 16 carries last week, so look for the Vikings to make running against this group a priority.
If the Lions have a clear defensive Achilles' heel it is at linebacker. The depth of this position may be tested beyond its brink. Two of the three starters are questionable with significant injuries – middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is questionable with a groin injury and outside linebacker Landon Johnson is questionable with a neck strain. Veteran Julian Peterson remains, but the supporting cast has taken a significant amount of hits. Primary backup both inside and outside was supposed to be provided by Jordon Dizon, but he was put on injured reserve during the preseason with a knee injury. The next in line for the outside linebacker spot is Zack Follett, but he has already been ruled out with a concussion. If Johnson can't go, the only other OLB option is second-year man Ashlee Palmer. They may need an assist from the inside linebackers – six-year vet Isaiah Ekejiuba, who spent his first five seasons with the Raiders, and Spencer Havner, who caught a couple of touchdown passes as a situational tight end with the Packers last year. If Havner sees more playing time as a Lions linebacker than as a Packers tight end, it could be bad news for Detroit.
The Lions have invested a lot in improving their secondary, with mixed results. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 108.1 – an incredibly high number that should give hope to Vikings fans. Gone are 2009 starters Anthony Henry and Phillip Buchanon and in are Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade. Houston reminds some scouts as a young version of Antoine Winfield. He is undersized, but tough as nails. He is aggressive and a QB like Favre can sell fakes that could open things up in the passing game. Wade is another former Rams nickel back in which the Lions have invested. It worked with Dre Bly, but Wade doesn't have the cover skills to equal his production. Both starting safeties – Louis Delmas and C.C. Brown – are nursing injuries (Brown with a forearm injury and Delmas with a "pick-em" laundry list including his biceps, groin and calf). Depth is thin here as well, so the Lions could find themselves shuffling the lineup as the game progresses.
The Lions are a team that, in a year or two, is going to be in the mix for a division title. For now, they're a struggling franchise that is in need of an identity. They have built an offense on high draft choices and hope to do the same on defense. Until both sides of the ball get on the same page, they will continue to struggle, but they have enough players to start making a difference. They're double-digit underdogs for a reason, but Detroit is getting closer to having a winner than the Lions' record would indicate. With any luck, that resurgence begins in Week 4.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Lions better, not Best yet
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