When the Vikings met the Detroit Lions all the way back in Week 3, both teams were 0-2 and desperate to notch their first win of the season. The Vikings continued their dominance of the Lions, winning their sixth straight against the Lions and their 14th in the last 15 meetings. The Lions dropped their first four games of the season and 10 of their first 12 games. But, since hitting the 10-loss mark, Detroit has won three straight games and are looking to close out the season with a win over the Vikings that would drop the Vikings into last place in the division.
Injuries have made a deep impact on the Lions, who have placed a whopping 18 players on injured reserve. Nowhere has that been more evident than at quarterback. For the second straight year, former top pick Matthew Stafford has seen his season end due to injury. Although he hasn't played in more than two months, the Lions didn't put Stafford on injured reserve until Christmas Eve. Both Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton have taken their turns at QB and the three of them have quietly found a way to throw 25 touchdowns and 15 interceptions and have a combined passer rating of 81.6 – all three better than what the Vikings have done. Hill, a former Viking, isn't overly flashy, but he gets the job done. He has completed 61 percent of his passes and, while he has thrown 11 interceptions, unless the Vikings can get some pressure on him, he will dink and dunk his way up and down the field. However, when the heat is on, he will make mistakes.
The running game has been a mixed bag. Jahvid Best, taken in the first round of April's draft with the Vikings' first-round pick, hasn't lived up to expectations, as he has been slowed by a toe injury. Yet, he has been the dominant runner in the Lions backfield. Not only does he have more than twice as many carries (161) as anyone else on the team, he is also third on the team with 52 receptions and second in touchdowns (six). He is expected to play Sunday, but likely won't carry the full load, which will open opportunities for veteran Maurice Morris. He has just 78 carries, but has averaged four yards a carry (almost a full yard more than Best). The team occasionally lets fullback Aaron Brown run the ball, but his opportunities have been very limited. Look for a split of the carries between Best and Morris. Because Best is the better home-run hitter and a more adept receiver, he is likely to be the object of more attention from the Vikings defense.
There are few (if any) wide receivers in the NFL more dominant than Calvin Johnson, who, in his fourth season, is becoming one of the game's most dominant receivers. Despite being routinely double-covered, Megatron has caught 77 passes for 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns, almost half of the Lions team total for TDs. Former Viking Nate Burleson has become the solid possession receiver opposite Johnson that has given the Lions more options in the passing game. He has 49 catches for 542 yards and five touchdowns, the second-highest total on the team. Former Cardinal Bryant Johnson, a first-round draft pick in the same year the Cards took Anquan Boldin in the second round, has never lived up to his hype. This year, he has a mere 15 receptions (one per game the Lions have played), but remains the primary option in three-receiver threats.
The most pleasant surprise for the Lions and the biggest concern among the Vikings linebackers is second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew. After having his rookie season cut short due to injury, Pettigrew has blossomed, catching 68 passes for 703 yards and four touchdowns. He has become one of the top receiving tight ends in the league and has the ability to stretch the field. But he is not alone. Former Bronco Tony Scheffler has 39 receptions and between the two tight ends, they have caught 110 passes – something that needs to grab the Vikings' attention. They will likely have five players catch 40 or more passes and expect Hill to spread the ball around, especially if Johnson gets double-covered by the Vikings secondary.
The offensive line suffered a loss when starting right tackle Gosder Cherilus, best known to Vikings fans as the guy who took the cheap shot at Jared Allen's knees that infuriated the Vikings defensive end, was put on injured reserve two weeks ago with a knee injury. He has been replaced by fourth-year backup Corey Hilliard, whom the Lions will likely need to help by lining a tight end next to him or having a running back give him an assist. The rest of the line is a veteran group that has gelled as the season has progressed. Left tackle Jeff Backus is a 10-year veteran, left guard Rob Sims in his fifth season, center Dominic Raiola is in his 10th season and right guard Stephen Peterman is in his sixth year. The Lions are going to have to replace Backus and Raiola, both of whom are starting to show the signs of age and the wear and tear that 10 NFL seasons has on a body, but the line has become a strength of the offense and this unit likely still has a year or two left together, as the Lions try to continue their ascent up the standings.
For years defense has been the downfall of the Lions, consistently giving up big points. But, despite a 5-10 record, Detroit has allowed only three teams to score more than 28 points and held likely playoff teams St. Louis and Green Bay to a combined nine points in two of their wins. Up front, the Lions have built a solid foundation for the future. They have registered 41 sacks and are improving by the week. At the end position, the Lions suffered a significant loss when DE Kyle Vanden Bosch was put on injured reserve three weeks ago. He has been replaced by third-year man Turk McBride, who has recorded five sacks in a part-time role. The other starting end is third-year pro Cliff Avril, who has eight sacks – a solid total, but not the best on the team. That belongs to likely Defensive Rookie of Year Ndamukong Suh, a dominating nose tackle who has already become a force in the NFL. He has nine sacks and is the most disruptive player on the line, capable of ruining plays from the snap. Seven-year veteran Corey Williams is a solid run-stopper at the other tackle spot. Unlike the offensive line, that will some fine-tuning and replacement players, the defensive line could be intact for years to come, which could be the foundation building blocks for the future in Detroit.
The linebacker corps took a hit when starting outside linebacker Landon Johnson was placed on injured reserve Thursday due to a concussion. He was starting alongside middle linebacker DeAndre Levy and veteran Julian Peterson. Peterson is in his 11th season, but is showing no signs of slowing down, leading the Lions with 84 tackles. Depth is a question mark, with former Vikings castoff Vinny Ciurciu as the primary backup at middle linebacker and Cowboys castoff Bobby Carpenter and second-year man Ashlee Palmer providing depth at the outside positions. With Johnson out, expect Palmer to take his place in the starting lineup. This is a group that can be exploited with slants, screens and Visanthe Shiancoe threatening the deep seam. Look for the Vikings to target the intermediate zone with passes to take advantage of this perceived advantage.
The secondary isn't all it could be. Opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 91.6 and much of the reason is that the Lions take chances in the secondary and get burned too often. Teams are averaging almost 12 yards per completion this season and the Lions have tried to mix and match free agents at the cornerback position and youngsters at safety to get the job done. At the corners, the Lions brought in free agents Nathan Vasher and Chris Houston to replace former free-agent busts Anthony Henry and Phillip Buchanon. Their leading interceptor is Alphonso Smith with five. The bad news for the Lions is that Smith has been on injured reserve for the last three weeks, depleting depth and taking away the top playmaker from the defense. Former Ram Tye Hill is used as the nickel back. A quiet strength of the team is at safety. Second-year pro Louis Delmas is second on the team in tackles and is very strong in run support. He starts opposite rookie Amari Spievy. If Brett Favre was playing, he would be sure to find a way to take advantage of their inexperience. As they mature, much like the defensive line, they could help transform the secondary into a strength of the team.
History has shown us that successful teams typically get their start to success by a strong finish the previous season. It carries over into the offseason and gets everyone working harder toward a common goal. The Lions aren't yet a postseason contender, but, with the talent they have begun to amass on both sides of the ball, it won't be long until they are a contender and the Vikings' stranglehold on the head-to-head series may not last that much longer. For the last several years, seeing the Lions on the schedule meant an almost automatic win. That is no longer the case and the Vikings will have to be on their game to continue their current dominance of the series. The Lions aren't that far from being a contender for the NFC North and that process, it would appear, has already begun.
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.
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