When the Vikings met the Detroit Lions in the third week of the 2011 regular season, they appeared to be teams headed in different directions. After years of dominating the Lions in head-to-head competition, the Lions turned the tables – beating the Vikings in the final game of the 2010 season to finish out of last place for the first time in years and overcoming a 20-0 halftime deficit for a 26-23 overtime win in the third game of the 2011 regular season. But the team the Vikings met in Week 3 is a much different group this time around.
The Lions were the talk of the NFL for the first month-plus, surging out of the gate at 5-0. However, the they have sputtered ever since. After being locked into a playoff spot the entire season thanks to their strong start, Detroit has lost five of their last seven games and, with their loss last week to New Orleans, fell out of a wild card spot for the first time, losing out on tie-breakers to Chicago and Atlanta.
The Lions offense has been its calling card most of the season, thanks in large part to the emergence of Matthew Stafford. After a pair of injury-plagued seasons to start his career, Stafford has played the entire season and has posted extremely good numbers. He has thrown for 3,527 yards with 28 touchdowns and a passer rating of 91.3. Part of the reason he has averaged 41 passes a game is because the running game has been beset with injuries. The original plan for 2011 was to have a thunder-and-lightning backfield of Jahvid Best and rookie Mickel Leshoure – a big, bruising back who was an ideal complement to the speedy, but injury-prone Best. Instead, it was Leshoure who was injured – lost for the year during the preseason. Best was off to a strong start, before a concussion put him on injured reserve. Things got so bad for Detroit that they signed Kevin Smith off the street and inserted him in the starting lineup, getting surprisingly impressive production. But Smith has failed to stay healthy and will miss Sunday's game, dropping the workload onto Maurice Morris. NFL players talk about the "next man up" mantra, but in the case of the Lions, it's been painfully accurate at running back.
With a veteran offensive line, the Lions have been able to give Stafford time to throw and he has been able to spread the ball around. Calvin Johnson is clearly the top dog in the receiver corps, having already topped 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns, but there are other weapons in the receiver corps. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew has caught 56 passes, former Viking Nate Burleson has caught 51 passes and rookie Titus Young has caught 31 passes. Throw in tight end Tony Scheffler, who has caught just 18 passes, but five of them have gone for touchdowns, and Stafford has as diverse a receiver corps as there is in the NFC. They don't have the experience that the crews in Green Bay or New Orleans have, but they're going to be dangerous.
The problem with the Lions and their recent struggles has been because of the increasingly punkish play of the Detroit defense. The Lions' hot start was due as much to the opportunistic aggressiveness of the defense as it was the success of the offense. The Lions still have a solid defense, but they have been their own worst enemy during their downward slide. What started as an aggressive, in-your-face defense has turned into an undisciplined bunch of maulers who lead the NFL in most defensive penalties and have 28 personal fouls – seven more than the next most-penalized team in the NFL. That aggression will cost them against the Vikings because neither of their projected starters at defensive tackle will play. Ndamukong Suh is sitting out a two-game suspension for stomping on the bicep of an opposing player and then coming up with the worst excuse ever in justifying his actions. Top draft pick Nick Fairley is out with a foot injury, which could be good news for the Vikings running game and an offensive line that may be trying to protect a hobbled Christian Ponder.
The Lions pass defense has been extremely effective, but it is without cornerback Chris Houston, who not only leads the team with four interceptions but has returned two of them for touchdowns. The Lions defense has been opportunistic, posting 31 sacks but also limiting opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 77.9, throwing for 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Whether it's Ponder or Joe Webb under center, the Vikings will face a defense willing to take chances and winning more times than they lose.
If the Lions have a significant weakness other than the uncanny ability to shoot themselves in the foot with penalties, it has been that they are a slow starting team that can get themselves into deficit situations. In the first half of games, they have been outscored 176-117 – a significant total for a team with playoff aspirations. The best teams have a tendency of putting the pedal to the metal when they get an early lead and, while they have proved resilient, in a one-and-out playoff scenario, that is a scheme as successful as trying to crawl through traffic. Where they have been dominant is in the second half, proving that, when they get on a roll, it typically happens on both sides of the ball. They have blown out opponents in the second half of games, outscoring them 217-101 – an average score of 18-8 after halftime. The Lions are a team that can put up points in a hurry and create turnovers, which has always been the basic components of a team capable of making a deep playoff run.
So which Lions team are we going to see? Will it be the team that was among the hottest in the NFL in September and October or the one that has scored 19 points or less in all five of its losses over the last seven games? The answer is that perhaps even head coach Jim Schwartz doesn't know for sure. The Lions have the look of team ready to unravel and collapse, but they have the opportunity with a win over the Vikings to reverse their recent losing ways. Keep in mind that the five teams they have lost to over the last seven weeks represent the six teams currently in playoff position (San Francisco, Atlanta, Chicago, Green Bay and New Orleans), so it would seem clear they currently don't have the chops to be a playoff team, but winning three of their final four games should put them in the postseason, which is why the Vikings are a critical win in that plan.
The Vikings maintain they're going to rally late and set the tone moving into 2012 to erase the memory of the last three months. The Lions will be a good test of where that belief lines up with reality.
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: Enigmatic Lions hard to figure
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