If there is such a thing as a critical game in September in the NFL, the Detroit Lions may be facing that watershed moment this week against the Minnesota Vikings. After losing their last two games on the road, Detroit plays the Vikings at home this week before traveling to Philadelphia and Chicago the following two weeks. Thanks to a scheduling quirk, the Lions play six of their first nine games away from home, making their rare home games critical.
The Lions have emerged as one of the up and coming teams in the NFC, climbing out of the first 0-16 season in NFL history to be a playoff team last season. But they have been far from dominant this year despite having superstar talent on both sides of the ball.
The Lions have the second-rated offense in the league and the NFL's top pass offense. Matthew Stafford and Shaun Hill have combined to throw for 1,035 yards in their first three games – an average of 345 passing yards a game. They have thrown 45 passes a game and have attempted to control games through the air. Given the targets they have to work with, that has been easy to accomplish.
While there are debates as to who is the premier player at different positions, there is little arguing who is the most dominant wide receiver in the league. That would be Calvin Johnson. Nicknamed Megatron, Johnson has become the most dangerous receiving threat in the league and is showing no signs of slowing down. He has 24 receptions for a league-leading 369 yards and one touchdown and creates matchup problems for any opposing defense. However, he is far from the only threat in the passing offense. Former Viking Nate Burleson has 17 receptions and tight end Brandon Pettigrew has 16 of his own. Combined with slot receiver Titus Young, the Lions have four primary receiving options and are much more versatile than merely Megatron.
One of the reasons the Lions pass offense is so prolific is because they have struggled to consistently run the ball. Jahvid Best was supposed to be the answer to the running woes in Detroit, but his career is in jeopardy as the result of multiple concussions and he hasn't been on the field yet this season. Journeyman Kevin Smith, who was re-signed off the street midway through the 2011 season, leads the team in rushing with 29 carries for 115 yards, but likely won't see a lot of action against the Vikings. Coming back from a two-game suspension, Mickel Leshoure returned last week and carried 26 times for 100 yards against Tennessee. Leshoure is a between-the-tackles banger who is the type of runner that plays to the strength of the Vikings defense. The Vikings' goal will be to make the Lions one-dimensional on offense, but it would appear that Detroit is more than willing to do that itself.
Defensively, the Lions have their issues in the secondary, but their defensive front seven is as physical and active as any in the league. Fortunately for the Vikings, they will be without defensive tackle Corey Williams, who had his knee scoped earlier this week and will miss the next couple games as he recovers, but the Lions won't miss a beat because they have arguably the best and deepest defensive line in the NFL. At the ends, Cliff Avril is a dominant pass rusher who has an explosive first step, and few players have a motor that runs as hot as Kyle Vanden Bosch. They consistently find their way in the backfield, have a range of pass-rush moves and will be a difficult test for tackles Phil Loadholt and Matt Kalil. On the inside, even without Williams, the Lions have two of the best young defensive tackles in the league. When he is on his game, there may no more disruptive defensive tackle than Ndamukong Suh. He commands double-teams, which opens up opportunities for 2011 first-round draft pick Nick Fairley. He showed flashes of what he was capable of last year but will have to make the most of this opportunity to try to win more playing time after Williams returns. If the Vikings expect to win Sunday, controlling the front four of the Lions will be on the top of that list.
The linebacker corps of the Lions enjoyed significant improvement last year with the signing of middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. He recorded 111 tackles and always seemed to be around the ball. He is flanked by Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy. Durant, another free agent signing last year, is solid in pursuit and can handle backs and tight ends in coverage. Levy is a versatile player who had 109 tackles last year and can play both inside and outside. He is a secure wrap-up tackler who makes the group work. In their second year as a unit, they still haven't fully hit their stride, but they're getting closer all the time.
The glaring weakness to the defense is in the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 67 percent of their passes without any of them being intercepted. In their last two games of the 2011 season – the regular season finale against the Green Bay junior varsity team and their playoff loss at New Orleans, the Lions gave up a whopping 90 points – 45 points in each game. Those struggles have continued as, like last year, safety Louis Delmas – the glue of the secondary – has been sidelined with a knee injury. With Delmas out for Sunday's game, much of the pressure will fall to backups Amari Spievey and John Wendling to pick up the slack, but Wendling is primarily a special teamer and starting strong safety Erik Coleman in his ninth season and has seen better days. The cornerbacks are a problem as well. Drayton Florence was expected to compete for one of the starting spots, but he is on the injured reserve list but designated to potentially return later in the year. Chris Houston has good speed and can stick with receivers, but is not a sound tackler and gets beat over the top too often. Rookie Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette, will start on one side, with fourth-year man Jacob Lacey serving as the nickel back. With Jerome Simpson back in the Vikings lineup, expect to see the vertical pass return to the Vikings offense against this group.
This game is critical for the Lions, who, with a loss, would fall to 1-3 with four of their next five games coming on the road. Their entire season could unravel with a loss, and a year that started with a lot of promise could come crashing down around them. A desperate team at home is always dangerous and the Lions are in a must-win position. If the Vikings are to come out of Ford Field with a win Sunday, they will have to do it against a team that has everything to lose, which means they can't if they want to have a realistic chance of returning to the playoffs.
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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