Vikings preview: Detroit boasts best defense

Detroit isn’t just built on a dangerous offense anymore. The Lions have the best defense in the league right now and might have to rely on it Sunday with their offensive playmakers hurting.

For Vikings fans, Sunday’s game will mark the second career start of Teddy Bridgewater. Much like his debut against Atlanta, all eyes will be on the young Vikings quarterback. But what fans may not be expecting is that their opponent – the Detroit Lions – could pose the stiffest test Bridgewater and his teammates are going to face all season.

The Lions have been known much more for their failures than their successes over the years. They’re one of the few franchises to never appear in a Super Bowl. They’ve had some epic late-season collapses, including last year, when they lost their last four games and six of their last seven after it appeared they had the NFC North title locked down.

But this Detroit team is one that is capable of winning shootouts on offense and capable of throwing shutouts on defense. They are by far the most complete Lions team the Vikings have faced in a long time.

“I think everybody knows about their offense and the playmakers they have there,” offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. “But it’s their defense that has been getting the attention recently – and they deserve it. They’re playing very good defense and that’s how they’ve been winning games.”

For the last few years, the Lions have been a team that can be dominant offensively but could never put it all together on defense, which was often the Achilles heel that either got them knocked out early in the playoffs or on the outside looking in. Now if Detroit is going to advance to the postseason, it may be on the back of its defense.

The Vikings may be catching a break because they’re running into the Lions at a time when two of their most explosive playmakers – wide receiver Calvin Johnson and running back Reggie Bush – are hobbled with ankle injuries. But that doesn’t mean that the Lions are toothless on offense. As long as they have former No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford, anything is possible.

“Stafford is a great quarterback that you have to get after,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “He has a habit of sliding in the pocket to buy himself that extra second or so to extend a play. We’re going to have to get after him and make him pay if he holds the ball.”

Stafford has thrown for 319 yards or more in three of his last four against the Vikings. The Lions have lost three of those four games because Stafford has been forced to throw often (169 times in the last four meetings). From the looks of things, the running game may be without Bush, but things got desperate in last week’s game against Buffalo.

In the second half of Sunday’s loss, the running game was down to practice squad call-up George Winn because Joique Bell and Theo Riddick were both inactive and Bush was injured during the game. While Bush remains a question mark, both Bell and Riddick have returned to practice so there will be some options in the running game.

The biggest question remains whether the Lions will make good on their insinuation that Calvin Johnson will rest his high ankle sprain for at least one game. That would be good news for the Vikings because Johnson is about as intimidating as any receiver in the league.

“Calvin Johnson is definitely one of the best receivers in the league,” defensive end Corey Wooton said. “He’s close to my size, but runs like a 4.3 40. He has an insane vertical. He’s one of the best who probably has ever played the game.”

The biggest difference in the passing game has been the improvement of Golden Tate, who has taken over the leadership mantle over the last two games with Megatron hobbled. In the first three games, Johnson was targeted 34 times, as opposed to 21 for Tate. But in the two games Johnson has done nothing, Tate has been targeted 15 times, catching 15 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown. If Johnson doesn’t go, keep an eye on tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron. Both are big, athletic targets but have done little to date, combining for just 13 catches for 120 yards in five games.

While we may have to wait until Sunday to find out how shorthanded the Lions offense might be, there’s no question about the defense. It has carried the them through the first five games, coming to TCF Bank Stadium with not only the top-ranked defense, but Detroit is the only team in the league that is ranked in the top five in both rush defense (No. 4) and pass defense (No. 5).

Detroit has allowed 17 or fewer points in four of their five games and much of the credit belongs to a dominant front four that is screaming for a catchy nickname. With Ziggy Ansah and George Johnson leading the charge on the outside and Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley getting a push in the middle, the Lions are deep and can bring pressure from all sides to blow up the pocket.

“When you watch them on film, they’re pretty relentless,” offensive tackle Matt Kalil said. “They run a rotation that keeps them all fresh. They use five defensive ends and four tackles and they all run in and out constantly. You have to be ready for them because they pin their ears back and get after you. We just have to win the physical battles and show them that they can’t just think they can run over us.”

The player whose name will likely get called the most is that of linebacker DeAndre Levy. Nobody on the Lions has 25 tackles, except Levy – who has 51. He is a ball hawk and chases down plays to the sidelines. The Vikings will have to be aware of where he is on every play because, if he gets his hands on the ball carrier, chances are he’s going down.

The biggest improvement on the Lions this season has been in the secondary, where the team has routinely spent big money to bring in outside free agents only to have them fail in Motown. That hasn’t been the case with their current crop of free agent players. The Lions may have the best safety tandem this side of Seattle with Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. Both of them have experience and explode to the ball. Cornerback Rashean Mathis is showing some signs of age in his 12 seasons, but he is a savvy veteran who makes plays on the ball and can handle single coverage. The key to the ascent of the unit, however, may be second-year man Darius Slay. He has the athleticism to make big plays but needs to refine his technique because he bites too often on double moves.

For years, the rivalry between the Vikings and the Lions was akin to the rivalry between a hammer and a nail. Two wins could almost always be counted on for the Vikings. While the Lions swept the Vikings in 2011, over the last two seasons, the Vikings have won three of four games, which may be the motivation the Lions need to stop that trend.

If Megatron and Bush are out of the lineup, Detroit’s offense will be hard-pressed to make a lot of explosive plays, but with a defense that has shown the ferocity to keep opposing offenses from getting much in the way of points or yardage, the Vikings will have to bring their best if they want to knock Detroit out of first place in the NFC North.

Viking Update Top Stories