The Minnesota Vikings spent much of this week trying to erase the memory of their opening-night flop against the San Francisco 49ers. As they look ahead to their home opener Sunday, they do so against a team they’re extremely familiar with – division rival Detroit.
The Vikings came into their game with the 49ers not knowing exactly what to expect. San Francisco had a new head coach and three new coordinators, all of whom brought scheme differences with them that the Vikings could try to pick up on the vanilla film from the preseason.
In many ways, San Francisco took the old-school college approach with the Vikings. They ran the same two or three rushing plays numerous times because the Vikings simply couldn’t stop it – even though they knew what was coming.
Detroit is a different story. The Vikings are very familiar with what the Lions do and, playing them twice a year, they not only have film on the Lions, they have film of themselves playing against them. That familiarity leads to more of an inside understanding of what a team does well and what it struggles with, making fundamentals even more important.
“It’s all about execution,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We didn’t do that Monday at all. Guys have to play their role and execute. That’s all we’ve got to do. Coach Zim is putting his game plan in … we’ve just got to go out and roll with it.”
Knowing the personnel and learning from past mistakes makes this a critical game for the Vikings because they need to turn things around to get rid of the bad feeling that lingers from the Monday night debacle.
“It definitely helps,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s a divisional game. We need this game and it definitely helps that we’ve played Detroit a lot in the past. I’m excited about getting this taste out of our mouth.”
There are changes on the Lions roster. Vikings killer Reggie Bush is no longer in the mix. The defensive line is without Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and the linebackers likely will be without DeAndre Levy, but, for the most part, the personnel groupings remain the same and the basic play-calling decisions are similar to what has been done before. Just as the Lions know that Adrian Peterson will be running up the middle, the Vikings have a similar expectation of what Detroit is going to try to accomplish and how the Lions go about trying to do that.
“Every team changes things up from year to year, but there are a lot of things that stay essentially the same,” safety Harrison Smith said. “They have a lot of the same players. They have the same coaching staff, so there will be some carryover that we can take away from a personnel standpoint. We know that 81 (Calvin Johnson) is a key part of the offense. I don’t see that changing.”
It may seem simplistic, but the most critical factor in any division game is to attack the opponent at its weakest link. San Diego found that out last week when Philip Rivers threw for 400 yards and completed 15 passes to Keenan Allen. The Lions couldn’t stop either of them and they went wild.
The same was true with the Vikings Monday against San Francisco. Offensively, they struggled to deal with the multiple blitzes that never allowed Teddy Bridgewater to get comfortable. Defensively, the Vikings couldn’t stop Carlos Hyde on the edge and he routinely ran for seven or eight yards, putting the Vikings in bad down-and-distance situations.
There will be no excuse Sunday. Both teams and coaching staffs are devising game plans to exploit weaknesses they have seen on tape and discovered firsthand. With that understanding, the focus goes on imposing wills and forcing Detroit to play to Minnesota’s strengths, not the other way around.
“The key for us is going out there and doing what we do,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “There is more familiarity with a team you play twice a year. That’s why division games are always so physical. We’ve gone up against a lot of these guys before and we know what they do well and what we can take advantage of. But it all comes down to execution. We’re looking to stop the run, which we didn’t do against San Francisco. They ran the ball down our throat and we can’t let that happen again.”
Whether it’s a player like Chad Greenway, who has played Detroit twice a year, or Mike Wallace, who is entering the NFC North for the first time, every player draws on his experience and uses his familiarity with the opponent to his advantage.
“You learn something every time you play against somebody,” Wallace said. “I’ve never been in the same division with Detroit until now, but I played against them last year, so I know something about their players. There is something about division games. They’re important because, if you want to win your division, it starts with beating those teams and Detroit is the first one we’re getting this year.”
It was clear the Vikings didn’t execute Monday night’s game plan to thwart what the 49ers did because they had never faced Colin Kaepernick or Carlos Hyde and attempted to prepare blindly to stop them. Detroit is a completely different situation. They know what’s coming. Now the job is to stop them and get their 2015 season back on track with a division win at home.