Preview: Lions strong on offense, piecing together defense

The Detroit Lions have put together a formidable offense, but have retrofitted a susceptible defense.

For years, seeing the Detroit Lions on the schedule was viewed as almost a guaranteed win. In a stretch from 1998-2010, the Minnesota Vikings had a record of 22-3 against Detroit. Both franchises had their ups and downs, but when the Lions played Minnesota – whether at the Metrodome or in Detroit – the outcome was predictable.

That has clearly changed in recent years. Since late 2010, Detroit has won six of the last nine meetings, including a season sweep of the Vikings last season that helped propel the Lions into the playoffs. As Detroit comes to TCF Bank Stadium for the Vikings home opener, they are far from the pushover they were for years, but they still have holes, especially on defense, that can be exploited.

While the Vikings lost both games last year, it wasn’t because quarterback Matthew Stafford tore them up. In 16 games last year, Stafford had just three games with less than 200 passing yards. Two of them came against the Vikings. In two games, he threw for just 338 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings lost both games, but they put a lot of pressure on Stafford and didn’t give him time to incorporate the vertical game. If they are to replicate that Sunday, the key will be making Stafford one-dimensional. The best way to accomplish that is to stuff the run, something the Vikings were never able to accomplish Monday night against San Francisco.

The Lions haven’t had a true featured back since Barry Sanders walked away from the game and they have developed running back committees over the years since. They used the draft to change the face of their running game and now have the combination of Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell. Bell isn’t flashy, but is a good between-the-tackles power runner. He struggled against the Chargers in Week 1, rushing six times for just 14 yards, but Abdullah, Detroit’s second-round draft pick in April, showed explosiveness in his debut.

While he had just 11 touches, he made the most of it. He carried seven times for 50 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run, and caught four passes for 44 yards, which included a 36-yard burst. Much like Bush had burned the Vikings in the past, Bell may be the primary back, but the explosive-play ability Abdullah has already displayed is cause for concern because the Vikings have a history of struggling against players with high-octane ability.

You can’t talk Detroit without mentioning Calvin Johnson. An imposing receiver known as Megatron, he poses a serious danger any time he takes the field. However, the Vikings have been able to keep him under wraps. In his last five meetings, he has been held to less than 55 yards in four of them and has scored just one touchdown. However, in the one game that he surpassed 55 yards, he did it in a big way – catching 12 passes for 207 yards and a TD. Last year, the Vikings let Xavier Rhodes take on Johnson one-on-one, following him wherever he lined up and the results were obvious. Johnson caught just four passes for 53 yards and was blanketed all day long.

If the Vikings can keep Johnson locked down, the Lions will have to look elsewhere to get production. Unfortunately for the Vikings, the Lions have other weapons in the passing game.

Golden Tate quietly emerged as not just a complementary receiver to Johnson, but as a legitimate go-to receiver. Last year, he caught 99 passes for 1,331 yards – numbers that any coach or general manager would be envious of. He is more of a possession receiver than an explosive deep threat, but he moves the chains and sustains drives. In two games against the Vikings last year, he gained just 82 yards, but he caught 14 passes and it was clear that he is a threat that will be targeted often. Add in tight end Eric Ebron, the 10th pick in the 2014 draft, and the Lions have multiple vertical threats that can do damage deep down the field and will stress the Vikings secondary all day long.

While the Lions have done a solid job of developing offensive talent, they have been forced to spend money to build a defense and hope that they would develop in their system. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened consistently and, with both starting defensive tackles – Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley – leaving via free agency, this is a team in flux once again on defense.

The Lions had a 21-3 lead on the road at San Diego in last week’s opener, but the defense couldn’t stop the Chargers offense, allowing 30 unanswered points to turn an 18-point lead into a 12-point deficit that was too much to overcome. The combination of Melvin Gordon and Danny Woodhead ran 26 times for 93 yards and two touchdowns and Rivers completed 35 of 42 passes for 404 yards and two more TDs against a Lions defense that has been bought and paid for by bringing in outside talent to get the job done.

The only starter on the defensive line that was a homegrown talent is 2013 first-rounder Ziggy Ansah. With Fairley and Suh gone, they have been replaced by former Raven Haloti Ngata, who was acquired in a trade, and former Saint Tyrunn Walker, who was signed in free agency. Former Seahawk Jason Jones has become a fixture at left defensive end, but, without Suh and Fairley demanding more attention in the middle, he will be hard-pressed to be the difference-maker he has been in previous years.

The linebacker corps has had to build from outside as well. Undersized DeAndre Levy led the NFL in solo tackles, but he has been a platoon player this season and is doubtful to play with a hip injury. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch is also undersized by NFL standards, but he is a big hitter. To make up for their lack of bulk, run stopper Josh Bynes has been a key player in trying to keep running backs bottled up and neutralized. This is a group that can be exploited.

In the secondary, the Lions have been notorious for raiding other teams to acquire talent. The only starter that is a drafted player is cornerback Darius Slay, a second-round pick in 2013 who made great strides last year as the most improved player on the defense. He is opposite 13-year veteran Rashean Mathis, who has clearly lost a step, but isn’t being seriously challenged for his starting job. At safety, the Lions went outside the organization to get both of their starters – Glover Quin (Houston) and James Ihedigbo (Baltimore). Quin has great ball skills – he led the NFL with seven interceptions and hasn’t missed a beat this year with a 31-yard Pick Six in the season opener. Ihedigbo had a strong first season with the Lions, but regressed badly late in the year. He is an intimidator, but has flaws in his game, as do many of the outside players looking to be retrofitted into the Detroit defense.

The Lions are coming off a year in which they went 11-5 and came as close as anyone has in the last several years to knocking the Packers off their perch atop the NFC North. Like the Vikings, they had a disappointing opener and can’t afford to drop to 0-2, which should make Sunday’s game a physical bully contest that will have a devastating impact on the team that loses.

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