There is something to be said about divisional rivalries. For players and coaching staffs that have been around for any extended period of time, you get a familiarity with a division opponent, knowing what they do well and where they struggle.
When it comes to playing a team twice in the span of five games, that process is even more of a chess match.
The Vikings have yet to play either the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers, but on Sunday they will be meeting the Detroit Lions for the second time this season.
It’s one thing to watch a team on tape. It’s completely another to be able to watch your own team on tape against an opponent from a month earlier. Because of the familiarity with the opponent and their tendencies, combined with the close proximity of their two meetings, it becomes a game of cat and mouse to try to replicate the successes in the first game while showing them different looks to confuse and confound them.
“It’s never easy to beat the same team twice, especially when you’re playing the games so close to one another,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They’re going to change up things because they know we’ve got some of their tendencies from the first game. You definitely don’t want to show your hand. Guys in this league are too good – offensive coordinators are too good – if you try to keep the same scheme and the same type of pressures. We’re definitely going to do something different, but we still have to be us.”
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes had a one-on-one battle with Calvin Johnson for much of the day in the first meeting. He wasn’t committal on what the plan will be on Sunday but stressed that game plans are based on history and tendencies, and that the second time around teams have a better idea what to expect.
“You can pick up on things that they like to do by watching film of them against you this season, but both teams are going to be changing things up,” Rhodes said. “You always want to continue doing things that work, but you can’t show the same looks every game because teams are going to pick up on those and find ways to attack that.”
Mixing things up becomes a game of one-upping the other coordinators, trying to show different formations and looks to accomplish plays that have been successful for them, whether against that opponent or others.
Wide receiver Jarius Wright indicated that teams have their bread-and-butter plays that have a high level of success and will continue to run them, just with little tweaks being made so they don’t look too predictable.
“Teams pretty much stick to their routine and what they’re doing that works,” Wright said. “I don’t think we’re going to see too many more different things than what we saw before, but there will little loops that they put in that will be different than what we saw in the first game. You have to keep changing things up because you don’t want to be predictable.”
In the end, the Vikings and Lions are going to be bringing the same personnel to Sunday’s game that they brought to the field in September. The difference this time around will be how they approach their attacks, whether it’s a different blitz scheme on defense or more play action on offense.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace has been part of the greatest rivalries in football in his time with Pittsburgh, where their annual battles with the Ravens and Bengals were epic in their significance and the physicality that routinely left a high body count.
His experience has taught him that teams that play each other twice a year, especially when those games are compacted together, can expect to see a different look, but a lot of familiar outcomes to plays because, if they worked before, the likelihood is that they will work again. They just need to be disguised.
“Just because you’ve played somebody or had success against them before, you can’t count on them doing the same things,” Wallace said. “We’re going to switch up things that we did the first time and they’re going to do the same I’m sure. It’s all about trying to find weaknesses in the other team. If you can’t exploit them – whether that means throwing deep or running Adrian (Peterson) over and over again because it works – that’s what we’re going to do. We had a plan coming into the last game and it worked. We have a plan coming into this game that will have some new wrinkles in it and, if we execute it properly, we can win again.”