For the second time in four games, the Vikings are facing a Detroit Lions team that is on the brink of playoff extinction, perhaps even more so than in their 26-16 loss Sept. 20 at TCF Bank Stadium. Although Detroit is coming off an overtime win over Chicago, they still sit at 1-5 – the same number of losses they had the entire regular season last year.
So, what’s wrong with the 2015 Detroit Lions?
Detroit has struggled on both sides of the ball and there are plenty of directions fingers that can be pointed, starting with the face of the franchise – quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Stafford has struggled much of the 2015 season, throwing 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions, with his picks often coming at critical times of games. However, blame can’t all be thrown Stafford’s way. The Lions have been an anemic running game that has often forced Detroit to become one-dimensional.
As a team, the Lions have the worst rushing game in the NFL. They have rushed for just 399 yards in six games and have averaged just 3.4 yards a carry – also the worst mark in the league. The team has been without veteran Joique Bell for much of the season, but even when he has played, he has been brutal – gaining just 22 yards on 20 carries. Rookie Ameer Abdullah has been asked to shoulder much of the load, leading the team with 54 carries for 179 yards (a 3.3-yard average) and one touchdown. While he has explosiveness in his game, he has been bottled up for the most part and has forced the Lions to be more one-dimensional than they want to be.
As a result, the Lions have been forced to pass. They are throwing 47 passes a game, which is far too many on a regular basis. The only good news is that Detroit has some strong receivers and have three players on pace to catch 85 or more passes this season. Calvin Johnson remains one of the game’s top receiving threats and leads both teams with 38 catches for 488 yards and two touchdowns. Golden Tate isn’t far behind with 32 catches for 304 yards and one TD and running back Theo Riddick has 33 catches for 278 yards and two TDs. Throw in veteran wide receiver Lance Moore and tight ends Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew (out vs. the Vikings) and there is no shortage of talent available to Stafford, but when you have to pass, it’s much different than when you want to pass and when you have to pass. Far too often, the Lions have had to pass.
The Lions’ struggles in the running game have been the result of an offensive line that has been inconsistent. First-round draft pick Laken Tomlinson isn’t starting at left guard yet, but is expected to be a fixture next to 2012 first-rounder Riley Reiff at left tackle, with 2014 third-rounder Travis Swanson at center and 2013 third-rounder Larry Warford at right guard. In time, the Lions could have a dominant young line that gains experience together, but, for the short-term, they have had more than their fair share of struggles.
The biggest problem the Lions have faced this season is that they haven’t adequately replaced defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, both of whom left via free agency. They still have talent up front, including 2013 first-rounder Ziggy Ansah, who leads the Lions with five sacks, left defensive end Jason Jones and nose tackle Haloti Ngata, who was traded from Baltimore in the offseason. However, they have allowed 724 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, due in part to Ngata being hurt and teams being able to open holes up the middle against them. Depth isn’t great and it has showed when the frontline players have been injured.
The linebacker corps is solid up front with physical players, but depth isn’t great and the performance has been inconsistent. Stephen Tulloch is a strong tackler, as are outside linebackers DeAndre Levy (out vs. the Vikings) and Tahir Whitehead, but they have often been liabilities in pass coverage and can be exploited.
The secondary has depth and talent, but hasn’t been as effective as they can be or should be. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay are both impressive cover corners, Baltimore import James Ihedigbo is one of the heaviest hitters in the league at safety and Glover Quin is a ball hawk capable of making big plays. When the Lions can get a pass rush, this is as good a secondary as there is in the division because it’s a mix of veterans who all know how to do their jobs. But, when quarterbacks have time to throw, they can pick them apart – posting a quarterback rating of 110.3 with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions going against them.
In a sport where the difference between being a team picking in the top 12 or one of the 12 teams that make the playoffs, the margin between those is often very slim. The Lions are a team that, when on their game, can put up points and play strong defense. But when things aren’t going well, they get very bad in Detroit and the Lions are currently on the brink of taking the knockout punch that will virtually eliminate them from any possibility of returning the playoffs.
The Vikings can deliver that punch Sunday and Detroit looks like a team ready to hit the canvas.