Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

Minnesota Vikings preview: Lions dangerous without Megatron

The Lions aren’t as bad as their reputation and they appear to be more dangerous without Calvin Johnson. We look at all of their positions for strengths and weaknesses.

The recent history of the Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions series is that one team has tended to dominate the rivalry from one year to the next. Since 2002, the teams have only split their season series three times (2007, 2010 and 2013). In the other 11 seasons, the Vikings have swept the season series nine times and Detroit has swept twice.

One of the interesting developments in Detroit has been how the offense has responded to the retirement of Calvin Johnson. The Hall of Fame receiver was the centerpiece of the Lions offense since 2007 and quarterback Matthew Stafford often forced passes into double coverage, which led to some big offensive gains by Megatron, but also led to far too many interceptions.

Without Johnson, Stafford has been open to spread the ball around more to various receivers and is having one of the best seasons of his career and has embraced offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme. Through eight games, Stafford has a passer rating of 103.4 and is on pace to throw for 3,300 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has three or more touchdowns in four of the eight games he has played and, when he’s getting time to throw, he has been lighting up defenses all year.

His passing acumen has been needed because the Lions’ rushing offense has been struggling all season. There have been multiple changes at running back in Detroit over the last few seasons, but the Lions thought they had their go-to back in Ameer Abdullah, but he was injured in Week 2 and placed on injured reserve.

Third-down back Theo Riddick was given the job as the featured back at that point, but hasn’t been a true featured back. He hasn’t had more than 11 carries in any game and has missed two games along the way. With his injury, the Lions have incorporated fullback Zach Zenner and former Raven Justin Forsett to give the offense some balance, but no running back other than Abdullah has rushed for 60 yards in a game, so the Lions have had to count on the passing game much more than most teams.

Without Johnson, the Lions have been finding several different receiving options. They have five players that are on pace to catch 50 passes, including Golden Tate, who has caught 21 passes in the last three games; Marvin Jones, who leads the team with 656 receiving yards; Riddick, who has 34 receptions and four touchdowns despite missing two games; Anquan Boldin, who is tied for the team lead with four touchdowns; and Eric Ebron, who has 25 receptions despite missing three games.

The Lions have made a concerted effort to protect Stafford by drafting their entire starting offensive line, including rookies Taylor Decker (first round) and Graham Glasgow (third round) as their starting left tackle and left guard. 2012 first-rounder Riley Reiff is the right tackle, 2013 third-rounder Larry Warford at right guard and 2014 third-rounder Travis Swanson at center. The Lions have positioned themselves to have an offensive line that could remain intact for years to come and be a strength of the team for the rest of the decade and beyond.

The biggest issue the Lions have faced for years is that their defense has been decent, but never elite. Losing Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley last season to free agency didn’t help that cause and they’re still trying to catch up. But they are improving, having allowed 20 or fewer points in four of their eight games.

Up front, the Lions have gone outside the organization to cure the loss of Suh and Fairley, bringing in Haloti Ngata from Baltimore and Tyrunn Walker from the Saints to play defensive tackle – joining fourth-year defensive ends Ziggy Ansah and Devin Taylor. The biggest surprise this season has been pass rush specialist Kerry Hyder, who leads the team with five sacks.

The linebacker corps is headed up by veterans DeAndre Levy and Tahir Whitehead. Both are among the best tacklers in the NFC and are scheme-sound in their tackling. The Lions are so confident in their frontline players, including fellow starter Thurston Armbrister, they only have five linebackers on the active roster. If any of the starters were to get injured in-game, the Lions would be seriously shorthanded at the position.

The secondary has always been an issue in Detroit. Veteran free agents have come and gone with regularity in recent years, but they have a pair of strong players in cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin. Both are playmakers who are ball hawks. The depth is thin with Nevin Lawson and former Patriot Tavon Wilson as the other starters and castoffs Rafael Bush at safety and Johnthan Banks at cornerback. The group has been burned far too often, allowing opposing quarterbacks to post a passer rating of 113.4 with 19 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

With the Vikings looking to end their current skid, the Lions have historically been a good opponent to accomplish that goal. They appear to be a difficult matchup because their strength is offense and the Vikings’ strength is defense. Whichever unit can dominate will likely determine who wins, but don’t underestimate Detroit. They aren’t as bad as the national perception of them is, but they can be had and the Vikings need to win this game to keep the tie-breaker advantages in their favor coming off their road loss at Chicago.

Considering the Vikings are going to take on the Lions in two of the next four games – two of three for Detroit, whose bye week comes after the Minnesota game – getting a home win and keeping their record in U.S. Bank Stadium perfect will be imperative.

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