Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

Minnesota Vikings preview: Are the Lions slipping?

Matthew Stafford has had a very good season to date, but the production has been slipping and the Detroit Lions have been walking a tightrope the entire season.

When the 2016 NFL schedule came out last spring, the Minnesota Vikings vs. the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day seemed more like a novelty than a game that could decide who wins the NFC North title.

At the time, nobody could have imagined that Green Bay would have fallen so hard, so fast and that Minnesota and Detroit would be fighting it out for the top spot while the Packers find themselves on playoff life support.

The fact that Detroit is even in this position is a minor miracle.

Every one of Detroit’s games this season has been decided by seven points or fewer – winning games by four, one, three, three, six and seven points and losing by one, seven, three and seven points.

Even more amazing – historically amazing – is that the Lions have been behind in the fourth quarter of every one of their games and have somehow come away with six wins in those adverse conditions.

The Lions offense has stayed afloat over the month, but the production has been slipping. In the first six games, quarterback Matthew Stafford had four games with three or more touchdown passes and three games with 270 or more passing yards. In his last four games, Stafford has thrown just four touchdown passes and scoring opportunities have been harder to come by. It may have gone largely unnoticed, but the same Stafford that was in the MVP discussion earlier in the season had less than 100 passing yards entering the fourth quarter of Detroit’s improbable overtime win against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Part of the offensive problem has been a running attack that has struggled as much as the Vikings’ attack has without Adrian Peterson. Ameer Abdullah was supposed to be the answer, but he went down in Week 2. Since then, the Lions have had weeks where the most carries went to Theo Riddick, Dwayne Washington, Justin Forsett and Zach Zenner. No team succeeds when you have that many different running backs taking on the lead role. Part of the reason for the offensive struggles – they’ve scored 24 or fewer points in six games – is that they have found no consistency running the ball and making a team one-dimensional is a recipe for success for opposing defenses.

Just as the running game has been in flux, so have the passing options in the post-Calvin Johnson era. At the start of the season, Marvin Jones was the man in the offense, putting up almost 500 yards in his first four games, but, in the last six games, Jones has been marginalized, picking up more than 37 yards in just one game and, in his last two games, has just two catches for 20 yards.

Veteran Golden Tate has picked up the slack. In the first five games of the season, Tate had just 17 receptions and didn’t have more than 41 yards in any game. In the last five games, he has caught 35 passes and has had just one game with 41 or fewer yards. While Tate has reclaimed the top spot, Stafford will spread the ball around. Riddick is second among running backs in the NFL with 43 receptions. Veteran Anquan Boldin has been the most consistent receiver and leads the team with five touchdowns. Over the last three games, tight end Eric Ebron has caught 17 passes for 241 yards, including seven catches for a season-high 92 yards against the Vikings. The Minnesota defense will need to account for all of the five primary receivers in Detroit’s offense because they have proved they can all do damage if given the opportunity.

The big question mark with Detroit, which it has always been in recent years, is the defense. A middle-of-the-road defense in terms of yardage, those numbers don’t speak to the critical problem areas Detroit has. The team is among the worst in the league in third-down defense, allowing conversions on 47 percent of attempts. They allow opposing teams to run the ball 25 times a game and average 4.2 yards per attempt. Perhaps most troubling is that opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 108.5 against them, throwing for 2,651 yards with 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions.

Up front, the biggest disappointment to date has been defensive end Ziggy Ansah, who has built a reputation as a pass rusher and sack specialist, yet he has yet to record a sack this year while battling injury. Third-year DE Devin Taylor, the starter opposite Ansah, has just 3.5 sacks. Inside, the Lions brought in veterans Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker. While they’ve been relatively consistent, neither is as dominant as they were in Baltimore and New Orleans, respectively.

The linebackers have talent, but have been burned by backs and tight ends in the passing game all season. DeAndre Levy leads the group, but he has been a liability at times when he gets out of position. Depth is extremely thin, too, with just five linebackers on the roster, including fifth-round rookie Antwione Williams, Thurston Armbrister, claimed off waivers from Jacksonville, and Josh Bynes, signed off Baltimore’s practice squad. This is a group that can be exploited and, if anything happens to Levy or middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead – the only pure MLB on the roster – this group could be a huge liability.

In the secondary, the Lions have young talent at cornerback in fourth-year pro Darius Slay and third-year corner Nevin Lawson, but both have been burned often, especially deep downfield, which is a contributing reason why the Lions are on pace to allow 4,242 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. Safeties Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson are outside veteran imports who are both solid players, but are prone to being a step late arriving on deep passes. While both are big hitters, they aren’t textbook form tacklers, which has come back to bite them in recent weeks deep downfield.

The Lions are a team that has overachieved much of the season and isn’t to be taken lightly. They’ve won four of their five home games and are always dangerous at home on Thanksgiving Day. But they’ve been walking a tightrope all season and, given that the Vikings are looking for a little payback, it’s hard to imagine that if they get a fourth quarter lead late in the game again that they will surrender it.

Six months ago, the Vikings-Lions game looked like just another game on the schedule with the exception of being a nationally televised holiday game. Six months later, the winner of this game will be in control of their own destiny and will likely be the prohibitive favorite to win the NFC North title.

 


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