Are Lions A Legitimate Threat?

Second-year Lion Joey Harrington is showing signs of maturing into a solid NFL quarterback, and the addition of first-round draft pick Charles Rogers gives Harrington a viable receiving threat, but does that mean the Lions will be able to end the Vikings' road winning streak?

After going almost two years without a road win, the Vikings head to Ford Field in Detroit looking for what was once thought almost unthinkable — a fourth consecutive regular-season road win. If it happens, it will be the second time in those games that Detroit was a Vikings victim. But this Lions team will bring a new and different look from the team the Vikings slapped around last year.

One familiar face from a year ago is quarterback Joey Harrington. Thrown into the lineup as a rookie, Harrington grew during his rookie season and is now looking to become a playmaker instead of a QB asked not to lose games. He has a strong arm and good football instincts, as he showed by throwing four touchdowns in his only other home game this year. He will have to be contained and pressured. When he wasn't, the Cardinals saw the results in the 2003 Ford Field opener.

The running game has taken a strange twist. For three years, James Stewart was the main man in the backfield, but, when he suffered a separated shoulder in the preseason, he was expected to miss two to four weeks. Instead, Coach Steve Mariucci placed Stewart on injured reserve, meaning he can't return this season. So the running game is now in the hands of two new imports. Olandis Gary was stuck in a logjam of running backs in Denver and signed with Buffalo. When the Bills drafted Willis McGahee, Gary became expendable. The other is Shawn Bryson, who suffered a similar fate in Buffalo. Both are capable backs, but neither is a game-breaking RB that sends fear into defensive coordinators. The wild card is fullback Cory Schlesinger. A good blocker and receiver, he will get more touches than most fullbacks and can make big plays when given the chance.

The receiver corps has been almost completely overhauled the last two years. A year ago, the Lions signed career backups Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder to be starters. Neither has panned out as hoped. This year, the Lions took WR Charles Rogers with the second pick of the draft. His two-TD performance in his first game is a sign of things to come, as he and Harrington become a pitch-and-catch combo for the future. At tight end, Mikhael Ricks is a converted wide receiver that is a huge target at 6-5. He has deep speed and could test the middle of the Vikings secondary.

Up front, the Lions have a patchwork line that gets weaker as it moves to the middle. Tackles Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle are the cream of this crop, but the interior of the line is pedestrian at best. Guard Ray Brown is in his 18th season and has been slowed considerably, while fellow guard Eric Beverly was expected to be a backup before injuries and the salary cap forced him into starting duty. At center, Dominic Raiola came out of Nebraska with an NFL pedigree, but has yet to live up to that hype in the pros. The Vikings will look to exploit the weakness on the interior of the line to stuff the run as well as create pressure up the middle on Harrington.

The Lions defense, as always, is a hodgepodge of players thrown together without ever having a lot of time to stay together as a unit. The left side of the line features the defense's best player in 12-year veteran Robert Porcher. He's joined by Big Daddy Wilkinson, a former No. 1 overall pick who has felt the sting of the salary cap and is looking for new life in Detroit while splitting time with 13-year veteran Kelvin Prichett. On the right side, Shaun Rogers is a steady performer in his third year. On the outside, injuries to Kalimba Edwards have pushed James Hall into the starting lineup, which is clearly the weakest position of the four starting spots for the Lions.

The linebackers are again in rebuilding mode, as Chris Claiborne has moved on to the Vikings. To replace him, the Lions signed two free agents, Earl Holmes and Wali Rainier. Holmes gets the starting nod, but neither has the physical tools Claiborne had when motivated and, despite adding two players to replace one, many think this is still a downgrade for the Lions. On the outside, rookie Boss Bailey is getting an immediate chance to show he is a playmaker and fourth-year pro Barrett Green mans the other outside spot as the Lions try to emphasize speed in their defense.

The secondary, as always, is a concern for the Lions. After spending several high draft picks that never panned out, the Lions have imported their new-look defenders. At the corners, the Lions grossly overspent for St. Louis nickel back Dré Bly, convinced the Vikings were going to try to sign him. He joins second-year man André Goodman as the starters — both of whom will have their hands full when assigned to Randy Moss. At the safeties, the Lions have gone retro — with 12-year vet Corey Harris, nine-year vet Brian Walker and 10-year man Bracy Walker, all free-agent pickups last year. It is hoped that the experience at safety will make up for the lack of it at cornerback.

The Lions came out of the gate strong (albeit against Arizona), but the Vikings realize the importance of this game. The opportunity to get the season started at 2-0 on the road vs. their own division is rare and, if the Vikings can win, it will put all the tie-breaker eggs in their basket very early in the season — making this game one the Vikings won't look past.



MATCHUP OF THE GAME

CHRIS CLAIBORNE vs. MATT MILLEN — It's rare when a game's key matchup features a non-player, but anyone who saw the Week 1 game between the Bills and Patriots knows that it happens — ask Lawyer Milloy or Bill Belichick. In this game, Chris Claiborne is going to take on added significance. Not only does he know most of the personnel on the Lions and their tendencies, he was run out of town by broadcaster-turned-general manager Matt Millen.

Millen openly and publicly questioned Claiborne's heart and his effort last season, allowing a former top draft choice to go away for a song to a division rival while spending millions on backups like Az Hakim, Bill Schroeder and Dré Bly. Millen took away Claiborne's livelihood and questioned his character. History has shown us too many times that when a player's manhood is questioned, if he gets a chance for revenge against his old team, he tends to bring his A game all day long.

Claiborne is going to have several key responsibilities Sunday. He will be asked to blitz quarterback Joey Harrington, provide outside contain if Harrington leaves the pocket, shoot the gaps to stop RB Olandis Gary and take speedy tight end Mikhael Ricks in coverage 20 yards or more downfield. He is going to have as full a plate as he will in any game, because none of his assignments will be easy. The trump card, however, will be Millen.

Claiborne has been accepted and embraced by his Vikings teammates. Nobody has seen the complacent, lazy player that Millen claimed had no heart. He is reborn in Minnesota, and you know that when the schedule came out he circled Sept. 22 on his calendar as his chance to return to Detroit and prove to everyone — especially Millen — they were wrong to let him leave.

It may sound strange to those who don't see the inner workings of football, but a former coach or general manager can be as big a motivator for a player who seeks revenge than getting a chance to hand a his former teammates a loss at his expense.


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