The Vikings couldn't be catching the Detroit Lions at a better time for their liking. After losing their first two games before their Week 3 bye, the Lions are coming off a short week of practice following a 35-0 Monday night blowout with St. Louis and have all the earmarks of a team in disarray ready to pack in the 2001 season.
Head coach Marty Mornhinweg and general manager Matt Millen both seem ill-suited for the job of putting an immediate winner on the field. When Mornhinweg took off from a practice in disgust earlier this year and didn't cut anyone, he sent a message to the team that his frustration doesn't have consequences and it's carried through to the team.
Nowhere is that more evident that at quarterback. It was obvious that Mornhinweg and Millen didn't like Charlie Batch as the quarterback of their West Coast offense. He was benched after Week One and his replacement, Ty Detmer, threw seven interceptions in his first start. However, Detmer was named the starter for the St. Louis game despite the seven picks — a choice usually reserved for a QB who is the coach's son. Detmer offers little, aside from his knowledge of the offense, and the Lions have now named Batch as their starter for this game. The ping pong match continues for the Lions at quarterback.
The quarterback dilemma is a shame, since the Lions have some very good skill position players, starting with running back James Stewart. Signed away from Jacksonville, Stewart has all the requisite skills to be a featured back. He can carry the ball 25 times a game, has the skills as a short-yardage and goal-line runner and can pick up big chunks of yardage if he hits the line untouched. There is little in the way of depth behind him, and starting fullback Cory Schlesinger is primarily a blocking back. Lamont Warren may see action in obvious passing downs, but if the Vikings can bottle up Stewart they will put the onus of either Detmer or Batch to beat them — something neither has been able to do with any regularity.
The receivers for the Lions are a familiar group, with starters Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton and key reserve Herman Moore leading the way. All three provide the Lions with a eclectic group capable of making the big catch over the middle, short crossing route catches and going after the deep ball.
At tight end David Sloan is viewed more as a blocker than receiver, but Pete Mitchell brings a good pedigree for catching passes with him and he may be a key player to make a big catch for the Lions if locked into single coverage with a linebacker.
The Lions attempted to address problems on the offensive line by drafting two players they projected as immediate starters. While Jeff Backus is starting at left tackle, center Dominic Raiola has yet to unseat veteran Eric Beverly. They're joined by holdovers in right tackle Aaron Gibson and guards Stockar McDougle and Brenden Stai. One would think three first-round picks in the last three years (McDougle, Gibson and Backus) would form a solid unit, but they continue to struggle in an attempt to form any continuity. Eventually, this group could be one of the more impressive units in the league, but until they develop some cohesiveness, they will struggle — as will Stewart in the running game and whichever QB gets thrown out for the Lions.
While the offense has struggled, the defense has attempted to keep the Lions in games, but it will be a group tested hard by the Vikings. Up front, the Lions have an impressive front unit, with ends Robert Porcher and Tracy Scroggins and tackles Shaun Rogers and Luther Elliss. They can dominate at the point of attack and will create an interesting matchup for a young Vikings offensive line. Without projected starter James Jones, depth is a question, but the Lions can create a solid pass rush from this group and third-down man Alonzo Spellman and have the ability to pressure Daunte Culpepper — something they will need to stay with the Vikings.
The Lions also have a decent linebacker corps with Stephen Boyd in the middle, flanked by Allen Aldridge and Chris Claiborne. This is probably the most secure unit on the team, since they've played together and risen the level of their play each year together. Their primary focus will be containing Michael Bennett and keeping Byron Chamberlain out of the passing attack to take some of the pressure off the secondary, which at this point can use all the assistance it can get.
The Lions have been forced to scramble, much like the Vikings, with a makeshift secondary. Injuries to starting corner Bryant Westbrook and safety Kurt Schulz have tested the depth of the Lions, putting former Ram Todd Lyght into the starting lineup at corner with Terry Fair and elevating Bennett (at least early in the season) to a starting safety alongside Ron Rice. Even at full strength, this group was laden with question marks. With half of the starting lineup on the shelf, the situation is much more dire and something the Vikings will likely attack.
Typically, not too much focus is on special teams, but Dennis Green is terrified of Desmond Howard. Last year, the Vikings went to squib kicks and directional punts out of respect for Howard and the same may happen this year. But with improved coverage on special teams, this will be a coaching theory to keep an eye on and see if Green still fears Howard as much.
It's been stated in the first two games that the Vikings were playing teams they should dominate. They didn't, maybe because they looked past them. There's no looking past Detroit, which could be bad news for the Lions. VU
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