Lions Come Limping In

The Lions are without their blue-chip receiver, their running game has failed without James Stewart and their defense is just generally beat up. Still, the Vikings don't want to stand in the way of the Lions extending their 21-game road losing streak.

When the Vikings played the Giants, Mike Tice said the G-Men were a team the Vikings simply didn't "match up well" against. The exact opposite is true against the Detroit Lions — a team the Vikings have consistently dominated. The Vikes have won nine of the last 11 games and one team has swept this season series eight of the last 10 years, which bodes well for the Vikings — who beat the Lions 23-13 in Week 3.

The Lions team the Vikings faced lost four straight after losing to the Vikings, but they rebounded with back-to-back wins against Oakland and Chicago. The difference? Finding time for QB Joey Harrington to throw. Harrington has been erratic this year, as the Lions have been limited to 17 points or fewer in seven of their first nine games. Pressuring Harrington and forcing turnovers will be the first priority of the Vikings defense.

After spending a month facing speedy running backs like Clinton Portis, Tiki Barber, Ahman Green and LaDainian Tomlinson, the same won't be true against Detroit. The Lions have yet to decide on who their full-time running back is, splitting time between Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary. For the past three years, James Stewart was the primary running back in the Lions' system, but he was placed on injured reserve during the preseason with a collarbone injury — which may be coming back to haunt Steve Mariucci. Both Bryson and Gary have been given the chance to win the job, but neither has taken the opportunity and made it his. They continue to timeshare, with fullback Cory Schlesinger also working his way into the mix.

The receiver corps has also been affected by injury. The Lions made Charles Rogers the second overall pick in the 2003 draft and he was looking very good early, before a shoulder injury sidelined him in September. Since he is out against the Vikings, veteran free-agent acquisitions from 2002 — Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder — will remain as the starters. Both Schroeder and Hakim have battled injuries since arriving in Detroit, opening a chance for veteran Shawn Jefferson to move into the lineup on a regular basis. At tight end, Mikhael Ricks poses matchup problems at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, but his use in the West Coast Offense has been spotty.

Up front, the Lions have some veteran talent, but as a group haven't been stellar in run blocking or pass protection. At the tackles, third-year Lion Jeff Backus and fourth-year pro Stockar McDougle are the targeted bookends for years to come, with third-year vet Dominic Raiola anchoring the middle of the line. The guards are a different story, where Ray Brown is in his 18th and final season at one guard, and six-year veteran Eric Beverly mans the other spot. They have been getting by on veteran savvy in limited space while tutoring the younger players, but this will likely be the last time the Vikings' defensive front faces one or both of these aging guards.

The defensive trenches were something the Lions were counting on to turn around their anemic record from the last three years. But, like so many other positions, injuries have taken a toll. Starting defensive tackle Luther Elliss has been sidelined with a pectoral injury, leaving the starting jobs to third-year pro Shaun Rogers and oft-injured veteran Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson. On the outside, Robert Porcher remains a quality pass rusher and run disrupter, while James Hall adds depth, if not frontline playmaking ability.

The Lions linebacker corps took on a much different look after Chris Claiborne was run out of town. In fact, the entire unit is new this year with the exception of OLB Barrett Green. Rookie Boss Bailey has become an immediate starter on the weak side despite shoulder problems, and free-agent signees Earl Holmes and Wali Ranier have been splitting time as the replacement for Claiborne. Individually these players all bring talent to the table, but as a unit they're still learning together and their mistakes are often costly.

The secondary remains the big issue with the Lions, who allowed 20 or more points in all of their first seven games this season. At the corners, Dré Bly and veteran Otis Smith have been scorched often with the deep pass, while safeties Corey Harris and Brian Walker, in their 12th and ninth years, respectively, are both showing the signs of age. Look for the Vikings to attack this unit with a vengeance.

With their recent skid, the Vikings can't afford to let any more winnable games get away from them, and the Lions certainly fall into that category. Detroit has road woes that make the Vikings' road losing streak of 2001-02 pale by comparison, and the Lions continue to be a team that the Vikings match up well against and should run away from.


MATCHUP TO WATCH
Randy Moss vs. Dré Bly —
Sometimes paranoia can affect the salary cap in adverse ways. So it was when free agency began last February. The Lions were so convinced that the Vikings were going to sign Rams free-agent CB Dré Bly that Detroit made sure he didn't leave town without signing a contract — an inflated five-year, $22 million deal. They got him and are paying for it, which is why Bly's battle with Randy Moss this week is the matchup to watch on Sunday.

The Lions are one of the teams that have made a concerted effort to slow down Moss, with mixed results. He has scored eight touchdowns in 11 career games and averaged better than 90 yards a game against Detroit. But that's only part of the story. In five career home games, Moss had a TD reception in his first two home games against the Lions. Since then, he has 18 passes for 187 yards in the last three Metrodome meetings with Detroit — but hasn't scored a touchdown.

He was also kept off the board in the Vikings' win at Detroit, where Daunte Culpepper left the game at halftime with a back injury that sidelined him for next two games. The last thing a team wants to do is put a fire under Moss, which is what the Lions have done by taking him away from the Vikings' game plan.

The Lions like to mix up their defensive coverages, which means that for as many as six to eight plays Sunday, Bly will be singled up with Moss. The key to this matchup will be Culpepper identifying the single coverage and changing the play to exploit the matchup. The feeling is that, given three opportunities to go deep to Moss in man coverage with Bly, the Vikings will get at least one huge play — and probably a touchdown — in the process.

Few teams have been able to keep Moss off the board — both this year and throughout his career. The Lions are one of those teams. Moss will look to change that Sunday, which is why he will be motivated to make the Lions question spending so much money on Bly.




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