If things have been frustrating for Vikings fans, imagine what it must be like to be a coach, player or fan of the Detroit Lions. At one point last year, the Lions were 7-4 and needed just two wins to make to playoffs. Heading into their final game of the regular season, all they needed to do was beat last-place Chicago and they would be in the playoffs.
Instead, they lost to the Bears and their tailspin has continued in free fall this season. After a come-from-ahead loss to Tampa Bay, the Lions are 0-12 and, with remaining games against playoff teams Pittsburgh and Chicago, the Lions are targeting Dallas and the Vikings as the most likely teams they can beat to avoid a winless season.
The difference in Detroit will be obvious when the Vikings meet them in the Silverdome. When people think about the Detroit offense, they tend to think of players like Charlie Batch, Germane Crowell and Herman Moore. All of those players are gone with injuries, so the team the Vikings face will have a markedly different look to it.
The biggest change will be at quarterback. It's no secret that coach Marty Mornhinweg didn't want Batch, but veteran Ty Detmer, who was familiar with his West Coast offense, played himself out of the job with a hideous seven-interception game vs. Cleveland and left the door open for a change. That has come with rookie Mike McMahon. A fifth-round draft choice, McMahon looked sharp on Thanksgiving Day vs. Green Bay, but his unfamiliarity with game-planning for a 60-minute game will come forward, and the Vikings will pressure him often to create mistakes.
The running game took a serious blow earlier this year when James Stewart, the centerpiece of the offense, was down for a month with an ankle injury. Stewart is asked to take pressure off the quarterback by running 20 or more times a game, but his contribution was sorely missed while he was down. Backups Lamont Warren and Reuben Droughns, as well as fullback Cory Schlesinger tried to pick up the slack, but the Lions were a different team without Stewart. He ran for 100 yards against the Vikings at the Metrodome, so expect to see him being fed the ball often as Detroit tries to keep its offense from being in must-pass situations.
The receivers have a vastly different look than what the Vikings have seen in the past. Crowell and Moore are both on injured reserve, meaning Johnnie Morton has become the go-to receiver and rookie Scotty Anderson has moved into the starting lineup. The depth has been depleted enough that Larry Foster is the No. 3 receiver and punt returner Desmond Howard has been pressed into wide receiver duties as well.
Tight end David Sloan has been an annual tease. He has the ability to be one of the game's top receiving tight ends, but, with so many problems at quarterback, he's been asked to do more blocking than receiving.
One of the reasons for the offense's lack of success has been a ravaged offensive line. Only left tackle Jeff Backus — a rookie — is playing where he was slated to when the season started. Injuries have forced Tony Semple to join Brendan Stai at guard, Eric Beverly has replaced injured Dominic Raiola at center and, after the team cut right tackle Aaron Gibson, converted guard Matt Joyce has moved into that spot — giving the team just two healthy offensive tackles on the offense. It's true when they say games are won and lost in the trenches, and this could be the biggest reason why the Lions are suffering.
Defensively, Detroit has a solid front four in ends Robert Porcher and Tracy Scroggins, and tackles Luther Elliss and Shaun Rogers. They are a cohesive unit and, with the exception of rookie Rogers, have a wealth of experience. But the defense suffers once you get past the defensive front.
The linebackers are talented but have underachieved this season. Allen Aldridge and Chris Claiborne are both All-Pro caliber, but haven't played like it this season, and outside linebacker Barrett Green is still learning his position in just his second year. Look for the Vikings to attack this unit with the short passing game.
The secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense but has taken on some of the blame for the Lions allowing 24 or more points in eight of their first 11 games. Injuries to Bryant Westbrook and Ron Rice depleted depth early on, but now Westbrook is supposed to be back Sunday replacing another fallen quality cornerback in Terry Fair. Rice's replacement — Lamar Campbell — joins Kurt Schulz at safety.
The Lions are burnable deep and have little to no depth if any other starters go down. Look for the Vikings to take a cue from the rest of the league and attack the Lions with deep balls for Randy Moss and Cris Carter in hopes of taking out the Lions deep.
There are few things more dangerous in the NFL than a winless team with nothing to lose looking at all costs to get a win on the board. There could be fake punts, fake field goals and gadget plays galore as the Lions look to get on the winning track. Don't think the Vikings will look past Detroit, because they know they can expect just about anything from this team. When a team is down, it is dangerous — and the Lions would like nothing better than to hang a loss on the Vikings. VU
Randy Moss and Cris Carter vs. Lions secondary — The Lions are banged up and have several reserves in starting roles. While the Vikings have been more successful mixing things up with short and intermediate passes, with play-fakes to freeze the safeties, Moss and Carter could get a lot of single coverage and make big plays.
Chris Claiborne vs. Michael Bennett — Claiborne likely will draw Bennett in pass coverage, since most of his pass routes go to the weak side. Bennett showed vs. Pittsburgh that he can break long plays in space, so the Lions will be wary of stopping screens and that will be Claiborne's assignment.
Lions Desperate and Injured
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