Now that the Vikings are done with their two-week road trip, they will be facing a much different Detroit Lions team than they have seen in previous matchups between the two teams at the Metrodome. While the timetable on the Lions still likely has them a year away from being a serious contender for the NFC North title, coach Steve Mariucci has them on the right track — drafting stars on offense and using the draft and free agency to build up the Detroit defense.
Much of the hopes of the franchise have been pinned on QB Joey Harrington. Thrown in as a starter as a rookie, Harrington played better than expected and earned the full-time starting spot from that point on. He has a strong arm and makes good reads. The biggest downside he has shown is an erratic throwing arm when on the run or pressured. He has been struggling lately and has spent the last year learning to minimize his mistakes but, unless the Vikings put a lot of pressure on him, he could be hard to handle.
The running game was supposed to be markedly different this season with the selection of Kevin Jones in April's draft. A tough, slashing runner in college, Jones has been slowed almost all year with injuries, opening the door for backups Artose Pinner and Shawn Bryson to see playing time. The X-factor in the backfield is fullback Cory Schlesinger. A very strong blocker, he is also a receiver and short-yardage rusher the Vikings will have to keep an eye on.
In the coming years, the Lions should have one of the game's top wide receiver tandems in Roy Williams and Charles Rogers. Both are high first-round draft picks, and each has explosiveness at the position. But, for the second straight year, Rogers has been lost for the season with a broken collarbone. As a result, speedy veterans Tai Streets and Az- stepped into prominent roles in the receiving game, but now Hakim is hurt too. Tight end is more of a blocking position than big-time receiving position — despite the West Coast offense Mariucci runs — with oft-injured Stephen Alexander manning that spot.
The offensive line for the Lions has been bought and paid for and is starting to pay dividends. At tackle is a pair of former first-round draft picks in Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle. Center Dominic Raiola was the first center picked in the 2001 draft and Damien Woody was a free-agent signee at right guard to give the line a dominant inside presence. Depth is woefully thin at guard — only Woody and fellow starter David Loverne have been listed most of the year on the team's depth chart. With the exception of Loverne, the rest of these linemen are experienced, savvy veterans who can control the line of scrimmage.
While things are looking bright and getting brighter on the offensive side of the ball, defense is where the Lions seem to have problems. They are solid throughout, but lack the big-time playmakers to be a consistent shut-down defense.
Up front, Detroit is very strong in the middle with defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson. Both are adept at clogging the interior running lanes and getting a good push on the quarterback. At the ends, the Lions have a returning starter in James Hall, but have been shuffling young players Cory Redding, Kalimba Edwards and Jared DeVries in and out of the lineup. Until Redding or Edwards steps up, this will be a vulnerable position.
The loss of second-year pro Boss Bailey struck a blow to the Lions linebackers, which are still good but missing their best player. Earl Holmes, the former Steeler, is a solid, albeit unspectacular, middle linebacker. He's flanked with little to no experience. Rookie Teddy Lehman and James Davis are both first-year starters and the primary backup is rookie Alex Lewis. Like the Vikings, this is the clear weakness of the Detroit defense and is the most likely position to be exploited.
While the linebackers are sub-par, the Lions have a lot of experience in the secondary. Detroit overspent in 2003 on Dré Bly, not because he didn't deserve the contract, but they were afraid he would sign with the Vikings. Instead, he went to the Pro Bowl for the Lions last year and continues to be a playmaker who takes away a top receiver. At the other corner, free-agent signee Fernando Bryant will make mistakes, but he is an athletic cover corner who makes up for his lack of height. The Lions have 23 years of experience at safety with Brock Marion and Bracy Walker. While the savvy is good and the hitting is solid, age has caused them each to lose a step — which can be the difference between an interception and a TD on deep routes. Second-year corner Chris Cash is the nickel back.
Vikings fans should keep an eye on the Lions in this game. They have solid players at almost every position and aren't that far away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. But that could be a year or two away, and they should become yet another Metrodome victim Sunday.
SHAUN ROGERS AND BIG DADDY WILKINSON vs. VIKINGS INTERIOR OL — The Lions arguably have seen the worst of their schedule already and they have remained in the mix for one reason — they keep games close defensively. Key to that has been the defensive line tandem of Shaun Rogers and Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson. Their ability to disrupt an offense will be the focus of three players — guards David Dixon and Chris Liwienski, and center Matt Birk.
It would be one thing if Rogers and Wilkinson were gap-pluggers like Ted Washington or Warren Sapp of recent vintage. But not only are they adept at shutting down the middle rushing lanes, their forte is collapsing the pocket on the quarterback and not giving him time to let plays develop downfield.
That comes in contrast to the Vikings' offensive line, which is capable of dominating up front — the Vikings have averaged at least 4 yards rushing a game for 18 straight games as a result. They also give Daunte Culpepper the time he needs, whether it is to let a screen develop or the time to launch the deep ball to the wide receivers.
Culpepper has been taught to abandon plays in which the pocket collapses. While he still runs out of trouble, if he is forced to do a spin from the middle with defensive tackle pressure or a middle blitz, he usually looks to unload the ball out of bounds — a smart move for the Vikings, but a victory for the opponent. That is what the Lions will look to do early and often — force the Vikings to play the edges.
Being able to work the ball on the ground inside the hash marks will be critical for the Vikings to succeed offensively. The battle lines will be drawn about five feet on each side of the ball. It will be the battle zone to keep an eye on and the matchup to watch.
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