Lions Preview

Despite his reaction in this photo, everything isn't O.K. for Joey Harrington and the Detroit Lions. This is a team on the brink of seeing its 2005 season go down the tank with two losses already to Chicago and a road meeting with the Vikings -- whom they haven't beaten at the Metrodome since 1997.

The first meeting of the Vikings and Lions was supposed to be showdown between the top two teams in the NFC North – locked up in a battle that would, for the time being anyway, determine who was the frontrunner in the division and who would have the early advantage to winning the division title.

Instead, the Lions are 3-4 and the Vikings are 2-5 and the teams have combined to lose three games against the Bears, digging themselves a deep hole that both are desperately trying to climb out of. And, like the Vikings, the Lions are a team in turmoil on the brink of falling off the playoff radar.

The problem, as often is the case, begins at quarterback. Coming into this season, it was clear that quarterback Joey Harrington was facing a watershed season. After regressing the last couple of seasons, coach Steve Mariucci brought in former 49er Jeff Garcia. But after just two games, Garcia is too banged up to play and the team has no choice but to go back to Harrington. In his five games as a starter this year, Harrington has thrown just four touchdowns, has eight interceptions, has averaged 180 yards a game and has a dismal QB rating of just 55.6. He's been sacked 14 times, but his biggest woes have been throwing bad passes when pressured. Harrington is feeling the heat, but as he tries to do too much, has made the situation worse. If the Vikings, who are returning to a 4-3 alignment, can get pressure up the middle and from the outside, expect to see Harrington revert to form and throw one or two interceptions that could turn the game around.

Another major disappointment has been the running game. Kevin Jones got off to a slow start in 2004, but by the end of the season, he was running with authority and had all the looks of a running back that could be the focal point of an improving offense. But, 2005 has been nothing short of a nightmare, as injuries and poor play have reduced his effectiveness. He's averaging just three yards a carry and hasn't had a run longer than 16 yards all season. He has averaged just 52 yards a game and has made the Lions running game something of a joke. Backups Shawn Bryson and Artrose Pinner haven't had many opportunities, but have made more of their chances. Still, Jones is the man the Lions are leaning on and the one the Vikings will have to contain if they expect to win.

Another big disappointment has come from the receiver corps, which, after using first-round picks at the position each of the last three years, was expected to be a strength harkening back to the days when Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton tore up the league. Instead, everything has blown up in their faces. Roy Williams, the best of the group, has been sidelined with a leg injury that has limited him to just 12 receptions. Rookie Mike Williams is also banged up and has just 15 catches through seven games and Charles Rogers is expected back for the first time in a month after being forced to sit out four games with a suspension for a failed test in the league's drug policy. The leading receiver for the Lions this year? Retread Kevin Johnson, who is on injured reserve.

The player the Vikings may have to be the most leery of is Marcus Pollard. The Vikings have surrendered tight end touchdowns almost every game for the last two seasons and Pollard is adept anywhere on the field, but especially in the red zone. The Vikings secondary will have to keep the clamps down on the Lions receivers, which may be all together for the first time since Week 2, if they are to control the game.

If there are problems at QB, RB and WR, it is only safe to assume that there are also problems up front on the offensive line for the Lions. There are. The line has solid veteran talent with home-grown products Damien Woody, Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus, but none of the three are overpowering. The team went outside the organization to get former Colt Rick DeMulling, who has shared time with former starter Kyle Kosier – who has been shuttled from right tackle to left guard the last two weeks. Right guard is manned by second-year player Kelly Butler. Look for the Vikings to try to blitz from his side and force to the Lions to keep a tight end in to help Butler hold up.

While the Lions offense has been pretty horrible, the defense has kept in them in most of their games. With the exception of a Week 2 blowout loss to the Bears, the Lions have limited opponents to 21 points or fewere in every other game and 17 or less in four of those. Teams have been able to run on the Lions – running an average of 25 times a gain and getting more than four yards a carry. The Lions have a veteran front wall that includes Shaun Rogers (check his injury status Sunday) and Dan Wilkinson in the middle, and Cory Redding and James Hall on the outside. Add to that situation players like Kalimba Edwards, who leads the team with four sacks, seven-year veteran DE Jared DeVries, who has three sacks, and rookie second-rounder Dan Cody and the Lions have a base that is deep and, in time, will be one of the strengths of the team. They're still getting to work together, but this could be the unit that pushes the Lions to the next level.

One of the biggest positive differences for the Lions this year has been getting Boss Bailey back from injury. He is a disruptive player who makes big plays. He has just one interception this year, but he returned it for a touchdown. He's joined by MLB Earl Holmes and a 10-year veteran strongside ‘backer James Davis. Expect to see Holmes and Davis to be keys in the short passing game, but for the Lions to try to cut Bailey loose to go after Brad Johnson on blitz packages. If the Vikings can pick up those blitzes, Johnson will be able to take advantage of their own aggression with screens and timing passes to Jermaine Wiggins.

For much of the year, the Lions secondary has been a strength of the team. The Lions are averaging almost two interceptions a game, but are crippled somewhat with the loss of Pro Bowl CB Dre Bly. Heading toward training camp, the Lions envisioned having Bly and Antonio Bryant as their starting CB tandem. Coming into Sunday's game, they're going to have waiver pickup R.W. McQuarters and four-year reserve Andre Goodman in the starting lineup. At the safety position, they have Kenoy Kennedy and first-year starter Terrence Holt. Both are big hitters, but, with the inexperience pushed to the forefront by the Bly injury, this is a unit that looks much more vulnerable than it did a month ago and one that the Vikings offensive game-planners will look to exploit by mixing in deeper routes to keep the Lions guessing.

The Lions are a team that, if they pull things together, could end up being NFC North Division champion. But, with injuries at key positions, this is a team that the Vikings could go a long way to shoveling dirt on their divisional title grave – giving them a third division loss in four games. The Vikings will have to play error-free offense and not allow big plays on defense. If they can get those objectives done, the Lions will likely leave the Metrodome as they have every year since 1998 – with a loss.

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