Detroit Lions Preview

The Lions come into Sunday's game with the Vikings a team that has fired its coach and benched its once-franchise quarterback in the span of a week. The team is floundering, but could be a dangerous opponent with nothing to lose and pride at stake. The Vikings have routinely crushed the Lions in recent years, but there could be reason to be concerned about playing a team that would like nothing better than to ruin the Vikings' season much like the Vikings did to them a month ago.

The Vikings head to Ford Field Sunday for a game that couldn't be a bigger contrast of two teams. At the time they met just two days short of a month ago at the Metrodome, the Lions were 3-4 and the Vikings were 2-5. A road win could save the Lions' season and all but end the 2005 season for the Vikes. Instead, it was Minnesota that pulled out the big game for a 27-14 win that silenced some of coach Mike Tice's harshest critics.

Flash forward one month. The Vikings are now 6-5 and have fans are doing the math how Tice and Co. can get to the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Lions have imploded and Steve Mariucci was unceremoniously fired days after losing badly on Thanksgiving Day. While the Lions are better rested than the Vikings, this is the new Team Turmoil of the NFC and those problems begin at quarterback.

Joey Harrington has put up some decent numbers vs. the Vikings in his brief career but has never beaten them. Shortly after Mariucci was fired, teammate Dre Bly took the opportunity to throw Harrington under the bus – claiming that if Harrington alone had played better, Mooch would still have a job in Detroit. Apparently interim head coach Dick Jauron agreed. One of his first acts as head coach was to bench Harrington in favor of Jeff Garcia, a veteran who ironically was brought in because of his familiarity with Mariucci's offense. Garcia isn't 100 percent healthy and the Vikings will look to pressure him early. If they can get to him and put some early hits on him, the Lions will be hard-pressed to generate much in the way of offense.

Keeping the chains moving for the Lions took another hit this week when running back Kevin Jones was downgraded with a quadriceps injury. Jones leads the Lions in carries (159), yards (523) and touchdowns (5), but his average of just 3.3 yards a carry is the worst of any of the three primary running backs. Termed a "game-time decision at best" by Jauron Friday, if Jones can't go, the running offense will be turned over to Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner. Bryson has been a solid third-down back – he leads the Lions with 30 receptions. With the exception of one 77-yard touchdown run earlier in the season, Bryson has averaged about three yards a rush and six yards a reception. Unless he can pick up his game big time, the Lions will likely be a one-dimensional offense.

Finding a shred of consistency has been a major problem for the Lions, who have loaded up at their receiver position the last three years. Their top star – second-year man Roy Williams – has been injured much of the season, but is finally healthy for the first time since mid-September. Charles Rogers got deep in Mariucci's doghouse when he was suspended four games for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy. And rookie Mike Williams, who was viewed as the most pro-ready of the rookie wide receiver crop, has displayed an attitude problem and has just 308 yards receiving – an average of less than 30 yards a game – despite being asked to take on a bigger role with the other stars out. Second-year undrafted free agent Scottie Vines currently leads the receivers with 29 receptions – making a mockery of the decision to take a wide receiver on the first round each of the last three years. The Lions also spent in free agency to improve the tight end position by signing Marcus Pollard from the Colts. He has produced 29 receptions and two TDs – one vs. the Vikings – so he will need to be monitored, especially in the Red Zone.

Along the offensive front, the primary objectives will be to limit Pat Williams from dominating in the running game and protecting Garcia from the pass rush and blitzes. The line has been inconsistent after investing in it during free agency. Home-grown Jeff Backus is at left tackle and Dominic Raola is at center, but two of the remainding spots on the starting line – guards Damien Woody and Kyle Kosier – were added through free agency and tackle Kelly Butler is in his first year of NFL action after being drafted in the sixth round in 2004. It's a unit that hasn't jelled together and has struggled both to get a consistent running attack going or protecting Harrington and Garcia – both of whom have been forced to throw ill-advised passes that have cost the Lions games.

While the offense has been anemic most of the year, the defense has kept them in most games. They have limited their opponents to 21 points or less in eight games and have shown toughness in close games. The Lions have one of the conference's best defensive tackle tandems in Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson, who are strong enough that the Vikings decided Friday to carry eight offensive linemen in the event Anthony Hererra and Melvin Fowler need help. Also in the mix is second-round rookie Shaun Cody, who comes in on passing downs. On the outside, the Lions are very strong with Cory Redding and James Hall as the starters and Kalimba Edwards and Jared DeVries as designated pass rushers. Edwards has been something of a one-trick pony as a pass rusher, but a very effective one – he has seven of the Lions' 22 sacks in part-time duty. This will be a big matchup for the Vikings, who will have to establish the run early to dictate the pace of the game. The Lions are allowing teams to run 30 times a game for 125 yards, which would be just what the doctor ordered for the Vikings offense Sunday.

The linebackers have been an inconsistent weak link of the team. Boss Bailey has proved to be a playmaker, but is also a victim of his own aggression at times. In the middle, Earl Holmes is a 10-year veteran who has savvy and can deliver a hit, but has become a liability in pass coverage. On the weakside, third-year man James Davis has good speed, but gets caught up with blockers too often and doesn't force the issue enough. This is a group that has some talent, but is the clear weakness of the defense and an area the Vikings may look to exploit.

The secondary has a couple of top-end players in Bly at cornerback and Kenoy Kennedy at safety. Both are capable of making big plays and shutting down go-to receivers. Bly was brought in specifically to deal with players like Randy Moss, as the Lions out-bid the Vikings to get him. Kennedy is a big hitter who has been battling injury problems all year. At the other safety, Terrence Holt looked very good early in the year, but has been hampered recently with an elbow injury that has reduced his effectiveness. At the other corner, Andre Goodman is rounding out into a good complement for Bly, but teams have picked on him at times and he is subject to losing confidence if abused too often.

A month ago, it was Tice whose head was on the chopping block when the Vikings and Lions met. Since then, the Vikings haven't lost, the Lions have tanked and their head coach is gone, not Tice. This has all the makings of a trap game – Vikings fans finally feeling good about the team's 2005 prospects and the Lions in disarray – but these have been the type of games that have haunted Tice's tenure with the Vikings. Too often, they've lost to a team they shouldn't. Detroit is one of those teams and, with the Vikings reversing recent road woes outdoors, keeping Tice perfect against the Lions is a distinct possibility, but one that won't be as easy as it may look.

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