As the Vikings try to pull themselves out of the tailspin they've been in since starting 2-0, one might think that the 0-4 Detroit Lions might be just what the doctor ordered. Having lost their first four games and allowing point totals of 34, 31 and 41 in the last three weeks, the Lions are reeling and don't want to be the medicine the sputtering Vikings offense has been looking for.
While the Lions defense has been suspect all year, the offense has changed things around the last couple of weeks. Jon Kitna has improved his passer rating to 87.1 and has completed 65 percent of his passes. The new Mike Martz-inspired offense has taken time to learn, but it has led to 58 points the last two games – albeit in losing causes. Kitna is a veteran, but has never faced the Vikings before, so they and the Metrodome will be new him, which could be critical since a lot of unfamiliar teams can get rattled early by the noise level at Minnesota's noisy barn. If Kitna can get comfortable – with just six sacks by the Vikings defense, it can be done – he can do some damage. The key to stopping Kitna is to force him to pass.
The Vikings defense has done a solid job containing some of the game's better running backs, like Willis McGahee, Thomas Jones and DeShaun Foster. Next up is Kevin Jones. He's had a couple of solid games and others in which he does nothing. Martz's offensive philosophy has been known to completely abandon the run when things aren't working immediately. If the Vikings can stuff Jones early, they may force the Lions to be one-dimensional. Jones has been as much a one-man backfield as any in the league at the quarter-pole. Lions running backs have run 66 times – 62 of them by Jones. He also has 21 receptions, meaning of the 248 offensive plays the Lions have run, he has had the ball on 83 of them – an incredible percentage for a team that has passed twice as much as it has run. If he can be stuffed, the Lions run offense will be nonexistent.
The Lions passing game was supposed to hitting its stride, with former first-rounders Roy Williams, Mike Williams and Charles Rogers being a dominant trio. That hasn't exactly worked out as planned. Rogers was cut during the preseason and Mike Williams has been overweight, brooding and sitting on the bench. Roy Williams has lived up to the hype. He's on pace for 100 receptions and 1,500 yards. He's a dominant player with good hands, courage and deep speed. He could become to this offense what Torry Holt was for Martz in St. Louis. Speaking of St. Louis, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree in the new offensive system in Detroit. Former Rams Mike Furrey and Az-Zahir Hakim have taken their spots as the second and third receivers in the offense. Furrey, who was a part-timer in St. Louis, has emerged as a big-play threat and leads the team with two touchdowns. He's caught 22 passes for 242 yards and is a move-the-chains receiver who has been used primarly in short routes, despite having good speed. The tight end position in almost nonexistent as a playmaking position. Dan Campbell and Marcus Pollard have combined to catch just 11 passes and neither has been a focus of the offensive game plan.
Up front, the Lions have some injury problems that could be huge. They have a solid front five with tackles Jeff Backus and Rex Tucker, guards Ross Verba and Damien Woody and center Dominic Raiola. Each of them has six years of NFL experience or more and they know how to play the game the right way. Injuries have been the issue. Both Verba and Tucker have been sidelined during the week with hamstring and knee injuries, respectively, and backup guard Frank Davis is out with a neck injury – depleting what little depth there was to begin with. If this group isn't 100 percent, it is capable of being dominated by the Vikings defensive front and could keep the Lions offense on its heels all day.
While the Lions offense has been hit-and-miss all season, the defense has been nothing short of hideous. After coming out strong in a 9-6 loss to Seattle, the Lions have been torched for 106 points in the last three weeks. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of that is that opposing quarterbacks have been made to look like Hall of Famers against the Lions defense. Through four games, opposition QBs have a passer rating of a startling 121.9. They have completed more than 71 percent of their passes and have 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Much of the blame has to starts up front, where the Lions have the talent to create a pass rush and turnovers, but haven't achieved that yet.
The Lions have waves of defensive linemen to throw at opponents, but have just six sacks thus far. On the outside Cory Redding and James Hall are the starters, but veterans Kalimba Edwards and Jared DeVries also fit in the rotation. All four are veterans with specific skill sets, so they'll be interchanging most of the game. The dominant player up front is Shaun Rogers. An All-Pro player who demands double-teams, he can cause problems in both the running and passing games. A solid run-clogger, he also leads the Lions with two sacks as a pass rusher. He's joined by second-year pro Shaun Cody, who is in his first year as a full-time starter after spending his rookie year behind Big Daddy Wilkinson. Also in the mix is Tyoka Jackson, a 12-year veteran free-agent signee who adds some spot-duty stability to the defensive front. If the Vikings sustain long offensive drives, because of the depth up front, the Vikings may wear out before this group does.
The linebacker corps has the potential for greatness, but has been hampered by injuries. Teddy Lehman was scheduled to be the starting middle linebacker, but he's on the physically unable to perform list. Boss Bailey, who missed a good portion of last season with injuries, has been moved inside and rookie Ernie Sims – a player many scouts saw going to the Vikings – starts on the weakside. Former Packer Paris Lenon was brought in and handed the strongside starting job and has held up pretty well. While this group has a ton of potential, all are working into being full-time NFL starters and can be abused with misdirection plays that pick on their over-aggressiveness.
In the secondary, the Lions have one of the better cover corners in the league in Dre' Bly, but the rest hasn't been anything to brag about. Teams have picked on Fernando Bryant, who has lost a step since his heyday in Jacksonville and is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery early last year. At the safeties, there is a belief in Detroit that rookie Daniel Bullocks can be their version of Troy Polamalu. He's a big hitter and a playmaker and, while still raw as a rookie, has been pressed into duty with an injury to Kenoy Kennedy. Heading into training camp, there were questions if Terrence Holt would even make the team, but he remains a starter. This is a group that can be exploited, but is also capable of making big plays. But, without a single interception in four games while allowing 10 touchdowns, it doesn't look on paper like a group that should pose much of a threat.
The Lions aren't going to be pushovers, but the Vikings need to build some momentum heading into their bye week and the difficult couple of games that will follow. The Lions look like a team ripe for picking and the Vikings have every chance to have their way with them and score more than 20 points for the first time all season.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
SHAUN ROGERS vs. MATT BIRK AND STEVE HUTCHINSON – Double-teams are one of the most deceptive aspects of NFL football. Since the television cameras are instructed to follow the ball, fans rarely see the double-teams that offenses and defenses employ against a top player. Randy Moss, for example, was the constant subject of double teams, often leaving the Vikings offense playing 10-on-9 games much of the day. The same is true in trying to restrict a defensive player. On Sunday, the Vikings are likely to apply the most expensive double-team in NFL history in this week's Matchup to Watch.
When the Vikings signed Steve Hutchinson to the richest contract ever given to an offensive linemen, much less an interior lineman, the idea was that the Vikings would run to the left behind Bryant McKinnie, Hutchinson and center Matt Birk. It hasn't worked out exactly as planned the first three weeks, but in many of those instances, the need for double teams on that side of the field weren't necessary. They will be Sunday, as the Vikings' high-priced Hutchinson and Birk try to do a number on neutralizing Detroit defensive tackle Shaun Rogers.
Rogers has an incredible combination of size and speed. At 6-4, 345, he is a huge space-filler, but unlike a lot of sloth-like nose tackles, he has the ability to be a pass rusher and commands double coverage. By doing so, teams often open themselves up to allowing linebackers to blow through the line to make plays, but most see it as a necessary evil to keep Rogers from dominating a game from the inside tackle position.
To keep Rogers off Brad Johnson and try to maneuver him out of the way on running plays, it is likely going to require Birk and Hutchinson to combine their forces and blow him out of the way of plays. Many teams try this approach, but just as many fail as succeed. There's no questioning the ability of Birk and Hutchinson at their respective positions, but Rogers is the type of player that is going to require the Vikings offensive front to do whatever is necessary to keep him from making as few plays as possible.
If that means having two Pro Bowlers blocking against him, so be it. Keep an eye on the snap when the Vikings have the ball and see how they approach taking care of big No. 92 for the Lions. More times than not, he's likely to go face up with both Hutchinson and Birk, a matchup few players would envy and clearly the Matchup to Watch this week.
Lions: Offensive Ability, Defensive Liability
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