It's December in the NFL, which in recent memory has meant one thing – the Detroit Lions are hopelessly mired with a losing a record and already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. 2006 has been no exception. They started the season with five straight losses – the last one a 26-17 come-from-ahead loss against the Vikings in which the Lions led 17-3 heading into the fourth quarter. The Vikings can repeat that feat by handing the 2-10 Lions their fifth straight loss of their current losing streak Sunday. And despite Las Vegas inexplicably making Detroit a two-point favorite to win Sunday, the Vikings have every reason to believe they can beat Detroit. Why not? They've done it nine straight times and 13 out of the last 14 meetings.
As the Vikings have learned through experience, if they can stop the run, they can make their opponent one-dimensional and ineffective. The Lions have one of the game's best dual threats in Kevin Jones. Despite playing through injuries for much of the season, Jones has rushed for 692 yards and six touchdowns and is third on the team with 55 receptions. He is the backbone of the offense, but in the first meeting he had one of the worst days of his career – being held to 8 yards on 10 carries. If the Vikings can repeat that performance Sunday, they will put a lot of pressure on Jon Kitna to produce.
Kitna, who is being viewed as more than just a one-year stop-gap, has bounced around the league, but has been solid when given a chance to start in Cincinnati and, to a lesser extent, Detroit. Without a great arsenal of weapons, Kitna has had some bad days. He has thrown 16 interceptions and has a passer rating of 78.3. He has been sacked a whopping 46 times – by comparison, Brad Johnson has been sacked 24 times – and if he takes a beating early, he is susceptible to throwing the ill-advised pass to avoid taking more punishment. If the Vikings' defensive front can harass Kitna and keep him off his rhythm, he will throw the interception that can turn a game around – as he did in the first meeting this season.
The Mike Martz offense is predicated on timing and spreading the ball around to all zones of the field – short, deep, over the middle and from sideline to sideline. The team has found the going difficult with three straight first-round picks at wide receiver, only one of which has panned out. 2003 first-rounder Charles Rogers has been released. 2005 first-rounder Mike Williams is 20 pounds overweight and mired on the bench. But 2004 first-rounder Roy Williams has transformed into one of the game's top wide receiver threats. He has already topped the 1,000-yard mark this season – 63 catches for 1,043 yards – and while his touchdown numbers are down (four), he will be expected to catch a minimum of six or seven passes, especially if the Lions choose to pass often. With all the first-round busts the Lions have, they have gotten the most out of an inexpensive free agent pickup, Mike Furrey. He followed Martz from St. Louis to Detroit and not only has won the starting job, but leads the team in receptions (65) and is on pace to have 86 catches and 1,030 yards. He is an excellent third-down, move-the-chains receiver who Kitna locks in on when he needs a big completion. Aside from that, no other wide receiver on the active roster has more than eight receptions. Eddie Drummond is a return specialist, Mike Williams has done nothing all season and veteran Corey Bradford is more of a space-filler than a true every-down threat. The Lions will likely try to spread the ball around with multi-receiver sets, but they don't truly have the talent to produce with four receivers and may have to use Jones or backup tight end Marcus Pollard as a stand-up receiver at the line of scrimmage.
Dan Campbell, the team's primary tight end, will likely be kept in to block because the Lions have been awful in pass protection. Only the Raiders have allowed more sacks than the 46 Kitna has endured and the line has been to blame for many of them. It's kind of a surprise, since the Lions have averaged four yards a carry on the ground. Like the Vikings, their strength is on the left side of the line. Left tackle Jeff Backus has been solid, but playing through injury, veteran Ross Verba still has gas in the tank and center Dominic Raiola has been a rock at center. The right side of the line has endured its share of struggles. Blaine Saiapaia was signed after being released during training camp, and Barry Stokes has been a disappointment after being moved from guard to tackle. If the Vikings want to make sure Kitna can't get comfortable in the pocket, overpowering Saiapaia and Stokes will be the tactic used.
While the Lions offense has been respectable, the defense has been nothing short of dismal. Ranked 26th overall, the Lions are 25th in yards allowed, 24th in points allowed, 27th in yards passing and and 16th vs. the run. And that was with All-Pro Shaun Rogers, one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league. Rogers is now on injured reserve, but the Lions still have a defensive front that is loaded with talent. The injury to Rogers has pushed sixth-year man Marcus Bell into the starting job, joining a trio of defensive ends playing on the starting front – Jared DeVries, Kalimba Edwards and Corey Redding. Redding leads the team with six sacks, but the other three have combined for just two sacks. If the Vikings quarterback isn't harassed, he can pick apart a defense and, without Rogers, the Lions may have a hard time getting to him.
The linebackers are a young group that could be dominant in time. On the outside, first-round draft pick Ernie Sims is a big hitter who plays so hard, he gave teammate Fernando Bryant a concussion chasing after a fumble. He is flanked by injury-plagued but physically gifted OLB Boss Bailey and MLB Paris Lenon – a solid tackler who doesn't get out of position too often. There is depth as well with former second-rounder Teddy Lehman and veteran Donte Curry filling in when needed. Their play will be critical to stopping the Vikings' short passing game – which is Brad Johnson's bread and butter.
The secondary has experience and talent, but the Lions have been torched for 19 touchdowns through the air and have allowed opposing quarterbacks to compile a passer rating of 99.4 throughout the season. They have been beaten often over the top, despite have solid corners in Dre Bly and Fernando Bryant and veteran safeties in Kenoy Kennedy and Terrence Holt. Rookie safety Daniel Bullocks has talent, but is a little raw and doesn't see a lot of playing time. Bryant is out with a concussion and will be replaced by one of three backups – Keith Smith, Stanley Wilson or veteran Jamar Fletcher, who serves as a nickel back, but, he too is victim of biting too often on play fakes and doesn't have ideal makeup speed. As a group, this would seem like a secondary that would be capable of shutting offenses down. But, for the most part, they have struggled to do that with any consistency.
The Lions have once again been reduced to role of the spoiler, but, as Vikings fans know, you can't assume wins over any team in the NFL. Remember the 49ers? Or the Packers? Those were games the Vikings thought they would win and didn't – and it has cost them dearly in the playoff chase. Despite winning nine straight against the Lions, the Vikings begin the process of playing for their playoff lives. If they win their final four games, they are almost surely in the playoffs. A loss to the Lions could spell doom for the Vikings' playoff hopes, so taking care of business will be the priority – not looking ahead to the Jets next week.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
ROY WILLIAMS VS. ANTOINE WINFIELD AND CEDRIC GRIFFIN—The Vikings defense has been one of the more dominant units in the entire NFL this season. One of the main reasons has been its ability to stop the run and make opposing offenses one-dimensional. Some teams have embraced the pass and, considering how much Mike Martz loves to get pass-happy in his offense, Roy Williams against the Vikings corners will be the Matchup to Watch this week.
There is no questioning Williams' ability. In his third season out of Texas, Williams has opened a lot of eyes around the league. He has already topped 1,000 yards receiving in just 12 games and is averaging 16.6 yards per reception. He may have a little more incentive for this game because the Vikings knocked him out of the game in the first matchup in October and he will likely have revenge in mind in the rematch.
The Lions move Williams around in the formation to try to get mismatches for him, which will likely have him spending most plays with Antoine Winfield, but several with Cedric Griffin and Fred Smoot. At 6-2, 212, Williams has the strength to beat a jam at the line, the route-running skills to make the quick slant cut for a big gainer and the speed to get behind defenders. It could be argued that, with Steve Smith missing the Vikings-Panthers game, Williams might be the best receiver the Vikings face all season – no offense to Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin.
While the Lions use Mike Furrey and running back Kevin Jones extensively in the passing game – they're on pace to combine for 160 catches between them this year – Jones is used primarily on screens and dump-offs and Furrey is used to move the chains with short timing passes. When Jon Kitna looks deep, it's almost always with Williams in his sights.
The Vikings may well opt to drop a safety his way more than the Cover-2 typically does, but making adjustments to shut down an opponent's primary threat is something other Cover-2 teams have done – just ask Randy Moss. It's doubtful Winfield or Griffin will completely shut down Williams, but if they can restrict him to five or six catches and 80 yards or less, it would be a moral victory that would likely result in a team victory – making this the Matchup to Watch on Sunday.
Preview: Taking Stock of the Lions
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