Vikings vs. Lions: Can Seasons Be Salvaged?

The onus could be on Fred Robbins and Chris Hovan to stop Detroit running back James Stewart's ability to gain positive yardage when the Vikings host the Lions in Joey Harrington's first road start.

Coming out of the bye week, the Vikings were looking forward to potentially having a 3-1 record and using a home win over the Detroit Lions as a way to propel themselves through the final two-and-a-half months of the regular season. With that hope now dashed, the Vikings are simply looking for a measure of respect as they close out what most thought would be the easiest part of their schedule.

The Lions may be the perfect team for the Vikings to match up with at this time. Also coming off a bye week, the Lions, like the Vikings, have had many things to ponder — most of them bad.

Detroit was horrible last year, and the start to the 2002 season hasn't been any more promising. Like many struggling teams, the Lions are looking to the future, and that starts at quarterback. After taking QB Joey Harrington with the third pick of the 2002 draft, many speculated he would be starting by midseason. That timetable was pushed up to Week 3. Harrington is having to learn the pro game on the fly and, while he will make some big plays, he will make bad ones — like four interceptions he threw in his debut against Green Bay. Pressuring Harrington and giving him confusing looks will be the order of the day, as the Vikings try to force the Lions to run.

That won't be an easy option either, since the Lions running game has blown hot and cold this season. James Stewart was signed two years ago to be a savior to a running game stinging from the loss of Barry Sanders. This summer, he had to take a pay cut to remain on the roster. He's a plow horse who won't break off 80-yard runs but will get 3, 4 and 5 yards at a pop. He's backed up by LaMont Warren and Richard Huntley, but the Lions are committed to Stewart and will likely try to run him 20 times or more if the situation dictates.

The biggest difference on the Lions this season is who will catch the ball if the running game is stopped. Detroit let Johnnie Morton, Herman Moore and David Sloan — their top three receivers over the past three seasons — go after last season and have overhauled the receiver corps. Now, Bill Schroeder and Az Hakim, signed for big money from Green Bay and St. Louis, are the starting wideouts with Mikhael Ricks, a bust in San Diego, as the starting tight end. Each brings size and speed to the table but no familiarity with the Lions system or Harrington. Backups Larry Foster and Scotty Anderson are familiar with the system but don't get many reps with Harrington. Eventually, they will all get on the same page, but for now it's disarray.

Further compounding the receiver troubles are the injuries to that unit. The top four wide receivers were listed on the injury report — for whatever legitimacy you want to place on the Lions' reporting — and the coaching staff was even going so far as to seriously contemplate putting backup quarterbacks at wide receiver.

Even the offensive line is in turmoil. Of the starting five up front anticipated before training camp opened, only tackles Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle, in their second and third seasons, respectively, are in place. At center, second-year man Dominic Raiola has replaced Eric Beverly, and at guards, nine-year man Tony Semple and 17-year vet Ray Brown have been dredged up to give some veteran savvy to a young O-line.

As many problems as the offense has had, the defense has been equally miserable. Coming into the year, Miami, Carolina and Green Bay (without Ahman Green) weren't seen as offensive juggernauts. Yet, the trio hung 117 points (39-point average) on the Lions, and the problems are numerous.

Up front, Detroit has talent, with Robert Porcher and James Hall at the ends, and Luther Elliss and Kelvin Pritchett at the tackles. They even have emerging depth with rookie Kalimba Edwards at end and injured Shaun Rogers looking to return in the middle. Yet, teams have run on the Lions and the pass rush has been lacking, allowing teams to pick apart a defense that is clearly in transition.

Coming into the year, the strength of the defense was seen as the linebackers. Yet, despite a wealth of talent, the production has not been there. Chris Claiborne remains solid in the middle, but neither outside linebacker — Barrett Green nor unproven Clint Kriewaldt — has played particularly well. Look for Byron Chamberlain and/or Jim Kleinsasser to attack the outside linebackers with short passes.

The secondary remains a huge problem. Terry Fair was cut loose, meaning cornerback Todd Lyght is now matched up with Eric Davis or rookie Chris Cash, who entered training camp as a fourth-string corner. At the safeties, Corey Harris and Brian Walker have experience, but neither is seen as a top-shelf safety because neither has been a full-time starter. Depth is also a problem, with former Gopher Jimmy Wyrick as the nickel back and nine-year vet Bracy Walker as the next-best thing at safety.

The Lions may have a wild card in Desmond Howard as a kick returner if he is upgraded from his "doubtful" dubbing on the injury report. If the team gets desperate, they could let Hakim return kicks, but Howard has always hurt the Vikings and will be part of the team's game planning if healthy enough to suit up.

The Lions are a team the Vikings should beat handily and, as they head into the second portion of the 2002 season, getting a home win is something the Vikings need to energize themselves and the fans. The Lions may be a hand-picked opponent to do it.

Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins vs. James Stewart —
A lot of emphasis is placed on quarterbacks in the NFL, especially young QBs. But, often times, a horrible game for a quarterback is the result of the lack of a running game. If a defense shuts down the run, it forces the opposing offense to pass and, knowing that is coming, a defense pins its ears back and goes wild.

That is what the Lions will be facing when they meet the Vikings. Rookie Joey Harrington has only two NFL games under his belt and will need to have the Vikings off-balance to have any effectiveness. That's where James Stewart comes in. Stewart is a bullish RB who hasn't had a carry longer than 38 yards in two years. He runs hard, but he tends to run north and south and beats his way for yardage.

Unlike flashy backs who can run sweeps, Stewart is a straight-line runner who depends on pushing his way through defensive tackles to get his yardage and move the chains. The Vikings know this firsthand. In two games last year, Stewart ran 36 times for 199 yards against the Vikings and made the passing game more explosive with the defense concentrating on the run.

This time around, the onus will be on Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins to clog the middle running lanes and overpower the makeshift middle of the Lions offensive line. To the extent they can do that, they will win the battle in the middle and force Stewart to run outside, which clearly is not his strength.

The ability to stop Stewart in the middle will force Detroit to pass, and Harrington will see an assortment of blitzes designed to make him unload the ball quickly and with disastrous results. While the box score may say that Harrington was either a success or a failure, much of that will be the result of what Stewart does against Hovan and Robbins — making it the matchup to watch.

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