When Detroit Lions quarterback Jon Kitna made the claim that the Lions would win 10 games this season, it was easy to find people that scoffed at that notion. Why not? The Lions had lost 10 or more games in each of the previous six seasons. But when Detroit got off to a 6-2 start this year, the Lions were making believers.
But, coming off three straight losses – the last two at home to the Giants and Packers – the Lions find themselves in free-fall mode at 6-5, only a game ahead of a half-dozen teams trying to chase them down. While coming off a 10-day layover after their Thanksgiving Day loss to Green Bay, the Lions are rested and looking to reclaim their spot as a wild card contender.
Perhaps nobody has benefited more from the extra few days off than Kitna. Suffering from back and knee problems, Kitna's numbers have dropped somewhat in recent weeks, but he is still having a strong season. He needs just 103 yards Sunday to top 3,000 yards passing this season and has 14 touchdowns as opposed to 12 interceptions while completing more than 65 percent of his passes. Kitna is vulnerable to throwing the bad pass when facing a heavy pass rush and, with the Lions willingness to abandon the run for long stretches of time, it will be a top defensive priority to force Kitna to get rid of the ball before he wants to. Teams that haven't been able to generate a pass rush and give Kitna time in the pocket have paid a dear price. But, if pressured, he make poor throws – including three interceptions at the Metrodome last year.
The Lions' running game is much more solidified now than it was at the start of the season. Kevin Jones suffered a Lisfranc injury last year against the Vikings and missed not only the remainder of the 2006 season, but the start of this season. The team tried a pair of free-agent signees – T.J. Duckett and Tatum Bell – but neither excelled when given the chance to start. When Jones returned in October, he made his presence felt. He has just 114 carries, but has gained 457 yards on the ground and has been one of the Lions' top receiving options, catching 27 passes despite missing the first month of the season. He is a shifty runner who, while not possessing breakaway speed, hits the hole with authority. He has struggled against the Vikings in recent meetings and, if the Vikings can stop him early, the Lions and Mike Martz will likely abandon running the ball entirely and become one dimensional on offense.
While that prospect is a death sentence for a lot of teams, that isn't always the case with Detroit, which is deep with receiver talent. The Lions made a big splash on draft day by selecting Calvin Johnson with the second pick of the draft. While Johnson hasn't had the immediate impact of Adrian Peterson, he has caught 31 passes, is averaging 15.6 yards a catch and has four TD receptions. He is beginning to grasp the complicated Lions offense and in time is going to be a dominant player. One receiver who already can boast that title is Roy Williams. In his fourth season, Williams has caught 58 passes for 751 yards and five touchdowns. While not the big-play threat he has been in recent years, he is the first look on the numerous short slant routes the Lions run. If it were just those two receivers, the Lions could get by, but the talent runs much deeper than that. Mike Furrey was a fantasy football player's dream a year ago, catching 98 passes for 1,098 yards, but his numbers have dipped this season (39-465-1). As a result, Shaun McDonald has taken his role as the No. 3 receiver and responded by catching 53 passes for 650 yards and four touchdowns. Between their top four receivers, the Lions have 181 receptions for 2,351 yards and 14 touchdowns – numbers that even teams like the Patriots and Colts have trouble surpassing. The tight end position is used almost exclusively for blocking with Sean McHugh leading the way. But with the number of three- and four-receiver sets the Lions run, the tight end is sparingly used as an offensive weapon.
One of the biggest reasons for the Lions' recent failure has been an offensive line that has been banged up and revolving. Heading into this week, backup guard Damien Woody was shifted to the starting right tackle spot after Jonathon Scott was placed on injured reserve this week. He moved ahead of George Foster, who has been called for several holding and false start penalties and has been playing with a lot of inconsistency. The line is not without its strengths, however. Jeff Backus is a very solid left tackle and left guard Edward Mulitalo, signed away from the Ravens, and center Dominic Raiola have been solid. Right guard Stephen Peterman entered the season as No. 3 on the depth chart at his position, but he's now in a starting role. The clear weakness is on the right side, so don't be surprised to see the Vikings bringing the blitz from that side in order to fluster Kitna. With the problems the Lions have had on that side of the line – Lions QBs have been sacked 47 times – it's a blueprint other teams have used to their advantage.
Defensively, the Lions have a strong front line in the middle but a suspect group on the outside. Shaun Rogers is a dominating presence at tackle and fits in the Rod Marinelli defensive scheme to perfection. He is joined by Cory Redding, who replaced Rogers on the inside last year and played so well that he was rewarded with a mammoth contract at the end of the season. The problem is on the outside, where neither Dewayne White nor Kalimba Edwards has played with the kind of consistency the Lions have been seeking. While White leads the team with 5.5 sacks, he has been playing hurt the last several weeks with a shoulder injury and hasn't been a consistent pass rusher. Edwards is an enigma whom many believe would have been better as a linebacker in a 3-4 system instead of a full-time DE. He has just three sacks this year and has been replaced at times on third downs by backup Jared DeVries, who has more sacks (four) despite playing on a much more limited basis.
If there has been a pleasant surprise on defense, it has been the play of the outside linebackers. Ernie Sims, a high draft pick in 2006, has become a fan favorite and is a high-energy tackling machine that enjoys laying the big hit on backs and tight ends. He is joined by Boss Bailey, who was a dismal failure at middle linebacker last year and is much better suited to play the outside. While his own aggression takes him out of some plays, his intensity is exactly what Marinelli wants from his linebackers. In the middle, the Lions have a pedestrian pair of players in Paris Lenon and Teddy Lehman. Lehman would probably be the preference, but injuries have cut short each one of his NFL seasons and he can't be counted on. While the Lions will likely address this position in the draft or free agency, for now they're stuck with these two – a pair of players that wouldn't start for most teams in the NFL.
The secondary has become a mess this season, allowing 22 touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks and routinely getting beat over the top. It isn't completely their fault. Injuries have played a role to the point that a pair of former Vikings might see significant playing time Sunday. With the trade of disgruntled Dre Bly, the Lions lost their only bona fide cornerback. Fernando Bryant is in his ninth season and is nowhere near the player he was early in his career with Jacksonville. He has battled injuries the last several seasons and has been bothered with foot and calf injuries this year. Former Ram Travis Fisher, who also has a long injury history, has been able to stay on the field most of the season, but his pressing style is at odds with the Lions' Cover-2 scheme and he often loses coverage when routes go deep. The Lions had been counting on third-year man Stanley Wilson to be the nickel back or a spot starter when Bryant and/or Fisher were down, but he was put on injured reserve this week, opening a chance for some playing time for former Viking Dovonte Edwards, signed last month by the Lions for depth and special teams help. The safety position is also in shambles. Daniel Bullocks has been lost for the season and top backup at both safety spots Indrees Bashir was placed on injured reserve this week. While strong safety Kenoy Kennedy remains a big hitter, he has been something of a liability in pass coverage. Second-year man Greg Alexander is the type of safety Marinelli loves, but he is still learning on the job. In need of depth after losing two of their top three safeties, the Lions recently signed former Viking Greg Blue, who became a roster casualty with the Vikings .
In the event the game is close coming down the stretch, the Lions have one of the best kickers in the game in Jason Hanson. Although in his 16th season, he hasn't lost any of his leg strength and is having one of his best seasons in years. He has made 12 of 15 attempts from beyond 40 yards and hit the game-winner against the Vikings at Ford Field. If the game is on the line, he's almost automatic.
The Vikings have a chance to do what seemed unthinkable just a month ago – tie the Lions at 6-6 and make the wild card chase even wilder than it already is. The Vikings have dominated the Lions at the Metrodome – having won each of the last 10 home games – and if they can take care of the business, they could go a long way to bringing down what looked to be a dream season for the Lions at the midway point of the year.
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