In the world of football, there is a term called a "trap game." It is a game in which one team is so decidedly favored that the implication is that there is almost no need to play the game. It's going to be a blowout. Today's game with the Vikings has that imprint all over it. After a slow start, the Vikings have won two of their last three games. The Lions, on the other hand, are 0-4, have fired their general manager, have seen their coach forced to answer questions about whether he would consider resigning and the team has lost by scores of 34-21, 48-25, 31-13 and 34-7.
The Lions are a team that doesn't really excel at anything and, to complicate matters, is appears as though the team will be without Jon Kitna. He is listed as doubtful and saw a back specialist this week to consult on what is causing his painful back spasms. He tried to play last week against Chicago, but came out early due to the pain in his ailing back. He was relieved by Dan Orlovsky, a first-year player who would be making his first NFL start. Orlovsky was pummeled by the Bears last week, completing 15 of 28 passes for just 103 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 32.2. Even Orlovsky is banged up, having suffered a knee and ankle sprain in Sunday's game, which led to third QB Drew Stanton taking a lot of snaps in practice earlier this week. Look for the Vikings to confuse and blitz Orlovsky more often than they usually do. In a hostile environment, he can be rattled by crowd noise and pressured, and expect the Vikings to bring a lot of both.
The running game in Detroit has been a mess for some time. Former Lion Kevin Jones was an impressive runner and receiver when healthy, but he was released earlier this year and the Lions are still feeling their way in the post-Jones era. Rookie Kevin Smith was handed the job out of the preseason but hasn't been overly impressive – being dinged up and rushing just 37 times for 133 yards. The Lions signed former Bengal Rudi Johnson, a between-the-tackles plodder who is only effective if given the ball 20 times and allowed to bang up the middle for 3, 4 and 5 yards at a time. That formula has rarely been successful against the Vikings, so Johnson isn't expected to be much of a factor. It's clear the Lions intend to put more focus on the running game – the team re-signed fullback Moran Norris to return as a lead blocker and pass protector Friday – but it doesn't change to fundamental issue that the Lions can't run. Through four games, they're averaging just 16.5 rushes and 72 rushing yards a game. Johnson and Smith have all 60 of the running back carries for Detroit and it doesn't appear as though those numbers should substantially improve against the Vikings.
One of the few strong points on the team has been wide receiver, but even at this spot there have been problems. Roy Williams has been the offensive star for the last three years, but his role as the No. 1 receiver was usurped by second-year man Calvin Johnson. Johnson has been the talk of the Lions since training camp and has 19 catches for 292 yards and two TDs to lead the team in all three categories. Williams has 15 catches for 209 yards and one TD, but almost all of that came in one game. Both Johnson and Williams are listed as questionable on the injury report – Johnson with a knee injury and Williams with a hip ailment. The team actually has depth with Mike Martz holdovers Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey, but both of them seem a bit out of place in the new-look, old-school offense of the Lions, and their roles have been reduced to a combined 19 catches for 126 yards and no TDs with both averaging less than 7 yards per reception. Tight end Michael Gaines is on the field quite a bit, but he is used almost exclusively as a blocker – he has just three catches in four games.
The offensive line has been relatively brutal from a numbers standpoint. The Lions have allowed 16 sacks in four games and the run game is ranked 31st in the league. This was supposed to be a strength of the team, but, to date this season, their performance has been extremely uneven and erratic. The line is loaded with high draft choices and expensive free agents. Both tackles are first rounders – seven-year vet Jeff Backus at left tackle and rookie Gosder Cherilus at right tackle – and guards Edwin Mulitalo and Stephen Peterman and center Dominic Raiola make up the interior. Raiola is undersized for an NFL center and will struggle with nose tackles like Pat Williams, and Peterman was close to losing his job in training camp and might not play today due to a hand injury. If he can't go, first-year man Manny Ramirez will make his first NFL start and create another potential hole in the line. Cherilus is still learning the game, so this might be a good time to be catching the Lions. This is a unit that can be overwhelmed and, if they need to keep fullbacks and tight ends in to pass protect for their untested QB, the Vikings could have a field day.
As bad as the Lions offense has been, it could be argued that the defense is worse. Ranked dead last in total defense (30th against the run and 29th against the pass), teams have been able to pick their poison to kill Detroit off on a game-to-game basis. The Lions have allowed 18 touchdowns in four games – seven rushing, eight passing and three on returns of interceptions. As with most struggling defenses, the problems usually begin up front.
The Lions used to be centered around DT Shaun Rogers, but he was traded during a contract dispute and the Lions have a bunch of underachieving players that have, for the most part, never lived up to their talent coming into the league. The Lions have just four sacks – three of those coming from starting DEs Dewayne White and Jared DeVries (the other coming from backup DE Corey Smith). In the middle, Chuck Darby has beaten out career underachiever Shaun Cody to line up next to Cory Redding. This group has been mauled for 720 yards on the ground and most of them have come on plays between the tackles and through the D-line. The Lions believe they have a budding star in backup DE Ikaika Alama-Francis, but he is being used in merely a part-time role. They have a surprising number of D-linemen on the roster (six tackles and five ends), but none of them have really stepped up and taken control of games.
If there is a star on the Detroit defense, it is linebacker Ernie Sims. A player many thought the Vikings with take if both he and Chad Greenway were still available in 2006, the Lions jumped on Sims and haven't been disappointed. Despite a college career marred with injuries, Sims has been a ball-hawk and a big hitter for the Lions. Paris Lenon was supposed to move to the strong side this season and give way to rookie Jordon Dizon, but Dizon has been benched and Lenon pulled back to the middle, opening a spot for Alex Lewis, who excels in the zone responsibilities of a Tampa-2 defense. Depth is razor thin with fourth-year man Gilbert Gardner and former Buccaneer Ryan Nece providing backup help.
The secondary used to be a strength with Dre Bly becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player. But he was traded prior to the 2007 season to Denver for Tatum Bell and George Foster, neither of whom ever stepped up to become a contributor on offense. The Lions got nothing and lost their best secondary player and are still trying to recover from that. Sixth-year man Travis Fisher is their best corner, but he is questionable with a knee injury. Brian Kelly was supposed to be a starter, but he has failed to produce on a consistent basis, giving Leigh Bodden (acquired in the Rogers trade) a chance to take a starting spot. Depth took a major hit when backup Stanley Wilson was lost for the season. Things are so bad for the Lions that they were forced to sign former Viking Dwight Smith because of a lack of depth at safety. Smith can still make plays and is familiar with the Tampa-2 scheme, but it was obvious last year that the Vikings were dissatisfied with Smith's performance on and off the field and that the Lions clearly were in worse shape to consider Smith to be an upgrade. He is joined by Daniel Bullocks, who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. He beat out second-year man Gerald Alexander for a starting spot in the preseason, but, through four games, none of the Detroit defensive players has an interception. With opposing QBs having a passer rating of 122.1 with eight TDs and no picks, it is no wonder why the Lions are the worst-rated defense in the NFL.
This is a game that, on paper, the Vikings should win convincingly. A closer look at the Lions reveals that there are problems everywhere on both sides of the ball that only seem to be getting worse as the year progresses. This is a team that many think has no business competing with a team like the Vikings and, while many of those same people will still spew the "any given Sunday" mantra about NFL teams, it's hard to make a case that the Lions can even cover the 13-point spread, much less win the game outright. This is an organization in disarray that will once again be making a lottery selection in the 2009 draft. If the Vikings have anything to say about it, they will hang two losses on Detroit to help their chances of getting the first overall pick next year.
Lions preview: Problems everywhere
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