It has been the tale of two seasons for the Vikings and the Detroit Lions. When they met on Sept. 20 at Ford Field and the Vikings broke open a 27-13 win in the second half, it improved the Vikings to 2-0 and dropped the Lions to 0-2. While Detroit would snap its 20-game losing streak the following week, they have lost their last five and limp into the Metrodome with a record of 1-7.
To say the Lions are bad is an understatement. They are a whopping 16½-point underdogs to the Vikings, and for good reason. It will be the seventh time this year that Detroit has been a double-digit underdog and, in five of those six games, they have failed to cover the spread – losing by 18, 14, 24, 26 and 12 points. They are a bad team that, with a loss to the Vikings Sunday, will be officially eliminated from division title contention in just their ninth game – a near impossibility.
If there is reason for optimism in Detroit, it is centered around rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford. As would be expected from a rookie on a bad team, Stafford has struggled. Despite missing two games due to injury, he is still on pace to throw 24 interceptions. Through eight games, he has completed just 53.7 percent of his passes (115 of 214) for 1,265 yards with five touchdowns and 12 picks. His passer rating is a dismal 55.9, which is about what it was when he played the Vikings in Week 2 – completing 18 of 30 passes for 152 yards with one TD and two Chad Greenway interceptions. He has been sacked 20 times in six games and teams have discovered the key to beating Detroit in 2009 is to put early and constant pressure on Stafford, who will make his share of mistakes. His five interceptions last week spoke volumes in that regard.
The running game for the Lions has been the private domain of second-year back Kevin Smith, but, following a strong rookie season, he has regressed somewhat despite being the team's leading rusher and receiver. His problem has been consistency. He has rushed 138 times for just 460 yards – an average of just 3.3 yards a carry, far and away the lowest average among the 24 running backs with 400 or more rushing yards this season. He also leads the Lions with 26 catches for another 207 yards, but hasn't had the same dynamic kind of games he had his rookie season when he and Calvin Johnson seemed to be the only offensive options. He is backed up by rookie Aaron Brown and veteran Maurice Morris, but neither player has done anything to take time away from Smith. Morris has just 30 carries for 126 yards and Brown has 19 rushes for 83 yards. Fullback Terrelle Smith is little more than a glorified blocker. Although he has started all season, he has yet to have a rushing attempt and has caught just one pass. Look for a steady diet of Smith throughout the game and, considering he rushed 24 times for 83 yards in the first meeting, look for him to be a defensive point of emphasis for the Vikings.
The receiving corps is led by a pair of young, emerging talents in wide receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Johnson is a mismatch problem for cornerbacks and likely will be a regular target of passes with Antoine Winfield out of the game. Johnson has caught just 24 passes this year for 352 yards and one touchdown, but that TD came against the Vikings in Week 2. He is an amazing combination of size, speed and strength, so much so that the Lions didn't hesitate for a second taking Johnson ahead of Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft. He is clearly the focal point of the vertical passing game and will have to be accounted for on every play. The Lions struggled to develop wide receivers despite using a slew of first-round picks at the position. They gave up on that notion and brought in a couple of outside free agents to fill the role of the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers. Dennis Northcutt has bounced around the league and is used both at receiver and in the return game. He hasn't done much this year, catching 17 passes for just 161 yards and has called for a fair catch on nine of 20 punt return opportunities. The other free-agent signee was Bryant Johnson. A former first-round pick the same year the Cardinals took Anquan Boldin in the second round, Johnson never lived up to expectations. He hoped to turn his career around in San Francisco last year, but that never panned out. He has caught 20 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, which gives him the team lead in scoring – a sign of how anemic the Lions offense is.
Pettigrew is a big rookie TE that has 21 catches for 239 yards and a touchdown. He is developing into a deep threat down the seam, and considering the Vikings' struggles with tight ends down the field this year, he will bear watching. The team has a couple of blocking tight ends in Will Heller and Casey FitzSimmons. Neither has been much of a receiving threat, but have seen plenty of playing time because the Lions have been forced to keep their tight ends in for max protection of the quarterback.
The Lions have invested in their offensive line, but with mixed results. The team is averaging just 3.9 yards a carry with a season long of 32 by backup QB Daunte Culpepper and has allowed 26 sacks. The Lions have experience in nine-year veterans Jeff Backus at left tackle and Dominic Raiola at center, but the other three players are young. The veterans sandwich third-year left guard Manny Ramirez (not that Manny "being Manny" Ramirez). On the right side, tackle Gosder Cherilus is in just his second season and guard Stephen Peterman is a five-year vet. This group has been overwhelmed at times, and depth is pretty thin with versatile Daniel Loper backing up at both guard and tackle positions. Cherilus will be a player to watch since he and Jared Allen have an ongoing feud after Allen accused Cherilus of trying to injure him last year on a play in which Cherilus lunged from the ground at Allen's knees when he wasn't prepared. The last thing the Lions really need to do is get the Vikings defensive line angry, but it looks like they've accomplished that.
As rough as the Lions offense has been, its defense has fared little better. Consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in many key categories. The defense has allowed opposing teams to score 26 or more points in six of their eight games and the only two who didn't were offensively challenged St. Louis and Washington. The defense has been lit up for 19 touchdown passes and opposing quarterbacks have a season long passer rating of an amazing 107.3. To complicate matters, the Lions are allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, meaning teams can gash them different ways.
With most defenses, you can tell the success of lack of it by looking up front. The Lions have patched together a defensive front. When training camp began, it was envisioned the starting four would be Dewayne White, Grady Jackson, Chuck Darby and Cliff Avril. The lineup the Vikings will see will only include Jackson in the middle and Avril at right end. At left end will be Turk McBride, a fourth-year pro claimed off waivers from Kansas City earlier this season, and at tackle will be fourth-round rookie Sammie Lee Hill. Going up against a powerful Vikings offensive line, this group is going to have a difficult time pressuring Brett Favre and stopping Peterson in the running game. Avril has pass-rush ability from the outside, but plays soft and takes himself out of too many plays. Jackson is still a force in the middle, but age and injuries have diminished his skills and he has been nowhere near an adequate a replacement for Shaun Rogers. White has been battling injuries but may see some time at end, as well as Andre Fluellen in the middle, but this is a group that has underachieved and is one of the primary reasons the Lions have struggled this year.
The linebackers are clearly the strength of Detroit's defense, but injuries have taken a toll. Big free-agent signee Larry Foote has played well in the middle, but both he and leading tackler Ernie Sims missed practice this week, and Foote's availability for Sunday with a knee injury remains in question. One thing that is certain is that Sims has already been ruled out. If both can't play, the Lions will be greatly shorthanded and undermanned. The only healthy linebacker is former All-Pro Julian Peterson. Although injuries have taken a toll on him, he can still make big plays and, when teamed with Foote and Sims, they create an impressive LB trio. However, if Foote and Sims can't play, he will be lined up next to second-year pro Jordon Dizon (who is questionable with a neck injury), third-round rookie DeAndre Levy and/or former Viking Vinny Ciurciu. The inexperience of Dizon and Levy and ineffectiveness of Ciurciu could create enormous mismatches that the Vikings can take advantage of with Favre moving them out of position with motion and pump fakes and creating the chance for big gains on slants across the middle and going after Visanthe Shiancoe down the deep seam. If Foote and Sims can play, this unit can hold up its end of the bargain. If they're not, it becomes a huge weakness for the Lions.
The secondary has been lit up for 2,200 yards and 16 touchdowns this year and seeing Favre this week isn't likely to make those numbers improve. Journeyman William James, who spent the previous three seasons with the Giants, Eagles and Jaguars, has started six games and has an interception return for a touchdown. But he has been beaten deep too many times for big plays. At the other corner, eight-year veteran Phillip Buchanon has decent man skills but has struggled with consistency. Anticipated starter Anthony Henry fills in at post corner positions and as a nickel back in three-receiver sets, but he has been a big disappointment since coming over from Dallas in a trade. Another player plucked from the NFL dung heap is starting safety Ko Simpson, who was released by Buffalo and picked up by Detroit to be a starter. He lines up opposite rookie Louis Delmas. The first pick in the second round of April's draft, Delmas is still learning the game but is showing flashes of being a playmaker and is earning a reputation for making the occasional highlight-film hit on a receiver. Veteran Marquand Manuel serves as the third safety.
There is little reason not to understand why the Lions are 1-7 and have won just once since 2007. They are a lackluster team that has patched together players let go or unwanted by other organizations and the chemistry hasn't developed in nearly every instance. The team has future stars in Stafford, Johnson, Smith and Sims, but there are too many holes on both sides of the ball to think that they will cover the massive 16½-point spread – much less have a realistic chance of winning the game.
Preview: Talent shortage in Detroit
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