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Vikings vs Lions: 10 Keys to the Game for Detroit

Dean HoldenAnalyst IJanuary 1, 2015

Vikings vs Lions: 10 Keys to the Game for Detroit

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    A month ago, this looked like an easy win. A throwaway game. No special implications in the NFC North divisional race.

    Now, this is a critical game for the Lions to go into their bye week at 2-2 and (depending on how the Bears do against the Cowboys on Monday night) possibly hold a share of the NFC North lead.

    More importantly, it is a game for the Lions to not fall to 1-3, only to spend two weeks surrounded by doomsayers.

    Granted, that probably has a lot to do with my personally not wanting to hear calls for the heads of Jim Schwartz, Martin Mayhew, Scott Linehan, Gunther Cunningham, Matthew Stafford and anyone else perceived to be in a position of influence with the Lions. The team itself probably doesn't care all that much about what the media says, but it would still rather get a win than a loss.

    Especially when the team you're facing just dominated the team that dominated you.

    So here are the keys to the game, in which the Lions attempt to re-establish some credibility and wipe out a disappointing start to the season.

Do Not Change the Game Plan, Regardless of Quarterback

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    I have relative confidence that Matthew Stafford will be fine to start against the Vikings this Sunday.

    Lost in Stafford's frequent injury woes is the fact that he plays through a lot of pain on a fairly regular basis. If pain is the only thing standing in Stafford's way and there's no chance of aggravating his injury, he'll play and take the bye week to heal up.

    But in the event that I'm wrong, Shaun Hill will start in Stafford's place, and the extent to which the Lions should adjust their game plan is approximately zero.

    There is no doubt that Stafford is the more talented quarterback, and I'm not suggesting that Hill can do everything Stafford can. But as far as the game plan goes, Hill can make the throws Stafford can, just not as fast or as hard.

    More importantly, Hill has basically as much experience running this offensive system as Stafford does. There is no reason to dumb anything down. If Stafford starts, run the game plan. If Hill starts, run the same gameplan.

No More Playing with Fire

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    The Lions have beaten the Vikings for three straight games dating back to the last game of the 2010 season, but they sure haven't made it easy on themselves.

    Last year, the Lions needed a 20-point comeback in the second half to win their first game and a blown facemask call (pictured) during a last-second comeback drive to win the other.

    Of course, the Lions didn't really make any of their games easy last year. They let weaker teams hang around with them (or just jump out to big leads) and hung around themselves with stronger ones until they ran out of time.

    That trend has been mirrored thus far this year, with the Lions' only win thus far coming on a last-minute touchdown against the St. Louis Rams.

    The Lions could have beaten the Titans in overtime, but engineering a 14-point comeback in the final minute of game time is not exactly taking the easy or standard route to victory anyway. Maybe they can play a more controlled, less heart attack-inducing game of football this week.

'All Day?' More Like 'Someday'

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    To this point in the season, the Lions' tackling has been inconsistent, to put it kindly.

    To this point in his career, Adrian Peterson has had a lot of fun playing the Detroit Lions.

    That's not a particularly good sign here, especially since Peterson looks healthy through three games. Granted, the Lions have beat the Vikings three straight games, and Peterson was healthy for two of those as well.

    But in those two games, Peterson ran for 109 yards. Combined. On 31 carries.

    In the game before that, Peterson ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries, and the Vikings won 24-10.

    Coincidence? I'm guessing no. If Peterson runs wild, the Vikings are very much in this game, to put it mildly.

Find, and Apply, the Pass Rush

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    Part of the reason Jake Locker shredded the Lions defense for almost 400 yards is that the Lions secondary is atrocious and can't reliably cover anyone.

    But perhaps a much bigger part of it is that Locker was not sacked, rarely hit and basically in no hurry all day.

    The Titans offensive line (which admittedly may be among the league's best) stonewalled the pass rush all day, and Locker was not only kept clean, but given all the time he needed to pick the Lions defense apart.

    Christian Ponder is now working into his own comfort zone, and the last thing the Lions need to do is facilitate that like they did for Locker.

    That means the secondary has to play better, but that isn't the unit with the expectations. The defensive line is the unit with the first-round picks, the franchise player and the big contracts. They need to play up to it, and fast.

Tackle People

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    One thing Titans fans won't be able to do this week is blame Chris Johnson's woes on a lack of touches.

    Johnson took 33 carries from scrimmage against the Lions to the tune of 45 yards. The 1.4 yards per carry was actually an improvement on his season average.

    Unfortunately for the Lions, Johnson was the only Titans ball handler to go down on first contact all day.

    It was an atrocious display of tackling all around, never more apparent than on this play (take note also of a complete lack of pressure on Locker).

    Missed tackles are what big plays are born from. The Titans had nothing but big plays against the Lions. Put it together.

Feed Mikel Leshoure

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    Well, if there's ever a positive to be taken from a loss, it's that the Lions have a running game now.

    Mikel Leshoure, as it turns out, is awesome. Or maybe that's just years of inadequacy talking, but a number of times last Sunday, I could only shake my head and say, "that's just good, tough running."

    And it occurred to me that it was the first time I said that with any regularity about a Lions running back.

    It's too early to induct Leshoure to the Hall of Fame or anything, but if his performance against the Titans is any indication, he's a better option than anything the Lions have had in a very long time (Jahvid Best included, as actual rushing is concerned).

    The Vikings run defense was among the league's best for many years, and it is 12th thus far this season (the Lions are 11th). But if the Lions remained committed to the run against the league's best run defense (49ers) with Kevin Smtih, they have no reason to shy away from it with Leshoure against Minnesota.

Practice Special Teams a Lot

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    The Titans sideline looked like this a bunch of times last weekend, so I can't say which time it was specifically.

    There's a good chance it was during the Titans' kick return touchdown. Or maybe their punt return touchdown.

    It could have been either of those, and that is a problem.

    The Lions' special teams coverage has been a Jekyll/Hyde unit dating all the way back to last season (at least). They come up huge against the 49ers, then effectively give away the game against the Titans.

    I don't know what is causing those lapses. I would have blamed the Titans' Music City Miracle trickery and just given the Titans a hat-tip for getting one over on the Lions, but then they proceeded to run back a 105-yard kick return.

    The Vikings don't need any more help with scoring than what they're likely to get from the Lions defense, so it would help if the Lions could keep kick returns on the right side of the 50-yard line.

Continue Passing the Ball to Nate Burleson

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    All those people who thought Nate Burleson should be a salary cap casualty before the season started should feel pretty silly right about now.

    Burleson isn't exactly tearing up the field, but he appears to be the most reliable option the Lions have outside of Calvin Johnson. At least that's what his 10 receptions against the Titans seem to suggest.

    Of course, the problem with Burleson is that he posts a great, productive performance in one game, then disappears in the next. The solution to that is to keep sending him the ball.

    You might be wondering why I'm not suggesting that a key to the game is to give the ball to the Lions' best player, Calvin Johnson.

    Simply put, that should be a given at this point. That's not a key to the Lions beating the Vikings, it's a key to the Lions offense functioning on any level against any team.

    Besides that, the real challenge isn't just to get Johnson involved, it's to get everyone else involved so that Johnson's inevitable triple-teams don't stifle the rest of the offense, too.

    The Lions might also consider getting Titus Young going too, but Burleson is the one coming off the 10-reception game, and I'm a believer in playing the hot hand.

Be on Your Best Behavior

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    While there are still some sticking points in negotiations, it would appear that the regular referees are on the way back to the NFL, potentially as soon as this week.

    It's hard telling what to expect from the regular refs when they make it back on the field because the replacement ref fiasco has become such a spectacle that the refs' first week back in action is likely to be magnified and scrutinized every bit as much as the replacement refs themselves were.

    What will be the result of this? More penalties? Less? Will the refs be rusty too?

    There's no way to tell. The only thing we can say for sure is that there will probably be far fewer game-winning interceptions or 15-yard penalties marked off for 27 yards.

    But there's no way to tell how tightly or loosely the game will be called, so maybe the Lions ought to just play it safe and keep out of trouble this week.

Limit Big Plays by Tackling People

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    Calvin Johnson is ready to go out there and play defense himself.

    OK, not really, but that's what he's probably thinking here, as he spikes his towel on the ground in frustration at watching yet another Titan free-running ball-carrier.

    I cannot stress enough the importance of tackling, so much so that I've opted to devote two slides to the matter.

    And this comes mostly down to the secondary, because neither the defensive line nor the linebackers miss a lot of tackles. The linebacker corps, if anything, has been above average in tackling. To that end, they have yet to allow a 100-yard game by an opposing rusher this season, which is impressive considering they were up against Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Chris Johnson.

    This is why I'm not so concerned about the Lions being able to handle Adrian Peterson. It's still key that they do, no doubt, but the Lions run defense is, believe it or not, a confidence-inspiring unit thus far this season.

    That's not why the Lions lost to the Titans, though. The Lions lost to the Titans because they couldn't bring down Jared Cook after he caught a relatively routine pass over the middle.

    Jacob Lacey let a ball hit him right in the name and numbers, allowed Nate Washington to literally pluck it off his back and turned around looking for the ball while Washington streaked toward the end zone with it.

    Don't get me wrong, the tackling overall has been good this year, especially compared to years past. But a game full of relatively solid tackling form looks a lot worse when punctuated by 60-yard touchdown plays with awful or no tackling.

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