The NFC North enters Week 4 shaken up, with a team that was in the basement sitting atop the division and playoff darlings from last year working to prove that they are better than their record.
The Minnesota Vikings will have a challenge when they travel to Detroit, where they'll confront the stars of Ford Field as 4.5-point underdogs.
That doesn't tell the whole story, however, as some of the most predictive statistics give a small (six percent) edge to the Vikings, even after accounting for home-field advantage. The Vikings stand as a much more efficient team, standing 10 ranks higher in common efficiency scores, a surprising place for a team that just two weeks ago felt they were on a long and bumpy road.
Nevertheless, while past performance can give us a glimpse into the future, the game still needs to be played on the field. The Vikings still haven't proven they can achieve consistent success, and their Week 2 loss to the Colts is still hanging over their heads, even as they shoot up the power rankings.
The Vikings have clearly established an identity as a ball-control team on offense. On defense, the Vikings are still finding ways to establish themselves, but strong play from their linebackers has allowed them to be relatively consistent in stopping the run and the pass. They rank 13th against the run and eighth against the pass.
The Vikings have several markers they'll have to hit to be successful against the Lions. While some are more important that others, all should be goals heading into Sunday's game.
Here they are.
Christian Ponder has thrown for four touchdowns. But even more important, he has not thrown an interception. His ability to make the safe play is largely responsible for his high QB rating of 104.9.
He still hasn't completed a pass of more than 30 yards, and that's just fine with him and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Vikings' conservative approach has kept them in every game, regardless the strength of the opponent.
The return of the athletic wide receiver Jerome Simpson shouldn't change that. Minnesota should be prepared to put the game on Adrian Peterson's and Percy Harvin's shoulders once more.
Minnesota's offense has been marked by efficiency more than anything else. Musgrave has done a fantastic job manufacturing yards by making small tweaks to simple plays.
For the third week in a row, the Vikings will be playing an opponent that relies on man coverage, although Detroit tends to play their corners off the receivers quite a bit more. The cushion on many of these plays is five yards.
Given the relatively slow reaction times of their safeties (particularly John Wendling), Detroit hasn't had great closing speed in situations where they have needed extra help.
The 49ers had success with bubble screens against the Lions because of this cushion, and the Vikings could rely on their already established short passing game to exploit that cushion even more.
Aside from Chris Houston, the Lions lack closing speed in the secondary, a weakness the Vikings are built to exploit.
Beyond that, there should be more yards after the catch against the Lions than there were against the sure-tackling 49ers, against whom Percy Harvin, the league leader in YAC, had 71, 7.9 per catch.
His ability to force missed tackles will match up well with a Lions secondary whose corners rank out of the top 50 in total tackles. Two of those corners rank in the bottom 25 in tackles per snap.
Given that context, it's particularly worrisome for the Lions that their safeties both rank outside of the top 20 in total tackles.
There are several ways the Vikings can take advantage of the cushion offered by Detroit's defensive backs and their low tackle count, but the easiest are the ways it already took advantage of some of the 49ers' and Jaguars' looks:
- Continue throwing bubbles and screens to Percy Harvin;
- Showcase a few of the play-action swing passes that they debuted against the 49ers;
- Run hard slants inside on three-step drops in order to reduce defensive reaction time'
- Flood the flats with receivers every so often, including fullback Jerome Felton and the running backs.
The Vikings are known as a Tampa-2 team. That is a team that relies on two deep safeties splitting the field outside the hashes while a middle linebacker occupies the middle third of the deep field.
But this season, the Vikings have rarely run looks with two deep safeties and have run the Tampa-2 base coverage even less.
Instead, they have run a mix of man and zone coverage, sometimes implementing shell covers deep in order to prevent the big play. The Vikings have run deep quarters, Cover 3 (an even split of the three deep zones), a mix of quarters and Cover 2—a modified Cover 3 in which a cornerback and safety split one side of the field, while the other safety roams the other, much bigger zone.
Most often, however, the Vikings have played a Cover 1 look, with only one safety up high to prevent the deep play.
The Vikings may play Cover 1 much less than usual in order to better bracket the explosive threat of Calvin Johnson, but they should still stick to their core concepts.
That means they should stick with their rotation of coverage underneath the safeties in order to execute creative blitz packages, including the Cover 3 concept that includes three zones underneath to allow a linebacker like Chad Greenway to blitz.
The Vikings should also continue with safety and corner exchanges, defensive back blitzes and the zone exchange/zone blitz concepts they've been deploying for a few years.
They need to be careful with the last bit, however, because linemen dropping into coverage can be easily diagnosed after several passing attempts. Letroy Guion was exposed at least once against the Colts doing this, so the Vikings can't get too greedy. The point is to confuse the quarterback's read of shirts in space, not to provide a nice target in coverage.
The last part of the Tampa-2 philosophy that the Vikings have not abandoned is emphasis on preventing yards after the catch—their underneath zones are 8-12 yards away from the line of scrimmage (where nearly every route breaks), and defenders use their closing speed (which Josh Robinson, Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook have in spades) to make big hits and prevent the receivers from gaining additional yardage.
Quarterbacks who excel as short passers will find ways to exploit these coverage patterns, but Stafford has not been as successful outside the hashes on short passes, throwing three interceptions in these situations, and racking up extremely low yards after the catch.
He's had 4.8 yards per attempt in this scenario. By comparison, Tom Brady has 6.1 yards per attempt in this situation, Peyton Manning has 9.1, Drew Brees has 5.25 and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has 5.
If the Vikings can find ways to confuse coverage, limit deep threats at least marginally and force short throws, they should come out ahead in the matchup.
The Detroit Lions have not been particularly stellar against the run. They allowed Frank Gore 5.2 yards per carry. Still, their ability to limit Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson should not be ignored, with Jackson only managing 2.5 yards per carry and Chris Johnson only 1.7 yards per carry.
Neither of those running backs are as talented as Adrian Peterson, but what may win the day for the Vikings is the blocking up front. With the Lions' Corey Williams gone due to a knee injury, expect Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and Sammie Lee Hill to play many more snaps.
It's not just Suh who is susceptible to trap blocks and wham blocks (something that San Francisco proved is still true), the entire defensive line gets stymied by quick blocking assignment changes by the offensive line and fullbacks.
Neither Tennessee nor St. Louis attempted much more than simple man or zone blocking schemes, and the quick penetration of the Lions' dynamic line put an end to a few runs much too early for comfort.
San Francisco, on the other hand, had linemen trade off traditional assignments, pulled linemen from across the formation, left unusual players unblocked (including Suh on one occasion) and shifted linemen before the snap.
That, in addition to fullback and tight end cues, made attacking the run difficult for the Lions.
The Vikings can engage in some relatively complex blocking calls on the run, despite the young members on the line. While not nearly as sophisticated as the 49ers running offense, the new combination of man- and zone-blocking schemes has confused some opponents.
Each week, the communication between Vikings linemen has been improving, so on zone running plays, they can get to the second level and isolate the linebackers to secure the big gain.
With running packages that include a "full house" formation (three men in the backfield in a diamond formation), single-back formations (including a single-back heavy package with three tight ends), a near and far "Pro" set (with a single running back lined up a few yards back over a guard), and chowed sets (with running backs lined up on the outside leg of the tackles), they have a number of ways to attack the run, not all of which are predictable.
The biggest issue has been that the Vikings have been inconsistent as run-blockers, both from tight ends and the offensive line. A small sample might reveal that the Vikings do much better against 4-3 fronts, but that doesn't fit with their running performance in 2011.
The Vikings are still waiting to find out which Brandon Fusco they have—the phenomenal run-blocker from Week 1, or the ineffectual body in Week 3.
More than that, they might not be able to run the complex schemes that freeze the Lions defense if they don't improve on the level of communication they had against the 49ers—they had a poor understanding of their responsibilities.
Still, it's generally a cohesive line that should get things done.
The Vikings should emphasize their unpredictability in the running game by playing with different run- blocking schemes under the same formation. More than anything, this will help move the chains in tough situations.
One advantage to the Lions secondary scheme is that they'll play their off coverage on the outside shade of the receiver, as they try to force receivers inside where they take a beating from their linebackers. This also allows them to prevent deep threats that would stress the safety zones.
Unfortunately for Detroit, Minnesota has excelled against that approach in their past four games. Not only have they run slants inside, they have eschewed the outside comeback routes that they employed much more in 2011. While receivers will regularly go deep, Ponder has been content to make safer throws on the same half of the field.
Receivers have been effective at 15-yard dig routes, hard and soft slants off the release and nearly every slot route.
With how closely to the line the Lions linebackers typically set themselves at the snap, there are opportunities to take advantage of the space in the middle of the field.
Not only that, Ponder can do more to lead his receivers without having to worry as much about cornerbacks jumping the route.
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph lived off the seam in the preseason, but still hasn't found much in the way of targets on these routes. He might want to do that again, because the Lions will typically assign a linebacker—usually DeAndre Levy—to tight ends who line up as receivers in the slot.
The Lions were willing to do this with Vernon Davis and got burned, and Rudolph should be able to do the same and still find the holes in the deep zone.
There are a couple of route concepts that either clear the middle or exploit the nature of Detroit's coverage:
- Hard slants off the release and soft slants that break four or five yards in;
- Curl routes, so long as receivers continue to high point the ball;
- Levels concepts, where receivers will run similar routes across the middle, but 8-12 yards distant from each other—this should make tight passing windows lower risk, because the underneath defenders will have to turn 180 degrees to make a play on the ball;
- Picks and rubs from bunched formations, which should leave at least one cornerback out to dry if done properly. The team has a number of skilled route runners, including Harvin, Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins.
Discipline and focus are potential game-killers for the Vikings. Penalties are usually surprisingly consistent across games for teams. That the Vikings committed 11 penalties against the Colts while only committing one against the 49ers is pretty astounding.
That good run has to continue if the Vikings want to stay successful. The difference between one penalty and 10 over the course of the game is about 100 total yards, a huge difference-maker.
Not only that, penalties kill momentum and flow. An offense that has a minor victory like moving the chains taken away because of a holding call may be frustrated or winded.
The Lions are a particularly dangerous team to leave on the field, given their big-play capability. More than most teams, giving the Lions three more chances to convert the first down also means three more opportunities for them to find space deep with the ball.
Any defensive penalties that advance the chains will cost the Vikings, not just emotionally but on the scoreboard as well.
Penalties, however, are not the only markers of focus. The Vikings' defense has consistently had problems protecting a late lead. Whether it's a 39-yard touchdown or a 75-yard, game winning drive with 30 seconds left, the Vikings have too often played like they've already won the game late in the 4th quarter and it has cost them.
Even on offense, the Vikings didn't play well with the lead in San Francisco. The run-blocking was pretty abysmal late in the game and could be partially responsible for how easy it was for defenders to swarm Toby Gerhart and strip the ball three times.
Lackadaisical blocking along with unfocused coverage have made games closer than they should be. If they keep that up, the Vikings may find themselves subject to Lady Luck.
In Week 3 of the 2012 NFL season, Jared Allen finally got his first sack.
By Week 3 of the 2011 season, he had five.
At this point last year, the defensive line had 29 hurries, eight hits and nine sacks. The defensive ends started the year on fire in 2011. The defensive tackles had more pressures than most teams that year, too, despite what many thought of them.
This season, however, the defense line hasn't delivered quite the same production. It's kept up some of the pace with 27 pressures, but its sack total is an abysmal two. The good news is that it has exceeded its quarterback hit total from last year, with 10 as compared to eight.
Because pressures tell more of the story than sacks do (and are more consistent from game to game), Vikings fans can take heart that the defensive line will likely find itself dominant once more, although reaching 50 sacks might be asking too much.
Under pressure, Matt Stafford's completion rate dropped 22 percent in 2011. That has held true in 2012 as well, with his rate dropping 21.3 percent the last three weeks. As one of the few quarterbacks within striking distance of Ponder's completion rate, that is a critical part of this game.
Last year, half of Stafford's picks came under pressure, despite only having one-sixth of his attempts come under the threat of a sack.
Important also is that Stafford's yards after attempt has fallen by two yards, from 7.3 to 5.3.
But putting pressure on Stafford will be harder than people think. The Lions' offensive line is vastly underrated. Not only is it the deepest line in the league, with fantastic swingmen, it's the second-most efficient pass-blocking line in the league, having given up only 19 pressures in 142 passing plays.
In 2011, it was the fourth-most efficient at pass blocking and gave up the sixth-fewest sacks in 2010. That its quarterback keeps getting injured has less to do with what the line has given up, and more to do with Stafford's durability as a passer.
Still, Jared Allen relishes the chance to meet up with a divisional foe—half of the sacks Lions tackle Jeff Backus allowed in 2011 came from Allen, and Allen had 13.5 sacks against NFC North teams.
It will be important for the Vikings' defensive line to shake the funk it found itself in develop ways to generate pressure. The techniques haven't been poor, but the defensive linemen haven't been able to close the deal. Consistent play will eventually produce the sacks the Vikings need to upgrade their defense.