Vikings vs. Lions: Drawing Up a Game Plan for Detroit
The Lions are coming into this game off a very surprising loss to Tennessee, one which has raised some questions about both the defense as a whole and the offense's continued slow starts.
The Lions cannot afford to lose this game, as they are already last in the North. Falling to a division rival, especially one they are expected to beat, would be a huge blow to this team.
On the other hand, the improbable win by the Vikings against the 49ers will give this team a much-needed focal point for their efforts this Sunday. Expect the Vikings to duplicate much of what worked against the 49ers, while adding in some vertical routes to returning wide receiver Jerome Simpson.
The Lions have a good idea of what to expect from a Vikings team flying high after a big win.
Let's see what they might do about it.
When the Lions are on Offense
The Lions need to get Calvin Johnson involved early, and simply put, they can expect the Vikings to play Johnson very physically off the line to disrupt his routes.
There's only so much they can do to stop Johnson, but it would help the Lions if they did something to draw coverage away from him all the same.
To do that, the Lions can run the ball to force any linebacker or safety help to key on the run more frequently and spread the ball out to other receivers.
The second, they already do pretty frequently. Last week alone, they targeted three different receivers—Johnson, Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew—12 times each, while throwing to Titus Young another seven times and running backs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell five and four times, respectively.
They need to continue spreading the ball out. Burleson, Young and Johnson have both been very reliable and hauled in most of their passes to date, while Pettigrew has struggled a little more.
All are good weapons and can attack the Vikings' questionable secondary. If Minnesota decides to double-up Johnson, they will find Burleson or Young to make them pay. The Vikings do not have the players to cover all three wide receivers, and their linebackers are only OK in coverage, so Pettigrew could have a big day if he holds onto the ball.
While the Vikings sometimes deviate from their base Cover 2, they have been blending in aspects of everything from quarters to Cover 1. They'll try to confuse Stafford with multiple looks and try to free up the linebackers with mixed underneath coverage.
The Lions might be able to force them away from this if they can be successful against the linebackers and safeties across the middle and with shorter passes.
Of course, the Vikings' pass rush will try to get after Stafford, led by Jared Allen and Chad Greenway. The Lions' offensive lines played well last week in the loss to the Titans, especially at the tackles, but they will find another tough test this week. Protecting Stafford, especially with a banged up hip, is of paramount importance.
The solution to both the pass rush and Calvin Johnson coverage could lie in second-year running back Mikel Leshoure.
Despite a great first game against the Titans, Leshoure will find a more stout run defense in the Vikings and likely struggle early. However, the Lions should continue to pound the ball. This will make sure guys like Greenway can't just tee off on Stafford because they won't get hurt on the run.
Leshoure will also be on the field for third down, since he proved himself to be a pass-catching threat. Hitting him on screens, or on short routes out of the backfield, will disrupt the pass rush as well.
As I said when I preached running Adrian Peterson at a tough 49ers pass rush, this is a situation where you still need to run at the teeth of the defense.
The Vikings are a good team and feeling confident, but they have been up and down all season. They will come to play physically, so you need to respond in kind. Wear them down.
Break them with the run, as they broke San Francisco.
When the Lions Are on Defense
Last week's game ended with questions being raised about the pass rush, followed by news that the team had lost defensive tackle Corey Williams to knee surgery.
The Lions will have to have a few players step up to replace him. Heading the list are Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill.
Thus far, those players have been relatively quiet, but now, they have to step up their play especially against Peterson and this offensive line. If the interior plays soft, Peterson will kill them.
Both Hill and Fairley have had limited impact when on the field, so now, they will have to really improve their play.
The defensive line, when not countering Peterson, needs to get after Christian Ponder. The more he gets hit, the more frantic he gets and the worse his progression reads are. If they give him all day, the defense will find Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph on slants inside, dig routes and seams.
Rudolph is especially troublesome as a matchup on the seam routes, as the Lions like to line up their linebackers against tight ends in the slot and Rudolph is too big and athletic for that to be very effective.
So, the pass rush has to be effective.
One thing they will absolutely have to avoid is the tight end and fullback traps that teams—especially San Francisco—used to great effect a few weeks ago.
The Lions' defensive front is tremendously aggressive. This is a good thing, most of the time, but as has been shown this season, it can be a problem for the Lions as much as for the opposition.
So, they need to be more aware of the traps and more cognizant of how they can get sucked into dead areas, in case the Vikings try to replicate what has worked before.
The secondary is going to have its hands full for most of the day on high-percentage, shorter routes which the Vikings hope will turn into long gains after the catch.
The coverage has to be tight, and the secondary should aim to hit whomever catches the ball as soon as possible, not letting them gain the extra three or four yards they were able to against the 49ers.
While you can expect to see some more vertical routes with returning receiver Jerome Simpson, the Vikings are unlikely to push the envelope too much on that. They will keep to the high-percentage stuff which has been working, so far.
This way, the secondary can concentrate largely on the shorter routes and supporting the linebackers on the middle and crossing routes.
As I said up at the top, this is a vital game for the Lions, and they cannot afford to lose it. They will have to make sure they do not play sloppy or take it lightly because it—while not ending the season so early—would be a humongous setback.
The Vikings are likely to try and bring the physicality they showed against the Niners to Ford Field.
This is something the Lions will have to match early and often without getting too rough and drawing penalties which extend Vikings' drives or kill their own.
Leshoure has arrived just in time to add a vital dimension to this offense. That might be the edge it needs to finally get going early.
Given what happened to the 49ers last week, the Lions will want to play from ahead, not behind.
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