The Lions are on the road to play the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10 of the 2012 NFL season, and there are critical keys that will dictate the outcome of this game. After a nightmarish 1-3 start to the season, the Lions have rebounded well and have clawed their way back into NFC playoff contention.
At 4-4, the Lions are still playing for their playoff lives each and every week, and this NFC North matchup is enormous for each team. The Lions are trending in a positive direction behind exceptionally strong play from young quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Vikings are struggling right now as quarterback Christian Ponder is playing through a sophomore slump.
The Lions have won three of their last four and have found their stride at a critical time of the season. The Vikings started the season strongly, but they have lost three of their last four and are sliding in the wrong direction. Both teams are banged up, but the loss of wide receiver Percy Harvin seriously limits what the Vikings' passing game will be able to do, and it helps the Lions chances of winning on the road.
Let’s look at the 10 keys to the game for the Detroit Lions.
The Minnesota Vikings have the league’s best running back carrying the ball for them in Adrian Peterson. He is a monster, and easily the NFL’s most physical running back.
He is rolling right now.
The Lions are ranked No. 14 in rush defense in 2012. They are yielding 4.3 yards per carry, but they have only given up two rushing touchdowns on the ground.
Peterson has reeled off three games in a row with 120+ yards and at least one touchdown. He has registered 1,107 total yards in nine games. It is clear Peterson is the Vikings' entire offense, especially with wide receiver Percy Harvin doubtful to play on Sunday.
The Lions must limit Peterson’s big play ability by gang tackling and stopping him before he gets started in the backfield. That means the Lions defensive interior must penetrate their gaps quickly and wrap up Peterson before he can make a cut and run away from the Lions defense.
From a Lions perspective, stopping Peterson is the most important thing they can do to put the team in a position to win this game.
The Lions have trailed in the majority of their games in 2012. They have trailed at the half in seven-of-eight games, with the exception being last week against the Jaguars.
The Vikings are limited offensively, as they struggle to throw the ball. They are ranked No. 30 in the NFL in passing offense, and they are missing their most electric player in Harvin. Without Harvin, it's hard to see the Vikings moving the ball with their passing attack.
If the Lions can get a lead and force the Vikings to have to come back through the air, they can get the ball out of Peterson’s hands. This also takes pressure off the Lions passing attack as they can run the ball and take time off of the clock, shortening the game.
The Vikings most feared defensive weapon is defensive end Jared Allen. Throughout his career, he has made life tough for left tackle Jeff Backus and Matthew Stafford. Allen has a very positive history against the Lions.
It is an understatement to say the Lions' offensive priority is to keep Stafford upright and healthy by keeping Allen away from him. The Lions offense is playing very well over the past month, and the offensive line has a big part in that.
The line is performing very well right now, but it will get a tough challenge Sunday from Allen. Limiting Allen’s production is one of the keys to the game.
The Lions have an enormous advantage on offense as they have weapons everywhere for Stafford. There isn’t enough personnel in the Vikings' secondary to stay with all of the talent the Lions can line up, especially if the Lions spread out the offense.
The Lions can target any of their wide receivers and either of their tight ends against the Vikings. It would be a smart move for the Lions to get all of the skill players quickly involved on Sunday. The Lions passing offense is ranked No. 1 in the NFL, averaging 307.2 passing yards per game.
Rookie wide receiver Ryan Broyles is a chain-mover, and he will see a lot of targets. Second-year receiver Titus Young erupted in Week 8, but crashed back to Earth in Week 9. He has an opportunity to have a very big game considering the way teams like to take away Calvin Johnson.
The primary reason the Lions lost to the Vikings at home earlier in 2012 is because of special teams. The Lions gave up kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns, spotting the Vikings 14 points in a tight NFC North game.
If the Lions are to have any chance to win the game in Minnesota, they can’t give away any points because of poor special teams play. This is going to be a tightly contested game, and the Lions need every point they can get in Week 10.
One of the ways the Lions offense can make things easier on itself is to run the ball efficiently. That does not mean they need to run for 150 yards. They need to run for a good average to put the offense in short yardage situations where Stafford can take a few shots down the field.
The Lions are No. 22 in rushing offense in 2012. They are averaging 4.1 yards per carry, but they have scored 10 touchdowns via the ground game this year. The Lions have been effective running the ball in 2012.
If the Lions can run the ball well enough to keep the Vikings defense honest, they will be in good shape. An efficient running game will help open the defense up via the play-action pass. If the Vikings' safeties have to help defend the run, they won’t be able to play as deep as they want to play.
That could mean really good things for the Lions deep passing attack.
Matthew Stafford struggled early this season with completing short passes on third down. He has significantly improved in this area over the past two weeks.
Through six weeks, Stafford was 19-41 on third downs needing three to eight yards. He is 10-13 over the past two weeks, and it comes as no surprise the Lions' offense has really improved.
This will be one of the areas that will dictate the outcome of the game. The Lions will be in good shape if Stafford continues his high level of play by completing passes on third down.
The NFC North is one of the league’s best divisions, and road games are very tough to win. This means that points will be at a premium and the Lions need to come away with touchdowns from every trip they make to the red zone.
According to ESPN.com, Stafford is completing 43.5 percent of his passes in the red zone on 2012. This number is not nearly good enough, and it is an area where the Lions need Stafford to be much better over the second half of the season.
The Lions need this win against the Vikings, and they will need every point possible in Week 10.
The Lions' defensive line has been up and down in 2012. When the defensive line is getting pressure and making the quarterback throw the ball early, the Lions' defense looks pretty imposing. This is a big, nasty defensive line that can change a game in an instant.
If the Lions can get up in this game, it could mean a very long day for Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder. If the Lions' defensive line can physically manhandle the Vikings' offensive line and pressure Ponder, the Lions will be in great shape.
The Lions are ranked No. 7 in total defense in 2012. They are doing a great job against the run and the pass. The Lions can put themselves in a situation where they are at an advantage if they can get the Vikings into situations where they have to throw the ball.
It is always helpful when a team gets a turnover and the Lions are in a situation where they could get a few in this game. The Lions have a gigantic advantage over the Vikings pass offense because of their No. 8 ranked pass defense.
This is a key matchup as the Lions look to take advantage of a weakened Vikings pass offense with its pass rush.