This game is vital to both the Lions and Vikings. The Lions are at the front of a tremendous turnaround but still well on the outside looking in of a playoff race. They cannot afford another loss within their division and are close to not being able to afford another loss at all if they want to make the playoffs.
The Vikings started off hot, but there were definitely flaws and they have become more pronounced during the last month.
While they have started better, for the most part, than people expected, the luster is fading from that start and fans—as well as the players—are frustrated.
This game is going to be hotly contested.
With Percy Harvin listed as doubtful for the game, it won't be easy for the Vikings.
They need this game though, and here's how they can get it.
When the Vikings are on Offense
At first glance, this looks like it all falls on Adrian Peterson.
Harvin may not play and even if he makes it in, how effective can he be expected to be? Add to it the amazing Invisible Kyle Rudolph, the uninspiring group of receivers not named Harvin and some shaky-at-best play from Christian Ponder and you have to think it's AD, all day.
Not so fast my friend.
Yes, Peterson will be a huge part of this offensive game plan. For all the reasons above and more, Peterson has to have a good game.
However, the Lions know that and will key on him. A lot. Sure, he has faced stacked fronts most of his professional life, but against the Lions it's a little hard to rely only on him. Too many things can go wrong, not the least of which is—if you get into a deficit—it's hard to run back out of it.
You need to throw. And the Lions want you to throw because they—like many other teams—know there is little depth to the receivers.
As an NFL scout said in Tom Pelissero's breakdown of the offensive issues, teams know that they don't have good depth at receiver and that they aren't built to throw the ball as much as they can run it.
That's not going to change in many respects this year. You can't do much to bolster a receiving corps in season; and really in a rebuilding team, often you have more holes than corks.
This year they couldn't attack all the holes they had via draft or free agency. They did what they could, and will continue working this offseason.
But for now, the Vikings need to work at getting Ponder to settle down and get the ball to other players, further from the line than his usual 5-10 yard passes.
Yes, despite the issues Ponder has had, he needs to throw the ball and throw those intermediate passes they've been avoiding.
Harvin or not, they need to get the ball away from the line of scrimmage.
The Lions are going to focus on Peterson and make Ponder beat them through the air.
So that's what he has to do. Because they will try to make him do it anyway.
Which requires two things from the offense as a whole:
1) The receivers have to get open.
Great quarterbacks throw their receivers open sometimes. Whether Ponder will be a great quarterback or not remains to be seen but he's not one now.
So the receivers, shockingly enough, have to get open. Run better routes, run to space—basically, make some plays.
The coaching staff needs to help here too. If these guys can't get open in the routes you are using then come up with routes that play to whatever strengths they have.
Insofar as the issue with Rudolph, part of it is on him and part of it is a determination on the part of defenses to take him out of the play. While he may someday be able to beat coverage, he's not quite there now.
So getting the receivers to step their game up and pull coverage out of the area where Rudolph runs his routes is vital there as well.
2) Ponder has to settle down
In the article from Pelissero, an NFL scout says Ponder right now is a "one read, then run" kind of guy. He doesn't step into the pocket or climb the ladder. When his read is covered, he pulls down and scrambles, looking to buy time until someone gets open.
He needs to settle down and show more of the patience which was there in the first few games. He doesn't have to take sacks left and right, but there are times to take a sack or throw the ball away rather than force a bad pass, resulting into a turnover.
The Lions have issues in the secondary, though they also have a fierce pass rush.
If the Vikings can get some play-action going, the Lions are also vulnerable to getting over-aggressive and, as we saw in the first game as well as early part of the season, Detroit is vulnerable to a good tight end or fullback rub to take a rusher out of the play.
Ponder can do this—he has the tools. He just needs to settle down and remember he has them.
When the Vikings are on Defense
I think it's four weeks running that I've said this—but it still holds true.
The defense needs to be more physical.
It's true that from a technique standpoint, the defense has been lacking. Too many missed tackles and too many attempts at arm tackles as well. Yes, that has to be improved.
However, the entire unit needs to wrap up on tackles.
This is especially evident in the run defense. Sure they've met some great running backs like Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin, but they aren't really stopping anyone right now.
So that has to change. But it still comes back to also playing more physical.
Especially against Matt Stafford, who is not himself this year.
They need to hit him and take him down. They can't let him escape a tackle, like they allowed Russell Wilson to do last week, or Josh Freeman the week before.
They need to get after him and take him down. Get him nervous and get the happy feet he was showing even as recently as the loss to the Bears a few weeks back.
Stafford will make mistakes if he is uncomfortable and it is very easy to make him uncomfortable this season.
Item number two is this—don't just blanket Calvin Johnson.
You want to make sure you shut him down and he is going to be an issue if he is allowed to run about unchecked, but with the revelation that he's had some nerve damage and had issues catching the ball, he's not 100%.
As good as he is at 50%, it does mean two things: Other receivers have to step up, and you have to account for them.
Titus Young and Ryan Broyles have been inconsistent and yet to prove themselves players who will make the Vikings pay for focusing on Johnson, but there is no sense in tempting fate.
With Johnson hurt, the Lions have to spread the ball out, so any defensive game plan has to take that into account.
By making it very tough to find an open receiver, you will get back to making Stafford antsy and uncomfortable.
If the Vikings can do that, they can contain this offense and if they do that, they have an excellent shot at winning this.
On top of everything else, this is a home game and it is tough to win in the Metrodome. So, the Lions will have to contend with the noise on both sides of the ball, another thing which will make Stafford's life harder.
This is a game the Vikings have to win—and one that is a chance to turn the season back around.
I expect the Vikings to do both of those things this Sunday, but they will need to get back to playing exceptional football again to do it.
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