The Minnesota Vikings open the regular season against the Detroit Lions, a team they have dominated during their 52 years in the NFL. Despite having a 68-33-2 record against the Motor City Kitties, the Lions have won three of the last six meetings.
This will be a good test for the Vikings to see if they have what it takes to make a return trip to the playoffs: a division road game against a Lions team looking to prove their 4-12 record from last season was an aberration.
These two teams make an interesting comparison. Over the last two seasons, they have taken turns going 10-6 and finishing second to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. In 2011, the Lions made the playoffs as a wild-card team after winning only eight games the previous two seasons combined. Last season the Vikings earned the wild-card berth after winning only nine games in 2010 and 2011 combined.
The key offensive weapons for both teams in this game are considered to be among the best at their positions.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Calvin Johnson finished 2012 as the fourth-best wide receiver in the league, and Peterson was the top-ranked running back. Both players had exceptional seasons last year. Johnson set the single-season receiving mark with 1,964 receiving yards, and Peterson finished with 2,097 rushing yards, the second-highest total in NFL history.
Both players joined the league in 2007 as their respective teams' top draft choices. The Lions selected Johnson second overall and the Vikings grabbed Peterson with the seventh pick. Looking at their stats, Peterson has been more effective with 80 career touchdowns compared to 55 for Johnson.
The following two tables chronicle each player's performance within this rivalry.
Here's a look at what the Vikings need to game-plan for in this Week 1 matchup against the Lions.
When the Vikings have the ball...
This is a simple call—huddle, snap the ball, give it to Peterson and repeat.
When the Lions swept the season series in 2011, it was the first time they had done so since 1997. Peterson only played in the first game against the Lions that year. He finished with only 78 yards on 17 carries, an average of 4.59 yards per carry—the lowest average he's ever had in a year against the Lions.
Last season, when the Vikings won both games, he averaged 24 carries and 5.69 yards per carry—the most carries in a season he's had against the Lions.
That confirms the plan to give the ball to Peterson—a lot.
It's a matchup that favors the Vikings. Last season the Lions finished 16th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed.
Last season, the Vikings offense had a split personality—they finished with the second-best rushing offense, and the 31st passing offense. The Vikings averaged only 171.9 yards per game passing and 164.6 yards rushing. While that's nearly a 50-50 split, most NFL teams have a much greater percentage of their offense coming through the air.
Because of Christian Ponder's struggles at quarterback last season, the Vikings' running game was their quick-strike offense. In 2012, their longest passing play of the season was a 65-yard completion from Ponder to Jarius Wright in Week 17 against the Packers. Their longest running play came in Week 4 when Peterson broke off an 80-yard touchdown against the Lions.
Once the Vikings get Peterson going on offense, it will open things up for the play-action passing game. Many people might think the key here will be either Greg Jennings or Cordarrelle Patterson, the two newest Vikings to the receiving corps—but they would be wrong.
The key to the passing game will be Ponder's favorite target—tight end Kyle Rudolph, especially when they get in the red zone.
Rudolph led the Vikings with nine touchdowns last season, and with defenses needing to pay a little more attention to Jennings and Patterson, that will open things up for Rudolph.
Let Peterson take on the bulk of the offensive responsibility, carrying the team into the red zone, chewing up yards as well as clock, and let the Ponder-to-Rudolph connection work to score touchdowns.
When the Lions have the ball...
On paper this is also an easy call—stop Johnson.
B/R's Lead NFL Writer Matt Miller explains how in his portion of the Week 1 Pigskin Preview. Miller suggests using a Bracket Coverage, sliding a safety, most likely Harrison Smith, over the top on the side that Johnson lines up on.
Miller also points out using a big cornerback to cover Johnson—and that's exactly how the Vikings have built their defensive backfield. Chris Cook, who will mostly likely get the assignment to slow down Johnson, is 6'2" and 212 pounds, and rookie Xavier Rhodes is 6'1" and 215 pounds.
On the following play, Josh Robinson, 5'10" and 199 pounds, has the task of covering Johnson.
His first mistake is trying to jam Johnson on the line. Instead Robinson allows Johnson to get inside and behind him.
On this play, safety Smith ends up making the tackle, but not until Johnson is 24 yards downfield.
Look for the Vikings to play off Johnson in an attempt to take away the deep pass and use Cook or Rhodes primarily against him.
The Vikings are also going to have to account for new Lions running back Reggie Bush. In his five years with the Saints, he had more receiving yards than rushing yards—2,090 rushing yards and 2,142 receiving yards.
The last two seasons with the Dolphins, he was used much more as a running back than a receiver. In two seasons with Miami, he gained as many yards on the ground as he did in five with the Saints. He averaged twice as many carries and a 33.7 percent reduction in receptions—averaging 58.8 with the Saints and 39 with the Dolphins.
A lot of that could be due to the quarterbacks in Miami, Matt Moore and Ryan Tannehill.
With a better quarterback in Stafford, look for Bush to once again become a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
The key to stopping Bush will fall onto the linebackers—Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell. Perhaps Mitchell will have some insight, having played in New Orleans from 2007 to 2010 when Bush was there.
The Vikings will need to put pressure on Stafford in order to prevent him from having time to find Johnson downfield or check down to Bush out of the backfield.
The key to that pressure is Jared Allen. During his record-setting season in 2011, when he recorded 22 sacks, six of them came against Detroit. If he can come up with three sacks this Sunday, then the Vikings will be in good shape.
The Vikings are going to need Allen to be as tenacious as he was on the following play.
The Lions line up a tight end on Allen's side to help.
Allen takes on the double-team and is able to provide pressure on the inside.
Flushing Stafford out of the pocket, Allen is able to catch him and earn the sack—the best way to keep Johnson and Bush from beating you.
It's a simple game plan. Give the ball to Peterson and win the time of possession battle—that keeps the ball out of Johnson's and Bush's hands.
On defense, put pressure on Stafford and keep him from completing passes. If he's on his back, then he cannot do any damage.