The Minnesota Vikings travel to Ford Field this coming Sunday for their season opener against the Detroit Lions. With a rocky preseason that concluded with a 1-3 record, the first regular-season kickoff of 2013 cannot arrive soon enough.
However, the challenge the Vikings face in Week 1 comes in the form of a division rival with an explosive offense, not to mention playing on the road where Minnesota finished 3-5 and was outscored 169-183 in 2012.
Although plenty of attention has been paid to the inconsistent play of quarterback Christian Ponder, the key to Sunday's matchup rests on the defense and whether the shuffled group of players can shut down the Lions offense.
The game plan heading into the Motor City must take Jim Schwartz's club seriously, despite the fact that the Vikings actually beat the Lions both times last season. As poor as Minnesota has been historically away from home, the team has had success in Detroit, finishing 7-3 over the last 10 years.
Let's take a look at what the Vikings defense must do to shut down the Detroit Lions in Week 1.
Limit Calvin Johnson
A task easier said than done, Calvin Johnson broke the NFL record for receiving yards last season with 1,962, eclipsing Jerry Rice's previous record of 1,848 set in 1995.
Megatron also set NFL records for eight straight games with at least 100 yards and four straight games of at least 10 receptions. He was prolific in deep passes, recording catches of 35 yards or more in eight games.
The Vikings defense will look to call upon a similar performance as seen in the team's first meeting with Detroit last year, where Johnson was limited to five receptions, 54 yards and no touchdowns.
Unfortunately, that did not become a trend in the two teams' next meeting where Johnson exploded for 12 receptions, 207 yards and one touchdown.
With Minnesota finishing 24th in the league last season in defending the pass, general manager Rick Spielman chose to draft a tall, physical cornerback in Xavier Rhodes to contend with the likes of Megatron in the NFC North. Combined with Chris Cook, the Vikings have two corners who match up well against Johnson in press coverage.
In fact, the main difference between the two games played against the Lions last season was that Cook was present in Johnson's 54-yard performance—stifling the league's best receiver in man-to-man coverage—but sat out in the second game with a broken arm, watching quietly from the sidelines as Megatron torched the Vikings secondary.
And although the smaller Josh Robinson will still likely get the start alongside Cook in the first few series of plays, expect the rookie Rhodes to begin cycling into the base 4-3 defensive scheme, as well as nickel and dime packages.
The other key to the Vikings limiting Johnson in the passing game will be safety help after a release upfield, specifically second-year standout Harrison Smith.
At free safety, it will be his job to cover space between the corners and the end zone, a difficult task against Johnson, who is one of the best at going up for a jump ball in traffic.
If the Vikings secondary can keep Johnson below 100 yards with no more than one touchdown, defensive coordinator Alan Williams and defensive backs coach Joe Woods should consider the first regular-season test a success.
Assignment Discipline on Reggie Bush
One of the newest members of the Detroit Lions, eight-year veteran Reggie Bush provides a versatile weapon for the Lions, a team that finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards in 2012.
In two years with the Miami Dolphins, Bush recorded 2,072 yards and averaged 4.68 yards per carry. Only Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew have higher averages than Bush during that time period, among players with at least 400 carries.
Bush also throws a wrench in defensive schemes with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make defenders miss in space. Over the last two years, Bush has 78 receptions for 588 yards, which averages out to 7.54 yards per catch.
Head coach Jim Schwartz upped the ante for expectations around Bush's pass-catching ability, stating he could approach 80 receptions this year alone, via Tim Twentyman for the Detroit Lions.
In order for the Vikings to prevent an absolute barrage of all-purpose yards from Bush, the defense will need to stay disciplined in its defensive assignments against the speedy running back, similar to designating a spy against a rushing quarterback.
The area for the Vikings where this will become especially important is at the linebacker level, where veteran Chad Greenway and newly-assigned middle linebacker Erin Henderson will have the most opportunities in open-field situations against Bush.
The main point to emphasize in defending the former USC standout is not matching speed for speed, but rather taking precise angles that force Bush to take poor cuts and lose yardage as a result.
This year's preseason demonstrated Bush's pass-catching abilities, particularly in Week 3 against the New England Patriots. He posted five receptions for 103 yards, averaging 20.6 yards per catch.
If Bush records those type of numbers to complement Calvin Johnson on the outside, it will be a long day for the Vikings defense. But if the linebacker corps can display sound assignment discipline and intelligent gap protection, the Vikings will frustrate Bush into losing yards, as well as the game.
Pressure Matthew Stafford
The Vikings head into Sunday's game against the Lions with some uncertainty on the defensive line, as tackle Kevin Williams suffered a hyperextended knee in the preseason loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
According to Mark Craig of the Star Tribune, Williams has not been practicing this week and appears more of a hopeful option than a realistic one. That leaves rookie Sharrif Floyd as the next in line to man the 3-technique tackle position.
Considering quarterback Matthew Stafford's propensity to throw the ball, it will be imperative that he does not feel comfortable in the pocket for the Vikings. In 2012, even with the Detroit signal-caller ranking first in pass attempts with 727 (Drew Brees was second with 670), the Lions were ninth in sacks allowed with only 29 in 2012.
That combination of passes and limited pressure will prove deadly against the Vikings secondary, with the defensive line needing to provide a push either up the middle or on the edge.
With alternating nose tackles Letroy Guion and Fred Evans providing a primary run-clog up the middle, defensive ends Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen must step up for the Vikings in presenting confusing looks for Stafford on the edge.
And even with Allen taking a slight step back last year from his near-historic sack total in 2011, Minnesota still finished tied for fifth in the NFL in sacks on defense, matching up strongly against a Lion's team that performed just as well on the other side of the ball.
Minnesota may have its hands full with both Calvin Johnson on the outside and Reggie Bush in space, but the defensive line can temper that potential upside with a collapsing pocket and constant pressure on Stafford.
*Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted.
Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for the Minnesota Vikings. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.
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