Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: Breaking Down Detroit's Game Plan

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Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: Breaking Down Detroit's Game Plan
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The Detroit Lions open the 2013 NFL season by hosting the NFC North rivals from Minnesota. Expect the Ford Field faithful to be firing on all cylinders as they get to watch a game that actually counts in the standings.

Last season, the Vikings pulled off the season sweep, winning 20-13 in Week 4 in Detroit and prevailing 34-24 in the Week 10 rematch in Minneapolis. 

The first game was quite literally lost on the very first play, as Percy Harvin took the opening kickoff to the house. This was the first of four special teams returns for touchdowns against the Lions in a two-game stretch, the worst in NFL history. Have a look at the complete breakdown of lane assignment by Detroit and the solid blocking by the Vikings here:

Aside from the egregious special teams coverage units and the fact the Lions failed to force a single turnover, two things really stand out from those losses. First is the utter lack of a running game from Detroit. The Lions rushed the ball 20 times for 55 yards in the first game. The second meeting wasn't much better, as the Lions managed just 60 yards on 17 carries. 

Secondly, the Lions' run defense was poorly designed to stop Adrian Peterson. AD ran wild in the second game once the Vikings made a couple of adjustments that made things even easier for the best running back in the game. 

A quick look at a play formation from that first game indicates why it was so hard for Detroit to run.

There are nine defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Even though Detroit is in a three-wide receiver formation, the Vikings are still clustered close to the line. The Lions have Calvin Johnson in the slot here, but it's clear from the posture of the Vikings defenders they are expecting the run. This particular play saw Mikel Leshoure run into Dominic Raiola's back before he spun into the defensive end for a one-yard gain. 

The Vikings frequently deployed this sort of defensive set. It works great against the run, but it leaves them vulnerable to the deep passing game and play action. The Lions exploited this later on in the game. 

There are still nine defenders close to the line against three-wideout personnel. This time, Matt Stafford is in the shotgun. A quick play fake to the running back freezes the deep safety and draws the strong-side linebacker forward. Even though the Lions are in a passing formation, the Vikings are still focused on run keys and the play action has the desired effect.

That leaves the middle of the field wide open for Calvin Johnson from the slot. He beats his man with a strong post move and Stafford delivers a strike for a 19-yard gain. Detroit ran several variations on this play in both meetings, and it led to Megatron having a monster season against the Vikings. Check out his stat lines: 

Week Catches Targets Yards Yards Per Catch Touchdowns
Four 5 12 54 10.8 0
Ten 12 13 207 17.25 1

As you can see, the Lions adjusted from the first game and exploited that packed defensive set with a heavy dose of Calvin Johnson. That should still be available in this week's opener, but what makes the Lions more lethal is that Detroit now has Reggie Bush at running back instead of Mikel Leshoure.

Bush can bounce runs outside, and he's also an exceptional receiver. Should the Vikings commit extra help on Johnson, that will leave Bush isolated on a linebacker in space. Advantage Detroit. 

On the other side of the ball, the Lions must focus all available hands on deck toward Adrian Peterson. As impressive as Calvin Johnson was for Detroit, Peterson absolutely gashed the Lions defense. 

Week Rushes Yards Yards Per Carry Touchdowns
Four 21 102 4.86 0
Ten 27 171 6.33 1

Just as the Lions adjusted to Minnesota's defensive scheme, the Vikings altered their attack and freed Peterson for a monster game in the second meeting. How did they do that?

This first screenshot is from the first game. The Vikings are in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end), which the Lions counter with a Wide 9 base set. Note how all three linebackers are stacked well inside the defensive ends as the tight end motions across the formation. 

The Lions had this play well defended, although an ugly missed tackle by now-departed safety Erik Coleman allowed Peterson to pick up seven yards. All those linebackers are keyed on Peterson, and the safeties both peeled in quickly. 

In the second meeting, the Vikings mixed in more spread formations, as well as 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends) to keep the Lions defense from getting into a comfort zone. Look at this play from 22 personnel:

Note that the Lions' defensive ends are still in a Wide 9 set and the linebackers are clustered in the middle once again. The difference this time is that the Vikings have an extra blocker in the form of the second tight end. The Lions' safeties never adjust to the lack of a second outside threat; they're aligned almost exactly as they were in the previous play. 

The Vikings run a toss sweep to the right for Peterson, who has four blockers in front of him to handle just three Lions defenders. 

Look at the safeties: frozen pizza. Ricardo Silva (No. 39) is actually being responsible by holding over the top containment should Christian Ponder bootleg and look for the wideout. The linebackers are easily walled off because the wide splits by the Lions defense have left the two pulling linemen free to attack up the field without encumbrance. 

Peterson took this run for 61 yards, easily dodging Erik Coleman along the sideline and prancing for the final 20 yards with no Lion visible in the broadcast feed. 

Detroit must counter this look. When the Vikings shift to 22 personnel, the Wide 9 ends must pinch in and the linebackers must spread out. The safety with no receiver to his side can pinch up. It helps that, this year, the safety will be Glover Quin and not Erik Coleman, a monumental upgrade in both athleticism and awareness. 

Minnesota has added Greg Jennings to the outside at receiver, which means the safeties cannot cheat too much on Peterson. But the Vikings lost Percy Harvin from the slot and from the return game, and that really helps the Lions.

Detroit must force Ponder to try and beat them via the air. If that takes dedicating Quin into the box as a pseudo Peterson spy on every snap, exposing corners Chris Houston and Darius Slay into solo man coverage, that's still a more favorable matchup. A more successful pass rushthe Lions managed just three sacks in 61 dropbackscan really turn the Vikings into a one-dimensional beast. That beast is still Adrian friggin' Peterson, but he's easier to slay when he's got no accomplices.

If the Lions can execute well and follow game strategies like this, they stand a very good chance of beating the visiting Vikings. 

All photos are taken from game video footage available at NFL.com (subscription required)

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