The Vikings victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday was so dominating and exciting that it compels observers and fans to immediately wonder what’s next. It was the kind of full-team win over a decent opponent that makes one unable to wait for the next game on the schedule. And that next game is a road tilt against the Lions in Detroit, Sunday at noon.
Therefore, all eyes were on the Lions as they took on the Green Bay Packers on Monday night in Lambeau, and the game was revealing. The Lions’ offense started strong with some trickery (a flea-flicker on the opening play) and long passes, but they sputtered inside the red zone. They led the game for 59 minutes until a few Lambeau-like calls did them in at the end. The Lions deserved a better fate in this one, but there is no need for the Vikings to make them feel better next weekend.
The Lions are improved this season. They are 2-2-1, which includes a disappointing tie on the season opener in Arizona and a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at home that could have easily been a win. The team is no longer “the Lions,” which used to mean for Minnesota a two-game gimme on the schedule. The Lions are now tough at home and not to be trifled with on the road, as they, too, beat the Eagles, but in the tough confines of Lincoln Financial Field.
Lions head coach Matt Patricia, in his second season at the helm, is starting to fashion the group of players he envisioned when taking over the squad. A former longtime defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, and owner of several Super Bowl rings, is working to improve the defense, which still had a ways to go.
After Monday night, the Lions defense is ranked 29th in the league in the NFL, giving up 413.8 yards per game. They are a better against the run (ranked 27th with 133.8 yards allowed on the ground) than they are the pass (ranked 28th with 280.2 yards allowed through the air)—but not by much. The Lions defense has a little bend, but don’t break to them, giving up 23.6 points per game, which is the 18th best in the league. The numbers are slightly down for the Lions defense from 2018, which ranked in the top 10 of all the categories (except for points allowed, which was ranked 16th at 22.5 points allowed per game).
The defensive front is fairly conventional with Trey Flowers as the biggest name pass rusher (and he might be a little upset next Sunday after the two phantom hands to the face penalties called on him that contributed to the loss). They don’t blitz a lot and have two decent cornerbacks in Darius Slay and Justin Coleman. The unit is also very tough in the red zone, which is where the money is made.
The offense, led by 11-year veteran signal caller Matthew Stafford, has long been the team’s saving grace, and he has them playing at a better clip this season. After last season’s bottom-tier offensives numbers, the Lions are on a slight uptick this season. After five games (they have already had their bye), the Lions offense is 13th in yards per game (369.8), 16th in rushing yards (107.6), 9th in passing yards (262.2) and 13th in points with 23.8 per game (last season they put up 20.3 points per game and were ranked 25th).
The passing game is succeeding due to Stafford (who is the 11th ranked passer in the league (277.4 per game), and his stable of decent receivers—Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Hull. This season the Lions added heralded rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson with their first draft pick, and he started strong before cooling a bit with an injury. He has two touchdowns in the first five games, and the Lions like to use him in the red zone. He could make some interesting matchups for the Vikings secondary.
Meanwhile, the Lions’ running game is anchored by running back Kerryon Johnson, who is rushing for 57.0 yards per game (ranked 19th) for two touchdowns. Johnson has also caught nine passes for 126 yards and one score on the season, so he is a dual threat the Lions and Stafford have long liked to employ.
Ultimately, the game calls for another balanced offensive onslaught by the Vikings. Kirk Cousins will need to continue with his mean streak of great play and set up the run with a varied and effective passing game. The sprint outs, roll outs, play action and quick passes that have been very effective for him the past two weeks should be part of this attack, even though the Lions front seven isn’t as formidable as some they have faced recently.
On defense, the Vikings will meet a familiar foe in the Lions, and one that the Vikings under Bud Grant didn’t have a problem with, but under Mike Zimmer they have. The Vikings are 3-5 against Detroit since Zim came to town in 2014. It hasn’t always been his defense’s problem, but the team will need a good effort on the road to win this one. The recipe for making the postseason is the same as it has been all year—win your home games and steal a few on the road—and this is the last chance for a road divisional win this season. The Vikings should grab this one and extend its winning streak to three games.