Don’t Underestimate the Lions & Keys to an Important Divisional Win on Sunday

Don’t Underestimate the Lions & Keys to an Important Divisional Win on Sunday
Dec 5, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) catches the game winning touch down in front of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler. Mandatory Credit: David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports.

Vikings Insider, The GM’s View

As the Vikings put the Philly debacle in the rearview mirror, they face an improved Detroit team this Sunday in an important NFC North matchup.

Vikings players better not sleep on this Detroit team that has added a lot of talent the past few years and plays hard for energetic Coach Dan Campbell. They come to town off a win over Washington, so they’ll have some confidence.

Vikings fans may have forgotten how difficult the two Detroit games were last season, but the players should be mentally ready, knowing it’s an essential divisional game and remembering those 2021 matchups. It took a 54-yard Greg Joseph field goal as time expired to win at home, and who can forget (certainly not Mike Zimmer) the image of corner Cam Dantzler retreating eight yards deep in the end zone as Jared Goff threw a way too easy game-winning TD pass to rising star receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown in Detroit for the Lions first victory under Campbell — a game that basically wrecked Minnesota’s season?

Vikings Corners Face First Test
Sep 11, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler Sr. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

Although he gave his team an unusual day off from practice Wednesday to recover from the late night return from Philly, Coach Kevin O’Connell is sounding the alarm to his players and the media that a tough task lies ahead on Sunday against the second highest scoring team in the league (35.5 points per game) through two weeks including hanging 35 on an Eagles defense that held the Vikings to seven points.

“You see the growth of the team and feel just how hard those guys play,” O’Connell said. “The growth of what they’re doing on offense and obviously they’ve added some personnel defensively that has really helped their scheme go. We know it’s going to be a heckuva challenge. We’ve got to play a well rounded game. Getting them at home will be huge.”

Here are my keys to the Vikings beating the Lions:

1. Play like you did in Week 1, Kirk, not Week 2: Cousins is always a key, and the three interceptions he threw inside the Philly 30 were game-killers (two were his fault, one was on a bad route by Justin Jefferson). Cousins is 4-0 at home against the Lions and threw for 615 yards and 3 TDs with one pick in the two games combined last year. Maybe a few more rollouts will help Cousins escape pressure, and the O-line, tight ends, and backs must do a better job picking up the blitz that was so effective for the Eagles, so the Lions are sure to test the Vikings in this area.

Sep 19, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports.

2. Get Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, and the running game going: when facing a high-scoring offense, ball control is key. It’s on the O-line and the backs to bring their A-game this week after efficiently rushing against Green Bay (126 yards) and then getting shut down in Philly (62 yards with Cook gaining only 17 yards on a minuscule 6 carries). Cook missed both Detroit games last year, but Mattison had 113 yards rushing in the first game and 90 in the second. Through two games, the Lions rank 26th in run defense (30th in overall D), so it seems like a good game to get the run game in high gear.

3. Keep giving J.J. his double-digit targets: Jefferson torched the Lions last season with 18 catches for 306 yards and 1 TD in the two games. He’s likely to see more man coverage with safety help after Darius Slay‘s good game against him, but the Lions don’t have a corner of Slay’s caliber. O’Connell would love to get J.J. singled up against nickel corner and former Vikings first-rounder Mike Hughes. But don’t forget about Adam Thielen in the first half, as was the case on Monday night, along with finding Irv Smith and K.J. Osborn. And catch the ball, receivers, and backs after four drops in Philly, including Smith’s open deep ball.

4. Block Aidan Hutchinson if he’s able to play: the second overall pick in this year’s draft had three sacks of Carson Wentz in Detroit’s win over Washington last week. He’ll be a challenge for Vikings tackles Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw as he rushes from both sides, but he is battling a thigh injury this week and did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday.

5. Big improvement needed in third-down offense: 8 for 25 (32%) through two games is not going to cut it. The offense needs to sustain drives and help keep the defense off the field. The Lions rank 30th so far in third down D, so it’s a good week to convert, and it will help to stay out of third-and-long with effective running and short passes.

6. Control D’Andre Swift: The Lions star back is nursing a sore ankle that limited him to five carries (for 56 yards) last week after a 144-yard rushing day against the Eagles. Jamaal Williams is a fine No. 2 but does not have Swift’s speed and moves, so it would help the Vikings cause if Swift is not 100% (he missed practice Wednesday and was limited Thursday). The entire defense must be better against the run after allowing 5.3 yards per carry so far.

Vikings Face a Miniature Juggernaut on Sunday
Feb 26, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Georgia running back D’Andre Swift. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Pressure Jared Goff, cover St. Brown, and tighten up the zone coverage: After Eagles QB Jalen Hurts was a problem running and passing, it will help that Goff is not the run threat Hurts presented. Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, and D.J. Wonnum must lead the charge against a good offensive line anchored by Chanhassen native Frank Ragnow, Detroit’s Pro Bowl center. Goff is off to a fast start with 6 TDs against one interception, but the crowd noise should help the Vikings pass rushers get a good jump.

St. Brown is off to a great start with 17 catches for 180 yards and 3 TDs. He also is a threat on end-arounds/jet sweeps (68 yards against the Commanders, including a 58-yarder). Patrick Peterson should follow him with safety help. Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell should not expect Dantzler to cover St. Brown without a double team, and even then, it would be a questionable move. And tight end T.J. Hockenson is a threat and will likely be targeted often after Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert had a big game against the Vikings (5 receptions, 82 yards). But a key is to tighten up the coverage (as Peterson said this week) and not let future opponents throw to wide-open receivers in the short and intermediate zones against Minnesota’s shell/zone coverages. A few more well-timed blitzes also should help.

More secondary concerns: the Vikings need Harrison Smith to come out of concussion protocol for this game (he didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday). It would be scary to start rookie Lewis Cine with Cam Bynum at safety, especially after Bynum’s coverage bust last week and with Cine not yet having significant play time on defense except in preseason.

8. Give Joseph more shots and good kick coverage: O’Connell acknowledges that he and Cousins must be more patient, take three points at times, and be less risky in the red zone. Give Joseph a chance to beat the Lions again if the game is close at the end. And special teams—continue the good kick coverage from last week, which will be needed against fine return men in Kalif Raymond and Justin Jackson. Kene Nwangwu also is due for a big kickoff return after he looked tentative in Philly.

Jeff’s Prediction: I see a high-scoring game with Cousins and Cook rebounding from sub-par performances and leading the way, along with big plays from Jefferson and Thielen. I think the Vikings defense will have some issues with the Detroit offense, but Hunter and Smith should be able to sack Goff a couple of times and perhaps force a turnover or two. I see Joseph repeating his game-winning kick from last year in a 30-27 final drive victory.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. Game of the week—2-0 Bills at 2-0 Dolphins: this would be a fun game to watch — too bad it’s a Sunday noon start, same as Vikings-Lions. It’s Miami’s No.1 passing offense vs. Buffalo’s No.2 pass defense. Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa won’t have the 6-TD game he just enjoyed against the Ravens. I like early top MVP candidate Josh Allen and the Bills to prevail.

2. Second-best matchup (and of greater interest to the Vikings and their fans): Green Bay at Tampa Bay. Tom Brady will be missing his top receiver Mike Evans who is suspended after his fight in the Saints game. The Bucs defense is excellent and has led the way in the team’s 2-0 start. I’m picking the Bucs with Brady making enough plays while the Bucs D controls Aaron Jones on the ground and frustrates Aaron Rodgers by covering his shaky receiving corps.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl