A Rookie Will Have a Big Role on Sunday

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The Detroit Lions have a historic chance in Week 16 when they travel to U.S. Bank Stadium, where they can clinch the NFC North with a victory. Detroit hasn’t won a division in three decades, so it would be a huge milestone for the franchise. Minnesota, meanwhile, can keep the hopes alive if they take care of business and win their second home division game.

A Rookie Will Have a Big Role on Sunday

Health is a big element of successful teams in December and January, but the Vikings have been hampered by injuries all year. The two biggest ones are obviously Kirk Cousins’ ruptured Achilles tendon and Justin Jefferson’s lengthy absence, but the defense will miss one of its key players in the matchup against Detroit.

A Rookie Will Have a Big Role on Sunday
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The Vikings have ruled out cornerback Byron Murphy, who will miss his first game of the season with a knee injury. He has not practiced all week. Murphy signed with the Vikings in free agency after beginning his career in Arizona. He was the top free agent addition next to Marcus Davenport, but unlike the pass-rusher, Murphy has played in all 14 games.

Even healthy defenses struggle to keep up with Detroit’s explosive offense, and it won’t get any easier when a top defender can’t suit up, especially when his skillset would fit perfectly with the best receiver of the Lions, Amon-Ra St. Brown. The third-year wideout has cleared 1,100 yards for the second consecutive season, and he lines up in the slot on roughly half of his snaps. Murphy is a capable slot defender.

2 Rookies Balling
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Without Murphy, Brian Flores will feature a heavy dose of Mekhi Blackmon, the rookie third-rounder out of USC. The cornerback has logged 359 reps on defense in his debut season, and quite frankly, he has played well for the most part. Pro Football Focus has given him a grade of 78.7, ranking him 16th of 119 CBs, although those grades can be skewed by the safety help the defender is getting.

Blackmon started the two losses against the Bears and Broncos when sophomore Akayleb Evans was forced to miss the two games with a calf injury. Veteran QB Russell Wilson continuously targeted the inexperienced defender, and he gave up a bunch of plays. The most memorable was a touchdown to Courtland Sutton when his limited size and a mistimed jump prevented him from contesting the catch.

Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Size problems were the biggest knocks on Blackmon coming out of college. He is listed at 5’11” and 178 lbs. However, he makes up for it with solid technique and savvy play for a young player. So far, most of his snaps have come as an outside cornerback, so when St. Brown lines up inside, he will likely be matched up against Swiss army knife Josh Metellus, who has been all over the field in his breakout season with over 300 of his snaps coming as a slot defender. Andrew Booth will be the top backup cornerback.

A bunch of other defenders are listed as questionable and are in danger of missing the crucial contest: Ivan Pace, Jonathan Bullard, Jordan Hicks, and Harrison Phillips. The good news is that Danielle Hunter will be back on the field after missing Wednesday’s practice due to illness.

Detroit’s passing attack ranks tenth in EPA/Play, and Murphy’s unavailability could be problematic.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt