To get ready for Sunday's game, I exchanged five questions with Christopher Gates from Daily Norseman, SB Nation's Minnesota Vikings blog. My answers to his questions can be found over at DN later this week, and his answers to my questions are below.
1. Since playing the Vikings earlier this season, the Lions have gone 3-1. The Vikings, on the other hand, have a 2-3 record since that game, and they have lost three of their last four games. What is behind Minnesota's recent struggles?
Well, teams are starting to realize what we've known since the beginning of the season ... the Vikings don't have anyone that can stretch the field deep, and teams are crowding everyone within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and pressuring the heck out of the quarterback. Despite seeing eight- and nine-man boxes, Adrian Peterson has continued to be nothing short of amazing after coming back from his injury, but when the Vikings need a completion, they haven't been getting them. As a result, they can't sustain drives, the defense spends way too much time on the field and they end up getting killed. They even lost the time of possession battle in the one game they've won out of the last four (a 21-14 victory over Arizona in Week 7), but the Cardinals might be in a worse tailspin than the Vikings are right now.
2. Going into that first matchup, the Vikings' run defense was one of their biggest strengths. In the last couple weeks, however, the Vikings' run defense has been gashed by guys like Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch. Just how concerned are you about Minnesota's run defense, especially with the Lions' run game improving as of late?
The run defense, as is the case for just about any defense, will improve if a) the Vikings' offense can actually sustain the occasional drive and b) the Vikings can get off of the field on third downs. Unfortunately, those two things have kept the Vikings' defense on the field for extended periods, and once they've gotten tired, they've gotten gashed in the running game. Unless either of those two things changes, the Vikings will continue to get smashed in the running game. It also doesn't help much that Letroy Guion has gotten pushed around at the nose next to Kevin Williams, and Jasper Brinkley has been fairly bad in the category that's supposed to be his strength, that being stopping the run. The team has given up a 100-yard rusher in their last four games, which is something that would have been completely unheard of a couple of seasons ago ... or even a couple of months ago.
3. Christian Ponder has thrown a total of eight interceptions in the Vikings' last five games after not having any in the first four weeks of the season. What is the source of his recent issues with turning over the ball?
Again, it's a combination of guys not getting open and an increase in pressure on Ponder. While Matt Kalil has been everything the Vikings could have hoped for at left tackle and John Sullivan is having another outstanding season at center, the guard play has ranged from average to "ugh." Charlie Johnson (the left guard) and Brandon Fusco (the right guard) have both been underperforming this season, and it's gotten worse as the season has progressed. The Vikings' two biggest pass-catching threats, Percy Harvin (who likely won't play on Sunday) and Kyle Rudolph, aren't deep threats (not in the traditional sense, in Harvin's case, anyway), and Jerome Simpson hasn't been nearly what he was advertised. So, between guys not getting open and Ponder spending a lot of time running for his life, it's made things pretty tough on him after a successful first quarter of the season.
4. If Percy Harvin is unable to play on Sunday, who do you think will be called upon to fill his role in the Vikings' offense? Also, who will step in for him on special teams if he can't play?
My guess is that, on offense, the Vikings are finally going to get to see some of rookie Jarius Wright. Wright was one of the Vikings' three fourth-round picks in the 2012 draft, and he was tabbed as sort of a Harvin clone. He's a smaller receiver that's more quick than fast but was good enough to be an all-SEC wide receiver in 2011. Unfortunately, he has been inactive for every game this season, so I don't know how quickly they'll try to force feed him into the offense. In the return game, the Vikings will likely have punt returner Marcus Sherels (who got his first career touchdown the last time these two teams got together) to step in on kickoff returns as well. Asking the Vikings to replace Percy Harvin would be a lot like asking the Lions to replace Calvin Johnson ... sure, you can throw a "similar" guy out there, but it ain't Percy Harvin or Calvin Johnson.
5. Given how NFC North-heavy the rest of the Vikings' schedule is (four of their final six games are against the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers), do you think they have a shot at making a run at the division crown? At the very least, do you think they will contend for a wild-card spot in the final weeks of the season?
A lot of that is going to depend on the outcome of this game, I think. If the Vikings can get themselves a win and get up to 6-4 (considering that six wins was thought to be the ceiling for this team in most corners), it could give them a boost going into the bye week and those next three consecutive NFC North matchups. If they lose, I think that things are going to be a little crazy at Winter Park during the bye week and could result in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave cleaning out his desk and a real shake-up of the offense. If the Vikings lose this one, it's going to be rough going the rest of the way. It might be rough going the rest of the way if they win, too, but losing this one will just make it that much worse.
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