Well, I'm back. Still licking the wounds of last Sunday, where I embarrassingly predicted a shutout and got ... well, you all remember what happened. The Detroit Lions (and myself) look to rebound this week in a big divisional matchup against the Minnesota Vikings at home. The Lions have taken two straight from the Vikings, but it won't be easy to make it three. The Vikings are coming off a huge win against the San Francisco 49ers. Surprisingly, the Lions come in as 4.5-point home favorites in the matchup, according to the bookies.
Lions Pass Offense (1st) vs. Vikings Pass Defense (8th)
*Matthew Stafford + Shaun Hill
You may be surprised to see the Lions ranked first in passing offense after the way things have gone this season, and in all truth, that ranking is pretty meaningless. The Lions racked up a lot of yards at the end of the Titans game, inflating their total numbers. Overall, the Lions pass offense has been slightly above average. They rank 12th in passer rating, eighth in yards per attempt and third in passer rating.
The million dollar question is whether Stafford will play this week. He hasn't played up to expectation thus far, but the Lions offense is undoubtedly better with him in the lineup.
The Vikings pass defense hasn't been too impressive three weeks in. Blaine Gabbert and Andrew Luck both put up passer ratings above 95 against the Vikings, but they held Alex Smith in check last week. Overall, they are a pretty average defense, tallying seven sacks (t-10th) while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 63.8 percent completion percentage (22nd) for 6.6 yards per attempt (10th).
Player to watch: Lion killer Jared Allen. Allen has 12.5 sacks in his nine career games against the Lions. He already has a sack and a forced fumble this season, and I have to imagine he'll tally at least one more sack in this game, despite the fact that the Lions have only given up four sacks (t-4th).
Advantage: Lions +1.5 (assuming Stafford plays). The Lions should be able to move the ball against the Vikings through the air. The biggest factor here is (again) third downs. The Lions have not been great on third down and it has caused them to settle for three points instead of seven on multiple occasions. That can't continue.
Lions Run Offense (14th) vs. Vikings Run Defense (12th)
Consistency. While the Lions have yet to outperform their opponents' averages in yardage, they've met averages in yards per carry in each game. Overall, their YPC of 3.8 ranks them tied for 17th (interestingly, with the Vikings). Mikel Leshoure appears to give this offense a second dimension, and if he can continue to be a legitimate threat for 4-6 yards on first down, it will open up the playbook considerably.
Better consistency. While the Vikings only rank 14th in yardage, they've also faced two of the better running teams in the league, and they held them both below their averages. The Vikings are one of five teams that have yet to cede a rush of over 20 yards and one of three teams that have yet to allow a rushing touchdown. To drive the point home, the Viking rank seventh in YPC allowed. They. Are. Good.
Player to watch: Stephen Peterman. I ragged on Peterman earlier in the week for his poor play in both pass and run blocking, so it'll be interesting to see how he responds. He'll have to go against Kevin Williams, who is still a great run stuffer.
Advantage: Vikings +0.5. The big question here is will the Lions be able to be effective enough on the ground to get the Vikings to drop extra men into the box to stop the run, opening up passing lanes. They were able to do this last week in Tennessee but failed to in San Francisco. The Lions don't have to run for 5.0 a carry, but they have to be able to pick up three or more consistently, or else the Vikings will drop back and defend the long ball.
Vikings Pass Offense (18th) vs. Lions Pass Defense (20th)
This is not the Christian Ponder that the Lions picked off three times last year. In fact, Ponder has yet to throw an interception this year. His passer rating of 104.9 is ranked fifth overall and he's completing 70.1 percent of his passes, good for second-best. The silver lining is that Ponder has yet to connect on a long ball, with no completions of over 40 yards. As far as good news gets, that's basically it.
Oh boy. The Lions have failed to hold an opposing quarterback below a 100 passer rating. Not surprisingly, their 109.3 passer rating allowed ranks them fourth-worst. And the Lions aren't even getting the pressure they're notorious for. Their seven sacks rank just 10th in the league (tied with eight other teams). It's hard to pinpoint one issue with the defense, but safety play seems to be the biggest issue at this point. It certainly looks like the Lions will continue to be without Louis Delmas again, which is devastating.
Player to watch: Kyle Rudolph. Rudolph was limited in practice this week and his availability is slightly in doubt, but if he can play, look out. The Lions often match a safety with the tight end, and it hasn't gone well this season. Vernon Davis had 73 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit, and Jared Cook followed it up with 77 yards and a score.
Advantage: Vikings +2. It's too early to call the Vikings passing attack elite or Ponder a Pro Bowl-level quarterback, but they are miles ahead of where they were last year. As anyone who has watched the Lions thus far will tell you, Detroit can't seem to be able to stop anyone behind center. Still, if the Lions can prevent the big plays that absolutely killed them last week, they may have a chance to, at least, salvage this matchup as a draw.
Vikings Run Offense (9th) vs. Lions. Run Defense (11th)
Adrian Peterson has put any doubts about his health to rest in just three weeks. He's already reached the end zone twice this year and has the 12th most rushing yards in the league currently. The team is coming of an impressive week against the impenetrable 49ers defense. Overall, they seem like an above average running team.
Suddenly, I'm craving life savers. The chart seems to imply that the Lions are slowly getting worse at run defense, but I don't think that's a fair assessment. While the Titans have struggled in the running game thus far, I think it's fair to assume those averages will continue to rise as the season progresses, and I'd be shocked if those cells remained red for very long. In reality, the Lions' run defense has been the most pleasant of surprises for 2012 so far. They've held opponents to just 3.8 a carry (12th) and have yet to give up a run of 40+ yards.
Player to watch: Nick Fairley. With Corey Williams down for at least a couple weeks, Fairley is expected to get a lot more playing time. Fairley has showed signs of dominance, but he has yet to do so on a consistent basis.
Advantage: Draw. The Lions have been absolutely dominant in the interior of the line this year. The issue has been when backs have bounced it to the outside. If the Lions can contain Peterson before he's able to do so, it will be big. But if the ends can't keep contain, the Lions could be in trouble. I expect Peterson to get somewhere around 60-70 yards and maybe reach the end zone once, which wouldn't be killer for the Lions.
Fan morale down. After Sunday's loss to the Titans, Lions fans are jumping ship. What could have been a huge home-field advantage is likely significantly less after last week's disappointment. If the Lions can manage to get off to a hot start, the crowd will get back into it. But if the Lions come out slow again, expect the boo-birds to show up early and often.
NO MORE REPLACEMENT OFFICIALS! The real refs are back, which likely means the game will be running smoother and without as many disruptions. This will favor the Lions' fast-paced offense, given that they won't have to deal with breaks in their rhythm anymore.
The Vikings end up with a +1 advantage, which is obviously pretty small. The key to this game is the Lions' running game. We've seen the running game struggle in San Francisco and the Lions insisting on sticking with it. If the Lions struggle again against the Vikings, I have to imagine they will continue to pound it anyway, hoping it will eventually open up passing lanes. Of course, if the Lions don't struggle to run the ball, they can gain yards and open passing lanes.
It pains me to do this, because my heart tells me the Lions pull this one out. But the entire point of this method is to be as objective as possible, and I have to stick with the numbers. Lions fall to 1-3: Vikings 23, Lions 20.