Detroit Lions fans are no strangers to this week's player to watch, but this year, his uniform will be a different color. Greg Jennings, a 29-year-old Kalamazoo native, joined the Minnesota Vikings this offseason after seven productive years with the Green Bay Packers. The Vikings acquired Jennings to bolster their anemic receiving corps and mitigate the loss of wide receiver Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks during the offseason.
Last year, Vikings receivers were nearly non-existent, and even the highly-touted Harvin managed only 677 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 receptions during his inconsistent playing time. A full half of the Vikings' 18 touchdown receptions came not from a receiver, but from tight end Kyle Rudolph. Suffice it to say, quarterback Christian Ponder airing it out was not striking fear into any opponent's heart. The Vikings responded this offseason by luring Jennings to Minnesota with a five-year, $47.5 million contract and by selecting receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in the first round of April's draft. Jennings' résumé of 53 touchdowns and over 6,000 yards receiving gives the Vikings the consistent outside threat that has been lacking from their offense in recent years.
After missing significant time during each of the last two seasons due to injuries, there is some concern that Jennings has lost a step. He is certainly not the same downfield threat he was during his best year in 2010, when he averaged over 16 yards per reception. Last year, his average was down to 10 yards a catch as he began to transition into more of a possession receiver role. He flourished in that role with about 61 percent of his receptions resulting in first downs, which would have put him at the top of the league in first down receptions if he had played a full season (but not on level with a certain half receiver half robot that had a ratio of over 70 percent).
Jennings' new role fits well with the Vikings offense, as Ponder has struggled to gain yards in chunks during his short NFL career. Last year, Ponder averaged only 6 yards per attempt, which was the second lowest amount among starting quarterbacks. This offense revolves around Adrian Peterson, but Jennings is sure to get plenty of touches given Ponder's limited number of options. Unlike his time in Green Bay, Jennings will not have to fight for targets in the Vikings offense. Last year, Jennings averaged only 8 targets a game while Harvin was targeted an average of 9 times a game even with his notoriously low snap counts. Jennings is a proven route runner and producer and will be the first option each time Ponder drops back.
This preseason, the Lions have excelled in their run defense with the defensive line living up to its hype and the linebackers doing an adequate job filling in rushing gaps (the defense actually sported the third best rush defense during the preseason by allowing a stingy 79.5 yards rushing per game). However, the Lions' pass defense has been another story and has had trouble jelling while allowing a sixth worst 228.8 yards receiving a game. Injuries at the safety position, a largely inexperienced group of cornerbacks and a pass-defense-challenged linebacking corps allowed opponents to dissect the Lions' defense in the preseason.
In order to be successful this year, the Lions will need better play from their cornerbacks. In Week 1, the Lions need Chris Houston and company to win the matchup against Jennings. Although Houston is clearly the Lions' best corner, he will not be facing Jennings alone. Jennings is versatile and will line up both on the outside and in the slot, so young players such as Bill Bentley and Darius Slay must be ready to step up when called upon. While Ponder may not have the ability to carry the Vikings offense, he is competent enough to hit an open receiver or exploit a matchup, as he showed against the Lions during their second matchup in 2012.
Last year, the Lions' pass defense excelled at limiting teams' first downs through the air (second lowest percentage of first downs per reception) but was susceptible to the big play, as evidenced by allowing the second most passing plays of more than 40 yards. Against the Vikings, the Lions need to limit the big plays while continuing to limit their ability to build drives through the air. For Jennings, this means keeping him in front of the defensive backs long enough for the defensive line to earn their living in the trenches. If the defensive backs can give the line enough time to pressure Ponder, the Lions will be able to make the Vikings even more one dimensionally focused on Peterson. That is still a scary prospect, but the Lions' defensive strength lies in their front four, and taking away the passing game will put them in the best position to open the season with a win.