The Detroit Lions are 0-2 in divisional play, but they can change their current misfortunes with a big road victory in Week 9. On Sunday, the team heads to Minnesota to take on the division-leading Vikings. The Vikings are 5-2 after two consecutive losses and the Lions are just a game and a half behind them at 4-4. A win by Detroit would move them to within a half game of the Vikings, a major accomplishment before the team’s Week 10 bye.
Minnesota is looking to stop the bleeding. A team that was considered possibly the best team in the NFL is suddenly a perceived sinking ship after two convincing losses. Vegas is banking on a Vikings victory, as Minnesota enters the weekend as six point favorites. But let’s see what the charts have to say about that.
Lions pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (4th)
What looked like a step back last week against the Texans was really a better-than-expected performance. Houston’s defense was much better than most were giving them credit for, and the Lions actually outperformed their averages. Detroit has now only failed to reach their opponents passer rating allowed average twice in eight games.
Overall, Detroit still ranks fourth in passer rating (103.4), t-ninth in yards per attempt (7.6) and fourth in completion percentage (67.7).
Their biggest area of concern right now is pass protection. Through eight games, they have allowed 19 sacks, the seventh most in the league. Right tackle Riley Reiff has missed practice all week due to an illness that left him limited in productivity against the Texans. If he can’t go, that could be trouble, because...
The Vikings pass defense is for real. Up until last week, the Vikings had been absolutely dominating opposing pass defenses. They’ve held six of seven opponents below their passer rating average and in five of those games, they’ve held quarterbacks at least 15 points below their passer rating average.
The Vikings have playmakers all over their defense. They’ve got a mauling pass rush (20 sacks, t-ninth) and a ball-hawking secondary (nine interceptions, t-second). Their efficiency numbers are just as impressive. They’re allowing a passer rating of 68.1 (second), a completion percentage of 56.8 (second) and allowing just 6.1 yards per attempt (second).
There is some concern in Minnesota over last week’s poor performance against the Bears, but one performance doesn’t outweigh six other games of lights-out defense.
Player to watch: Everson Griffen. The Pro Bowl defensive end currently leads the Vikings with 5.0 sacks. In his 11 career games against the Lions, he has 7.5 sacks. With the Lions vulnerable at the tackle position this week, look for him to add to that total on Sunday.
Advantage: Vikings +1. The Lions have only been slowed a couple times this season, but, unsurprisingly, it was against good defenses. The Vikings may have slipped up last week, but after Sunday, this defense will be the best defense the Lions have faced so far this season.
Lions run offense (28th) vs. Vikings run defense (11th)
The Lions haven’t had a running game since Ameer Abdullah suffered a foot injury in Week 2. With rumors that Jon Bostic will be brought back from the injured reserve list, that means Abdullah’s season is essentially over. The Lions got Theo Riddick back last week to reclaim the No. 1 back position, but it didn’t do much for the running game. The Lions haven’t outgained yardage totals or yards per carry averages in the past six games. That’s troubling, to say the least.
Detroit is rushing for a respectable 3.9 yards per carry (t-21st), but they only have three rushing touchdowns on the year (t-28th). Interestingly enough, the Lions still rank highly in percentage of rushes that gained first downs (23.6 percent, t-11th).
The Vikings’ run defense isn’t nearly as intimidating as their pass defense. In fact, they haven’t even held a rushing attack significantly below their YPC average since Week 3. And just like their pass defense, last week was a disaster for the Vikings defense.
Minnesota is allowing 4.1 YPC (t-13th) and 21.9 percent of rushes against this defense earn first downs (13th). However, the Vikings are quite stout in the red zone, allowing just four rushing touchdowns all year (t-seventh).
One huge key to this matchup could be the availability of linebacker Eric Kendricks. As of Thursday, the Vikings’ leading tackler has been sidelined while going through the concussion protocol. If he can’t go, the middle of the Vikings defense could suddenly become vulnerable.
Player to watch: Anthony Barr. Barr’s 2016 has been modest so far, but the athletic linebacker has been a terror to the Lions in the past two years. He’s battling a groin injury so he may not be 100 percent against Detroit, but I still expect him to play and make an impact.
Advantage: Vikings +1. Minnesota is beaten up on defense and they haven’t performed well over the past month, but the Lions just don’t have any reason to strike fear with their ground game. Thankfully for Detroit, this matchup should have little bearing on the outcome of the game. The Lions offense has been fine without a running game for several games this season.
Vikings pass offense (15th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)
The Vikings pass offense this year has been... confusing. After acquiring Sam Bradford, the former first-round pick made the Vikings look like geniuses, posting four straight games of a passer rating above 90. But since then, the offense has crash landed back to reality. Bradford has struggled over Minnesota’s two-game losing streak, but it hasn’t been all of his fault.
The Vikings offensive line has been decimated by injuries and it’s finally starting to catch up with them. Minnesota has been sacked 19 times (t-seventh), despite passing the ball fewer times than all but five teams in the NFL.
When given time, Bradford has been effective. The Vikings still rank t-13th in completion percentage (64.8), 20th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 11th in passer rating (95.3). Not exactly world-beating numbers, but effective enough to manage a game.
The Lions finally ended their streak of allowing a passer rating over 100 last week against the Texans, but they still managed to make Brock Osweiler look like an acceptable NFL quarterback. This defense is still very bad. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a lying liar.
You’re probably sick of it by now, but let me drive the point home anyways: the Lions rank last in passer rating allowed (113.7, 10 points higher than anyone else), 28th in yards per attempt (8.0), and last in completion percentage (73.6). They’ve allowed the second-most passing touchdowns (19) and have just four interceptions (t-22nd).
Player to watch: Ezekiel Ansah. Ansah has been in a slump ever since returning from his high ankle sprain in Week 6. If he’s going to break out of his sack-less slump, this is the week to do it.
Advantage: Vikings +1. The Minnesota offense may be a hot mess with a brand new coordinator as of Wednesday, but the Lions defense is hotter and messier. At this point, there is no passing offense in the league that would be at a disadvantage against this defense.
Vikings run offense (32nd) vs. Lions run defense (24th)
Speaking of hot messes, the Vikings run offense has been uncharacteristically awful this year. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering the Adrian Peterson injury and the unending shuffle among the offensive line. Still, it’s shocking to see this unit ranked dead last in DVOA, after finishing every season in the top 10 since 2009.
Minnesota is last in yards per carry (2.7), last in percentage of rushes earning first downs (14.3) and t-28th in rushing touchdowns (3). They’re as awful as any running game can get. The last time a team finished with a YPC below 3.0 was 1994. The Vikings are looking to break that 22-year drought.
The Lions run defense looked amazing last week... for three quarters. But as we pointed out earlier in the week, they broke down in the final quarter. Still, they managed to hold the Texans below their season averages, something they’ve only done once in terms of yards per carry.
Overall, like the Football Outsiders ranking suggests, this is a slightly below average run defense. They’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry (t-21st), but 28.1 percent of rushes have earned first downs against the Lions, the second-highest percentage in the league. The good news is Detroit has allowed the second-fewest rushing touchdowns in the league.
Player to watch: Haloti Ngata. Ngata looks primed to return this week after missing three games with a shoulder injury. Ngata hasn’t been amazing this year, but no one on the Lions plugs up the middle of the field better than Ngata.
Advantage: Lions +1. Detroit hasn’t really had one single game where they’ve been able to stop the run all game, but the Vikings are undoubtedly the worst running team in the league. It looks like Minnesota will get Jerick McKinnon back this week, but the speedy back is only averaging 3.2 yards per carry with this patch-up job of an offensive line in front of him.
Last week’s prediction:
Last week, On Paper finally got back on track, predicting a Texans win: 23-21. The final score of 20-13 was pretty close to my prediction, so I’ll take it as a win, even though I technically lost against the 2.5 point spread. In total, On Paper is 4-4 overall and 2-4-2 against the spread.
In the comment section, Dezwaan came the closest with his respectable 17-13 Texans prediction. I was puzzled by Dezwaan’s username, so I googled it. Apparently there is an authentic Dutch windmill in Holland, Michigan named De Zwaan. It literally translates to “the swan,” which just seems lazy. I have no idea if this is the inspiration for the username, and if it is, why you were so inspired by the windmill to make it your username on a sports website? But regardless of those answers, I’m happy the name led me down the road to learning more about my home state. Thanks Dezwaan, here’s your prize:
This week’s prediction:
The Minnesota Vikings come out with a +2 advantage. While I do think the Vikings are in deep trouble long-term, they still match up pretty well against the Lions. Like last week, the Lions could very well be neutralized on offense by a superior pass defense. And while the Vikings offensive line is in shambles, the Lions defensive line hasn’t done much of anything this year, and perhaps their most effective pass rusher not named Kerry Hyder was suspended this week. If this game played out identically to last week, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. Vikings 24, Lions 16.