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Week 5 key matchups: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings

Two injured and inexperienced units with big tests ahead of them

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Four weeks into the 2021 season and lady luck has not been kind to the Detroit Lions. Record-setting kicks that bounce off the crossbar aside, the injury bug has plagued this team in a massive way. They will be without multiple key contributors for this Sunday’s tilt against the Minnesota Vikings.

With that said, the Vikings have had their own struggles through the first portion of the season and currently have a record of 1-3. I took a look at two pivotal matchups (one on each side of the ball) where the Lions will be relying heavily on the “next man up” mantra that players and coaches have been saying all week.

Vikings defensive front vs. Lions offensive line

For some time now, Minnesota has been known for its front seven. Being able to stop the run and put consistent pressure on quarterbacks are staples of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer's defense and while the names have changed, the underlying theme has not.

Despite giving up 184 yards on the ground last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Minnesota’s interior defensive line has been reliable against the run. Many of the problems for the Vikings' run defense don't reside up front, but at the second level, with linebackers Nick Vigil (36.7 run defense grade per PFF) and Eric Kendricks (48.9) both struggling to tackle. The Vikings will get Anthony Barr back this week, offering some stability to a linebacking corps that currently needs it, but after not playing for a full calendar year, how much stability he provides is to be determined.

One encouraging bit of news from last week is that even when Lions’ All-Pro center Frank Ragnow left the game due to injury, their running game did not seem to suffer much against a very formidable front in Chicago. If the offensive line can control the line of scrimmage, both running backs Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift are more than capable of breaking arm tackles and making defenders miss in the second level.

In addition to Ragnow, who landed on injured reserve on Wednesday, the offensive line is dealing with some other injury concerns. The Lions have been without starting left tackle Taylor Decker since the start of the season and Penei Sewell’s status for Sunday remains in question. If the Lions are forced to start Will Holden on the left and Matt Nelson on the right, it is probably safe to assume that offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn will likely allocate resources to help them with their assignments. That means keeping tight ends in to help, using receivers to chip (Amon-Ra St. Brown seems to relish this duty), and using backs in pass protection. Leaving Nelson on an island with Danielle Hunter, who is one of the premier pass rushers in football, is simply not an option.

Even with all of the extra attention Hunter and company will likely command, they will still undoubtedly create pressure off the edge. What they cannot afford is pressure off of the edge AND up the middle, impeding quarterback Jared Goff’s ability to step up in the pocket.

To counter this, the Lions are going to have to rely on interior offensive linemen Jonah Jackson, Evan Brown, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai to have sound days. Whether it’s winning their one-on-ones and getting to the second level in the run game, or allowing Goff to manipulate the pocket in the passing game, this group needs to handle their business if the Lions are going to have a chance.

Lions secondary vs. Vikings receiving corps

Same story, different position group.

Injuries have decimated the Lions’ young and inexperienced secondary. Third-overall pick in the 2020 draft, Jeff Okudah, is out for the year with an Achilles injury, and 2021 third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu has also landed on injured reserve. That leaves defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn with just starter Amani Oruwariye, converted safety Bobby Price, and UDFA Jerry Jacobs on the outside, with UDFA AJ Parker and Corey Ballentine at nickel. Buckle up, this group is going to continue to receive a trial by fire for the next 13 weeks.

The safeties, while healthier than the cornerbacks, have also had a rough four games. Tracy Walker has looked more comfortable this year under Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, but he is very much alone in that regard. Will Harris has continued to struggle, and after coach Dan Campbell’s comments earlier this week regarding scaling back workloads, you have to wonder if Harris will see his snap count decreased against Minnesota. If this ends up being the case, it will be interesting to see how the Lions fill that void. Will it be Dean Marlowe, Daryl Worley, C.J. Moore, or a combination of the three?

Unfortunately for the Lions, this is a bad week to have so many question marks in the secondary. The Vikings boast one of the better receiving corps in the league with emerging star Justin Jefferson, All-Pro Adam Thielen, and second-year receiver K.J. Osborn.

Can this young secondary communicate better and be more sound in their assignments on Sunday? Maybe Oruwariye can extend his interception streak to three weeks? Easier said than done, but if they can limit some of the mental gaffes that have lead to chunk plays, keep things in front of them, and occasionally get to third-and-long, I have faith in Glenn dialing up pressure to force stops.

The trick will be to get into those favorable down and distance scenarios, as the Lions have been dismal doing this on first and second downs this season.

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