We are officially into Week 13 of the NFL season and the Detroit Lions are still in search of their first win.
They have been really close several times—including their loss back in Week 5 against divisional foe, the Minnesota Vikings. But as we have heard countless times from everyone this season, the Lions’ margin of error is essentially non existent.
An ill-timed turnover here. A drive killing penalty there. It adds up quickly and becomes almost impossible for a team like the Lions to overcome.
For the Vikings, things have been very up and down. One week they look like a team that could potentially make some noise in the playoffs. Another, they look like a team that needed a 54-yard game-winning field goal to squeak by the (now) only winless team in the league.
Which team will the Lions see on Sunday at Ford Field? Let’s take a closer look at how the Lions can finally notch their elusive first victory.
Control the clock and tempo
This is going to sound cliché but if we are being honest, this may be the Lions only real chance at winning a game this season. Run the football well on early downs. Keep Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and that dynamic receiving corps on the sideline.
Minnesota has struggled with stopping the run, especially as of late. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12, the Vikings gave up 208 yards on 39 carries. San Francisco absolutely dominated the Vikings up front on their way to three scores and 5.3 yards every time they decided to hand the ball off. Those numbers even rival what the Lions gave up against the Philadelphia Eagles earlier in the season (236 yards on 46 carries, good for 5.1 yards per carry).
And while the Lions will be without running back D’Andre Swift this week, the Vikings have injury issues of their own: defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are both out.
Week to week, the Lions don’t have a lot of major personnel advantages; it’s just not how this roster is currently constructed in year one of a complete rebuild. But, I think we can confidently say this week that the Lions offensive line is a better unit than the Vikings’ defensive front.
Expect the Lions to lean into running the ball early and often against the Vikings. Veteran running back Jamaal Williams should see a healthy dose of touches, but also keep an eye on rookie Jermar Jefferson and converted safety Godwin Igwebuike.
#Lions rookie Jermar Jefferson gets his second career touchdown in just his second game with offense snaps. He’s a excellent 1-cut slasher who ran to day light and the score. pic.twitter.com/2R6hVUTdUZ— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) November 14, 2021
Limit big plays and get to the quarterback
Because of the way the Lions are forced to play games, they obviously cannot afford to get into shootouts with teams. And lately, the defense has done a good job of mitigating big plays. Defenders are largely keeping things in front of them, forcing teams to methodically move the ball down the field and it has led to them forcing 13 turnovers on the season. Certainly not the best in the league, but a solid number when you think about all of the injuries and youth surrounding the unit.
However, they will be facing another tall task this weekend, as the Vikings have one of the best receiving units in the league, led by Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Minnesota does a good job of moving both receivers around, taking snaps out wide as well as in the slot. This is especially troublesome for the Lions, who are relying on safety Will Harris to play nickel corner with starter AJ Parker on injured reserve.
And while defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn more or less fell on his sword this week for Will Harris, the third-year player’s struggles at both safety—and now nickel—have been well documented.
One way to help Harris and the rest of the secondary slow this vaunted receiving corps is to get pressure on Cousins. Whether that is Charles Harris against backup left tackle Rashod Hill (Christian Darrisaw is out with an ankle), or Levi Onwuzurike doing fun things like the clip below—the Lions need to be able to pressure Cousins without allocating too many bodies to the task.
Levi Onwuzurike (@LeviOnw) bull rushes his way back to the QB for his first NFL sack. Keep it simple, keep it violent! #passrush #onepride pic.twitter.com/mAhiDGvdow— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) November 25, 2021
Even without star running back Dalvin Cook, the Vikings possess so much big play capability, I wouldn’t expect a ton of designed blitzes, even on favorable down and distances. Sending seven-plus defenders after the quarterback on third-and-long sounds nice until you remember that you probably have Will Harris on an island with someone like Adam Thielen or Justin Jefferson.
The Lions must rely on their front getting home when they get one-on-ones with a tackle or guard.