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Matchup Index Week 15: Vikings vs Lions

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The Daily Norseman dives deep into statistical trends and player grades to highlight match up advantages and disadvantages for the Minnesota Vikings.

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Everson Griffen has another great matchup this week.
Everson Griffen has another great matchup this week.
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

As of this writing, the only two Vikings players that were showing up in the "Top 5 or 10" of their respective position's Pro Bowl voting were defensive end Everson Griffen and Free Safety Harrison Smith.  When I take a step back and think about it objectively, that seems about right.  I do think cornerback Xavier Rhodes should at least be in the discussion, but there isn't really anyone else that comes to mind as having had an exceptionally good 2014 season to warrant Pro Bowl consideration.  And if you haven't seen it yet, check out this excellent piece by Sam Monson over at Pro Football Focus that details Xavier Rhodes great play the last 4 games.  He makes as good a case as anyone can for Rhodes high level of play.  But the reason I even bring up the Pro Bowl is that these three guys are the ones that are consistently showing up as "matchup problems" for opposing teams.  I don't particularly care much about the Pro Bowl, so even if these three guys get passed over hopefully they'll get some recognition by the media in their All Pro voting, because that is a much higher honor.

In any case, the Vikings have finished up their three-game home stand and have to travel on the road this week to take on the 9-4 Detroit LionsTeddy Bridgewater has played at an extremely high level the past two games at home against a pair of bad teams, and the national narrative seems to be that this road game against the Lions will be a big test for the rookie.  I couldn't agree more.  After getting injured in the Atlanta game on September 28th, Teddy sat out the following week against Green Bay, and then returned to action in Week 6 against Detroit at home.  He played poorly and had maybe his worst game of the year throwing three interceptions, 5.1 yards per attempt (lowest of the year), and getting sacked 8 times (most of the year).  I'd like to think that his poor performance was in part due to his not being 100% healthy in his return from injury, but it could also just be that the Vikings don't matchup very well against the Lions this year and it was only Bridgewater's second start of his young career.

Bridgewater will be discussed in more detail later, but first we'll examine the Detroit Lions offense.  There are a few general trends of which to make note when looking at the Lions offense.  Overall, the Lions haven't changed much since the last time we faced them, except for Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush being healthy.  Even so, they generate an average of 349.2 total offensive yards per game, about the same as the last time we faced them, but good enough to bump up from 19th to 16th best overall.  But they now average almost a whole point more of offense per game, scoring an average of 20.4 points per game (still only 1 rank higher than the Vikings).  In other words, even with the return of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, their offense is merely average hindered by a low 40% third down conversion percentage (ranked 22nd) and are the 8th most penalized offense in the league.

The Lions are still having much more success throwing the ball than running the ball.  Matthew Stafford is having something of a down year, with low efficiency numbers (88.0 passer rating, ranked 18th).  But even so, the Lions attempt the 10th most passes per game (38.2 on average) and produce 7.4 yards per attempt (tied for 12th best).  Stafford has improved his TD-INT ratio from 6-4 when we last faced him to 18-10, and has become much more explosive with Calvin Johnson back on the field, completing the 5th most passes of 40+ yards.

The Lions running game has been a little up and down all year, although Joique Bell has looked much improved over the last 5 games.  During the first 7 games of the year Bell averaged about 3.3 yards per carry.  Over the last 5 games he has averaged about 4.3 yards per carry, and in week 6 Bell averaged 4.1 yards per carry against our Vikings defense.  Despite the uptick in performance recently, the Lions as a team average only 3.4 yards per carry (30th) on the year and generate only 84.1 rushing yards per game (29th).

The Lions offense is predicated on throwing the ball, and it matches up poorly against our defense.  Zimmer's scheme and our players are doing an decent job of shutting down opposing passing offenses, but we have been vulnerable against the run.  Still, our defense held this Detroit offense to only 17 points the last time we faced them (albeit without Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush).  But these trends should play right into the hands of our defense.  The Matchup Indices below will start, as they always do, in the trenches with a look at the Lions passing game, followed by their running game.

Matchup Index: Lions Pass Blocking vs Vikings Pass Rushing

Detroit Player

RT LaAdrian Waddle

RG Larry Warford

C Dominic Raola

LG Rob Sims

LT Riley Reiff

PFF Grade

+3.6

+4.5

-0.7

-4.1

+1.6

Minnesota Player

DE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

DE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

-6.1

+5.1

-1.8

+10.4

The Lions offensive lineman do not have exceptionally good pass blocking grades, but neither are they terrible.  They are ranked 12th overall in pass blocking efficiency from Pro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders ranks them 21st overall in Adjusted Sack Rating Allowed (have given up 39 sacks, 1 less than the Vikings).

Everson Griffen has an excellent matchup advantage this week against Riley Reiff, although it appears that LaAdrian Waddle scores a big advantage over Brian Robison.  The middle of the trenches look to be pretty evenly matched.  Overall I'd have to call this pretty much a wash, but I do think Griffen has a very good chance to notch a sack this time around, even though he didn't get one last time we faced the Lions (he did have two pressures though, a hit and a hurry).  The line overall should be able to generate some sacks, as they have the 4th best defensive line in Football Outsider's Adjust Sack Rating.

Matchup Index: Lions Run Blocking vs Vikings Run Defense

Detroit Player

RT LaAdrian Waddle

RG Larry Warford

C Dominic Raola

LG Rob Sims

LT Riley Reiff

PFF Grade

-1.7

-2.3

-6.7

-5.7

-1.1

Minnesota Player

DE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

DE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

-2.0

+13.0

-0.4

+8.3

It would appear that the primary issues with the Lions running game, is in the trenches as not even a single offensive lineman is graded positively.  Football Outsiders would agree with that assessment as they have the Lions offensive line ranked 24th overall in "Adjusted Line Yards", with a league worst ranking in the percentage of runs that are stuffed at the line (24%).

Meanwhile, the Vikings have a pair of lineman that grade out very well as run defenders in Shariff Floyd and Everson Griffen.  Overall though, our defensive line hasn't been able to hold up against the run consistently this year.  Football Outsiders ranks our defensive line 31st overall in Adjusted Line Yards allowed, and we only stuff 15% of opposing runs at the line of scrimmage (3rd worst).  As a team, our defense allows 4.4 yards per carry, tied for 21st best.   Opposing teams average 127.2 rushing yards per game against the Vikings, which is ranked 10th most.

Matchup Index: Lions Receivers vs Vikings Defensive Backs

Detroit Player

WR Calvin Johnson

WR Jeremy Ross

TE Eric Ebron

WR Golden Tate

PFF Grade

+11.1

-8.1

-4.6

+7.1

Vikings Player

Xavier Rhodes

Robert Blanton

Harrison Smith

Captain Munnerlyn

PFF Grade

+9.2

-0.7

+3.4

-0.6

The Lions have an excellent tandem of receivers in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, and they will be a handful for our secondary.  There is not much to worry about after those two though; unless you consider their running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush as receivers out of the backfield (both are graded +2.6 and +2.2 respectively as receivers).  Calvin Johnson will have his hands full with Xavier Rhodes who allowed only a 47.9 passer rating in coverage the last time these two teams faced off.  While Golden Tate looks to have an advantage over Captain Munnerlyn, he played very well in coverage in week 6 too, allowing only a 59.7 passer rating himself.

I highlighted Xavier Rhodes last week as the one Vikings player that had the best matchup advantage and he didn't disappoint.  While he didn't record many "splash plays" he did an excellent job shutting down Eric Decker, Percy Harvin and Jeremy Kerley.  He was targeted 5 times and allowed 2 receptions for 12 yards, and successfully defended the other 3 passes en route to a 47.9 allowed passer rating.  Harvin and Kerley didn't have a catch when covered by Rhodes (although each was only targeted once).  Still, that's a pretty excellent game and this week will be a big test as he finally gets to go up against Calvin Johnson (who didn't play the last time these two teams faced off).  It's worth mentioning that Robert Blanton hurt his leg last week and had an MRI this week.  He did not practice Wednesday.  If he can't go, then presumably Andrew Sendejo or Antone Exum would start in his place (both have only played a few snaps on defense).  Overall, the Vikings pass defense allows only 220.8 passing yards per game (6th best), although this could be due to the relatively low number of pass attempts teams have against us (35.2 attempts, 6th fewest), because we allow 7.3 yards per attempt (16th best).  We also allow a passer rating of 91.8 (20th best), so it's possible that our pass defense is overrated a bit.

On offense, the Vikings are generating slightly less yards per game now since we last played the Lions: only 309.2 total offensive yards per game (down from 23rd to 29th).  But we are finally "in the black" with a +1 turnover margin on the year.  We continue to struggle on 3rd down, converting only 36% of our plays (26th best).  The Vikings are just having a hard time scoring points, averaging only 20.2 points per game (25th best).

As before, our passing offense is significantly worse than our rushing offense and it has only gotten worse overall since Week 6.   We average 194.8 passing yards per game (30th best) and 6.5 yards per attempt (tied for 29th best).  All that said, Bridgewater has looked improved recently and currently has a career passer rating of 82.4 (a bit higher than the team rating of 75.8).  On the whole Teddy has been playing at about a league average level and currently has a 10-8 TD-INT ratio.  So while our passing game looks to be in shambles for the year, things have picked up recently, especially since Charles Johnson has taken over the starting X receiver spot from Cordarrelle Patterson.

With Jerick Mckinnon on IR for the rest of the year and Adrian Peterson still on the commissioner Exempt List, Matt Asiata has returned to his "de facto" starting role.  His hold on the job is tenuous as Ben Tate is quickly asserting himself.  Tate is averaging 3.75 yards per carry on 8 rushing attempts, and Zimmer mentioned wanting to get Tate (and Banyard) involved more in the offense.  As soon as Tate has a handle on the playbook and gets up to speed with more of the playcalls, he will continue to get more looks as Asiata has proven to be nothing more than a replacement level player (at best).  Still, the Vikings have found success on the ground this year averaging 114.5 rushing yards per game (13th best) and 4.5 yards per carry (tied for 8th best).  They are efficient and explosive with the 7th most runs of 20+ yards and tied for 4th most runs of 40+ yards.  However, the last time the Vikings faced Detroit, Mckinnon got the start and the bulk of the carries, gaining only 40 yards on 11 attempts (3.6 yards per carry).  It remains to be seen if Asiata and company can do better the 2nd time around.  As above, the Matchup Indices will start in the trenches, looking at the Vikings passing game first, followed by their running game.

Matchup Index: Vikings Pass Blocking vs Lions Pass Rushing

Minnesota Player

RT Mike Harris

RG Joe Berger

C John Sullivan

LG Vlad Ducasse

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-1.3

-1.9

-1.8

-1.4

-19.8

Detroit Player

LE Jason Jones

DT Ndamukong Suh

DT CJ Mosley

RE Ezekial Ansah

PFF Grade

-6.6

+13.7

+3.5

+10.9

With Charlie Johnson's ankle injury last week, we might lose our third starting offensive lineman this year.  Things don't look good as he was spotted with a walking boot and crutches earlier this week and did not practice Wednesday.  An MRI revealed no structural damage, but at this point signs point to Vlad Ducasse starting in place of Johnson.  Our offensive line was already struggling with pass blocking, but being down three starters might be more than we can handle.  This is a line that was already ranked 31st in pass blocking efficiency by Pro Football Focus and 25th in Adjusted Sack Rating allowed by Football Outsiders.  This was a team that effectively allowed 10 sacks (according to Pro Football Focus) and 15 quarterback hurries to the Lions in week 6.  For as much as the word "consistency" was bandied about this past off season in regards to this offensive line returning all its starters in 2014, we haven't had more than 2 weeks in a row of the same five guys starting on the offensive line.  It's been anything but consistent this year.  Not that that is an excuse...just pointing out another part of this unfortunate mess.

Even with Nick Fairley out, Suh and Ansah should have a field day against Joe Berger and Matt Kalil.  The Lions defensive line is ranked 16th in Adjusted Sack Rating having racked up 35 sacks on the year and they should apply constant pressure once again.  In week 6, the Lions generated pressure on 51% of Bridgewater's pass attempts, but blitzed only 30% of the time.  The Lions can generate pressure with only their front four guys, and Teddy will have to utilize 3-step drops, shotgun formations and quick passes to neutralize the Lions dominant defensive line.

Matchup Index: Vikings Run Blocking vs Lions Run Defense

Lions Player

RT Mike Harris

RG Joe Berger

C John Sullivan

LG Vlad Ducasse

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-2.1

+5.4

+6.3

-7.8

-6.0

Vikings Player

LE Jason Jones

DT Ndamukong Suh

DT CJ Mosley

RE Ezekial Ansah

PFF Grade

+1.3

+19.6

+1.2

+6.0

Ndamukong Suh is the highest graded run defending defensive tackle by Pro Football Focus, and the Lions currently have the #1 ranked run defense allowing an average of only 62.8 rushing yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry.  That is frighteningly good.  Teams have pretty much just stopped running the ball against the Lions as opposing teams average only 20.7 rushing attempts per game against them (fewest in the league).  Football Outsiders also ranks the Detroit defensive line 1st overall in adjusted line yards allowed, as they generate the most "stuffs", and 2nd fewest "open field yards."  There just doesn't look to be much running room against the Detroit Lions and there isn't much more to say about that.

Matchup Index: Vikings Receivers vs Lions Defensive Backs

Vikings Player

WR Greg Jennings

WR Jarius Wright

TE Kyle Rudolph

WR Charles Johnson

PFF Grade

-2.1

-2.9

-2.8

+0.0

Detroit Player

CB Rashean Mathis

SS James Ihedigbo

FS Glover Quin

CB Darius Slay

PFF Grade

+3.3

+6.8

+7.9

+4.2

With Patterson's official demotion, Charles Johnson has taken advantage of his opportunity and continues to be our highest graded wide receiver (which I suppose isn't saying much).  It's still a small sample size though, as Johnson has less than 1/3 of the total snaps as Greg Jennings so far this year.  He hasn't recorded enough snaps to show up on Football Outsider's rankings list, but they have Jennings ranked as our best receiver in DYAR (50th out of 79) with Jarius Wright ranked 56th.  Our receivers continue to struggle getting open in Turner's scheme.

The Detroit passing defense is formidable, allowing only 232.8 passing yards per game (10th best) and 6.7 yards per attempt (tied for 7th best).  The Lions secondary has very high grades at all four starting positions, and as a defense they allow a passer rating of only 80.8 (5th best).  All that said, we will have two receiving weapons playing in this game that were not playing in week six: Kyle Rudolph and Charles Johnson.  Both are upgrades over Chase Ford and Cordarrelle Patterson, but it remains to be seen if that will make a difference.

Overall, I expect the Lions offense to struggle again, but maybe not as bad as they did the last time around.  They are playing at home this time, and will be essentially at full strength.  We held them to only 17 points in Week 6, but I would expect a minimum of 20 points this time around.  I remain concerned about our offense's ability to execute on the road against one of the best defenses in the league.  Last time around we only mustered 3 points against them, and while we will have entirely different players at the skill positions (Asiata, Rudolph and Johnson instead of Mckinnon, Ford and Patterson), it may not make much difference as we'll be down 2 starting offensive lineman compared to the last game, with Ducasse potentially also in a different position.  I'd like to think that Bridgewater has developed some and can perform substantially better than in Week 6, now that he has more experience and is 100% healthy.  But I have a hard time seeing our Vikings come out of Detroit with a win.  I think Detroit will control it for the majority of the game and pull off a 24-13 win.

This week, the one Vikings player with the best "Matchup Advantage" looks to be defensive end Everson Griffen.  He has a substantially higher grade than Riley Reiff in the trenches against both the run and pass.  Here's to hoping he can take advantage of the good matchup and tip the game in our favor.