This weekend, the Minnesota Vikings return to U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time in almost a month when they play host to the Detroit Lions. The Lions have been kind of up-and-down this year, as they come into this game with an even 4-4 record. This is the first of the two matchups between these two teams, as they’ll be getting together for the Lions’ traditional Thanksgiving Day home game in a couple of weeks.
To get a feel for the pulse of the Lions, Eric exchanged five questions with the folks from SB Nation’s home for Detroit Lions’ football, Pride of Detroit, and their lead blogger, Chris Lemieux. Eric’s answers to Chris’ questions can be found right here, and below you can find Chris’ answers to Eric’s questions.
If you’re wondering why I’m posting these instead of Eric, he’s off on a hunting trip at the present time, so we’re getting these posted in his absence. With that, here are our five good questions for this week.
1. So where has this Matthew Stafford been all your life? The Lions quarterback has taken a big leap forward in the first half of his eighth season, vaulting him into some MVP conversations. What has he been doing differently that has allowed him to play so much better at this point in his career? Has the addition of the greatest name in professional sports, Jim Bob Cooter, as Offensive Coordinator been the main difference? Has the departure of Calvin Johnson triggered a bit of the Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory for Stafford, meaning that a team gets better after the sudden departure of a superstar? Or is it simply Stafford tweaking his fundamentals and making smarter decisions?
Shadow Stafford emerged from the Ur Universe sometime over the offseason and completely replaced his prime universe counterpart. We are all now slaves to his terror and malice until the sweet, inevitable quantum collapse.
A lot of Stafford's evolution has come as a surprise, but it is his eighth league in the season, which is about the tail-end of the region where you expect quarterbacks to take their big leap if they're good. Considering how many offensive coordinators he's gone through, it's probably exacerbated the issue and really kept him from really getting there. But Jim Bob Cooter has proven that he understands where Stafford is coming from as working with him as quarterbacks coach the past couple of seasons and now as offensive coordinator. There's no more attempts to make Stafford a quarterback he's not. It's about his strengths, his arm, his short yardage passing and it's cleared a lot of things up for him. It's a bit of Cooter, it's a bit of Stafford himself putting it all together and erasing some of the weird throws and silly mistakes he's made.
I'm not one to believe in the Ewing Effect because I don't tend to listen to crazy hobos from Massachusetts. I think this offense would probably be even better if Calvin Johnson had stuck around. A lot of people can make this about how Calvin Johnson meant Stafford always had a safety valve, an escape to find whenever he was in trouble. I've even argued as such in the past, but I'm not totally sure of that right now. Obviously though, it's harder to shut down a quarterback when he's got equitable options in receiving. But I also believe that this Stafford is his own evolution, and if he had Megatron it'd look better.
2. While the quarterback has been impressive, this Lions team has been really tough to get a read on through the first half of the season. Detroit has proven that that can both beat anybody and lose to anybody depending on the week. What has caused the fluctuations in play from game to game, and what can the team do to be more consistent in the future? Is it as simple as getting key players like Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick back healthy?
The offense has been start and go, and a lot has to do with the same system that Jim Bob Cooter runs. It struggles in long yardage on third down, and small mistakes can put them behind the eight ball pretty quickly if they're not careful. The Lions seem to spend a lot of time trying to establish the run, not realizing that the run game is total goddamn trash (Theo Riddick getting healthy might help, a bit). When this offense gets out of rhythm (and rhythm is certainly an element of modern football offense) it falls apart quickly.
Rhythm certainly isn't helped when the defense stays on the field and lets the opponent just milk time and keep possession.
3. Detroit's defense appears to have taken a step back this season. The pass rush is still solid (which should scare the daylights out of every Vikings fan regardless of the rest of the defense) but the Lions rank dead last in defensive DVOA and are second-worst in Pro Football Focus' rankings. It appears that the linebackers and secondary have drawn most of the ire over at Pride of Detroit. Are there particular players that have been under-performing or have the defensive struggles truly been a team effort?
It's honestly a continuation of last season's regression, and it would appear Detroit did lose a lot of its top defensive line talent after the 2014 season. Bringing in Haloti Ngata was a fine fix but it hasn't really helped stem this tide, and the backfield has been wilting in the absence of that 2014 season DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch put together. Tulloch's gone and Levy's been almost constantly hurt.
But yeah, it's all across the board. Just a collaborative effort in making doo-doo. Depth is very shallow. The linebackers just aren't good, just no good at all, and Darius Slay is the only man in the secondary you can trust. On the defensive line there's some young talent (A'Shawn Robinson! Kerry Hyder!) but the one great edge rusher the Lions have, Ezekiel Ansah, is just not giving the same number of sacks and tackles he was a year ago. Sure, some of that's from double-teaming. But no one else is stepping up to take advantage of the extra pressure he's soaking up.
4. There are quite a few new names on the Lions roster this year. Give us one player on offense and one player on defense that most Vikings fans might not be familiar with but could have a big impact on Sunday's game.
The run game is pretty maligned but Dwayne Washington is new to this team and he's had a few good runs. He's a rookie, he'll see some change-of-pace carriers probably. Honestly all the names I've got on offense tend to be linemen.
On defense, Kerry Hyder is certainly someone to watch out for. He's got the potential to get into the back and make a mess of things and he's flexible to play either defensive tackle or end. He and rookie A'Shawn Robinson have gotten more playing time as the season has gone on, although Haloti Ngata back will make for some reduced snaps. Either way, two great big dudes just wrecking shop every now and then. Not a lot, because this defense isn't good! But it's nice it's coming from these guys.
5. Finally, what's your prediction for the final score on Sunday? Do the Lions step up and get the upset or will the Vikings right the extremely expensive ship at US Bank Stadium?
This could be a winnable game if the defense actually finds a little success against the Vikings offensive line, but the state of Minnesota's defense is going to give fits to this offense that has not remained quite so efficient when dealing with long yardage and down situations. There's a tendency to portray this as a low scoring affair, but Bradford could conceivably go through the air and tear up the Lions midfield, and Stafford isn't liable to stay quiet through two games.
But Boomer I'm predicting a 0-0 tie, because if you think about it there's a 50% chance of anything happening.
Thanks to Chris for taking a moment to sit down and answer our questions. We’ll have more on this week’s game leading up to kickoff right here at DN.