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Solving Detroit to Ice the NFC North

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a short week for the Vikings to solve the riddle of beating the Detroit Lions, but after six straight victories, the most impressive being the last one, perhaps the Vikings will have more answers on Thanksgiving to overcome a Lions team that has beaten the Vikings in three-straight close games.

A victory for the Vikings would pretty much ice the NFC North title, so there is a lot on the line Thanksgiving day in Detroit. But the Lions have been dogged against the Vikings in recent matchups, forcing turnovers, battling from behind, and eeking out victories in close fought battles.

So how do the Vikings break that trend? Let’s have a look.

DETROIT LIONS: GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT

The Lions have a good quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a good receiving corps, good offensive line, and a good defensive secondary, led by Darius Slay. But they’ve also struggled with consistency, and have seen a deterioration in their front seven on defense, and in their running game, leading to their 6-4 record. Most recently their offensive line has also not been playing as well either.

Throughout the season, the Lions have depended on Stafford to come to the rescue late in the game to squeeze out a win. He managed to do so the last two games against the Bears and Browns. He has done so against the Vikings in recent matchups as well.

But breaking down the Lions recent performances, there are keys to beating them, and breaking this cycle of close losses to our NFC North rival.

PRESS VIKINGS ADVANTAGES IN THE TRENCHES

The Vikings offensive line just did a pretty good job containing a pretty good defensive front seven against the Rams, using their size advantage to wear down the Rams over the course of the game.

The Lions defense, on the other hand, was led in QB pressures by cornerback Teez Tebor (who had 2), against the Bears. They also gave up over 220 yards on the ground to a Bears team with not much of a passing game to focus on. That doesn’t say much for the Lions defensive front.

The Lions didn’t pressure Trubisky much all day, leading to plays like this one.

All this, along with the Lions’ relatively strong secondary, suggests that the Vikings may want to use a more run-heavy offense than we’ve seen, forcing the Lions to shore up their run defense, and opening up the play-action passing game.

But the Vikings may want to continue to run the ball more against the Lions, wearing them down over the course of the game, controlling the ball, and keeping Stafford off the field. On a short week, the Lions defenders may wear down a little sooner.

This run came on a 1st & 10, first play of a Bears drive- hardly a surprising call - and early in the game.

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings may also want to force the issue in the trenches, against a Lions offensive line not playing it’s best at the moment. The Lions got starting left tackle Taylor Decker back from injury, but he hasn’t been playing his best since he returned. Making life difficult for the starting left tackle, and the rest of the Lions offensive line, may yield some good results for the Vikings on Thursday- by keeping Stafford off his game.

Finding ways to pressure Stafford will help take away the best part of his game, the deep ball and big time throws - where he leads the league - and hopefully maximize the weakest part of his game - turnover-worthy throws. Not forcing the issue with pressure will allow Stafford the time and clean pocket to get into a rhythm with his receivers and drive the ball down the field with big plays, even against good coverage, as he has in the past. Keeping him under pressure may help keep him off the mark with his passes, leading to better results for the Vikings.

Left with a clean pocket, Stafford will make you pay

But pressuring Stafford may leave the Vikings defense vulnerable to screens and misdirection plays. The Vikings will need to be both disciplined in their attack, and depend on secondary help and/or good linebacker play to stall these types of plays. Beyond that, good help over the top in coverage to prevent big plays is also key.

Much of this same game plan was accomplished against the Rams, along with stopping the run game, leaving them with only 7 points. The Vikings will need to disguise their pressures and blitzes well against the veteran Stafford, but against a Lions offensive line struggling at the moment, a strong Vikings front seven, along with a secondary playing well, forcing the issue with Stafford up front may be the best plan for the Vikings defensively.

AVOIDING TURNOVERS

Much like the Rams, the Lions have depended on forcing turnovers to win games. In the matchup against Detroit earlier this year, the Vikings had three fumbles in the second half that really stalled the offense and allowed the Lions to come away with a victory. The Vikings can’t afford to lose the turnover battle and expect to beat the Lions at home.

This was the Lions’ 7th defensive touchdown this season, on a Trubisky fumbled snap, at the Bears on Sunday. Overall, the Lions have scored 78 points off of turnovers so far this season.

Case Keenum, along with both backs and receivers will need to take care of the ball, and practice good ball security to avoid turnovers against a Lions defense that seems to specialize in generating them.

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings could also be a little more aggressive in generating turnovers. Hopefully Anthony Harris’ forced fumble and recovery will encourage other Vikings defenders to practice the same technique. I’d be fine starting Harris again too, for that matter, as there is no rush to get Sendejo back out there given Harris’ performance.

KEEP ‘EM GUESSING

Against a division rival who knows the Vikings well, does their homework every year on every player, scheme, tendency, strengths and weaknesses, installing and executing a new play or two - even in a short week - could be valuable. Also, varying tendencies over the course of the game may help in the play-calling chess match.

The Vikings have the talent at every level and just about every position on defense, and with just about every player experienced and well-versed in Mike Zimmer’s scheme, where they can change things up significantly over the course of the game, and play-to-play, series-to-series. Using that advantage to keep the Lions offense and Matthew Stafford off-balance should also help break the rut the Vikings are in against the Lions.

Offensively, the Vikings have the skill players to spread the ball around, look for matchup advantages, and once again keep the Lions guessing. Pat Shurmur has also done a good job using tempo on occasion to give the Vikings offense an advantage. He, along with Case Keenum, should continue to employ all these elements to challenge the Lions defense, and keep them off-balance over the course of the game, particularly in the red zone, where the Vikings have been especially effective - perfect in fact - over the past two games.

One other area where Pat Shurmur has been effective in tailoring his game plan has been his use of the offense line scheme. Against the Rams, he used more of a power run scheme, hoping to use the size advantage of the Vikings linemen to open holes against a smaller and more athletic Rams front - and wear them down. It was largely effective, as Latavius Murray had bigger holes as the game wore on.

A good old-fashioned power run, with Easton pulling and taking out the DE, Ham lead blocking and blowing up the LB, and Hill getting just enough of Aaron Donald for Murray to break through his arm tackle. Run on 1st and 10, early in the game.

Against the Redskins, Shurmur used an unbalanced line at times, seeing this could be advantageous against the Redskins defensive front, with good results. I could see Shurmur mixing these elements in against the Lions as well.

Here against the Redskins, Shurmur dials up what looks like it could be an outside zone or power run initially. Notice the unbalanced line- Berger, Hill and Reiff all on the right, with only Easton and TE Morgan on the left. Run on 2nd and 2, early in the game, following an outside pass to Diggs.

Keeping the defense guessing and thinking about the run like this is what makes play-action work- making defenders hesitate... and opening up a bigger play downfield.

A little later in the Redskins game, Shurmur shows a double-TE formation to the wide side on 1st & 10. What’s the play gonna be? It’s hard to tell, but the CB on Thielen in the bottom left corner sneaks just a split-second peek at Murray coming through... and its over.

BOTTOM LINE

For the Lions, even more than the Vikings, this is a must-win game for any chance at the division title, and even to keep pace for a wild card birth. Playing at home, in their big annual Thanksgiving game, with a lot on the line, don’t expect them to go away easily.

The Vikings will need to play the same tough, smart, physical football Mike Zimmer preaches, and the team practiced Sunday against the Rams. Taking it to the Lions in the trenches, where they haven’t played as well recently, may help curb the Lions desire, while keeping the pressure on Matthew Stafford may thwart his heroics to carry the Lions to victory.

Beyond that, taking care of the football and using the Vikings player strengths on both sides of the ball to be creative in their scheme, may put an end to the Vikings trials and tribulations against the Lions in recent meetings, and effectively close out the division race. The Vikings can then deserve to enjoy a nice Thanksgiving feast, a 9-2 record, and a few extra days off before hitting the road again at Atlanta- and another tough opponent.

Poll

Both the Vikings and Lions have scored an average of 31.7 points over the past three games. Will either team score at least that many on Thursday?

This poll is closed

  • 35%
    Only Vikings will
    (834 votes)
  • 5%
    Only Lions will
    (125 votes)
  • 2%
    Both will
    (47 votes)
  • 57%
    Neither will
    (1335 votes)
2341 votes total Vote Now