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Vikings vs. Lions Preview: Encore

Case Keenum and the Vikings had an impressive home win last week. Can they do it again to take control of the NFC North?

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It appears that Case Keenum will get his third straight start for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Sam Bradford didn’t practice Wednesday, and although he hasn’t been officially ruled out, all signs seem to be pointing to Bradford being sidelined yet again with the bone bruise in his left knee.

After Keenum’s less-than-stellar Vikings debut in Pittsburgh, many fans had doubts about how the backup quarterback would fare against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. I thought a Vikings win was possible with Keenum, but a much tougher adventure.

It turns out we were just fine with Keenum at the helm. He had the best game of his NFL career on Sunday, completing 25 of 33 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Keenum didn’t turn the ball over, he wasn’t sacked, and the Vikings cruised to a surprisingly comfortable win over a team believed to be in the running for an NFC playoff spot.

Well, Case, you did it once. Now can you do it for a second straight week? Because the Vikings could certainly use another game like that. The Detroit Lions are coming to town, and the winner will be guaranteed at least a share of the NFC North lead at the quarter mark of the 2017 season.

Oh hey, look who it is! It’s Case Keenum himself! Please give him a warm round of applause as he gives his thoughts on Sunday’s game... song form! To the tune of Jay-Z’s “Encore”!

Thank you, thank you, thank you, you’re far too kind

Now can I get an encore, do you want more
Cookin’ raw with the Houston boy
So for one last time I need y’all to roar...
Now what the hell are you waitin’ for?
After this game, there might be no more
So one last time Vikes fans make some noise!

Who you know fresher than Case? Riddle me that
The rest of y’all know I’m a real quarterback
Can’t none of y’all bring me down sacked
Yeah watchin’ me throw is like watching B. Favre in his prime
I’m, young C.K., football’s Grateful Dead
Back to take over the globe, my passes thread
Diggs turns on his jets, I hit him express
Out of your picture but me and Thielen still connect
On the low third string still outplay Jameis yet
But when you Case, what the f**k you expect? Yep! Yep!
Grand opening, grand closing
Goddamn your man Case cracked the D open again
Who you gonna find doper than him?
With no reps, just draw off preparation
Soon you gonna see when you do replace him
He’s no cheap imitation for this QB generation

Now can I get an encore, do you want more
Cookin’ raw with the Houston boy
So for one last time I need y’all to roar...
Now what the hell are you waitin’ for?
After this game, there might be no more
So one last time Vikes fans make some noise!

Wow! Not only does our backup quarterback have skills, he has BARS! With that kind of talent, the Vikings are sure to win on Sunday!

Of course, beating the Lions won’t be as easy as swapping out a few words of a classic rap song. Detroit was literally inches away from knocking off the defending NFC champions and coming into this game undefeated. So how are the Lions suddenly looking like contenders after sputtering down the stretch last year and getting unceremoniously booted out of the Wild Card round?

For starters, their defense is playing much better than expected through the first three games. The Lions ranked dead last in defensive DVOA in 2016. They tied for 30th in sacks and allowed the second most yards per drive. And it isn’t like they brought in a bunch of big-name players this year either; most of their core players from 2016 are back. Yet here we are, three games into 2017 and Detroit is currently ranked 7th in defensive DVOA.

So what changed? Detroit had very little pass rush to speak of last year. To illustrate just how bad they were at rushing the passer: Detroit only sacked Bradford twice over the course of two games. Teams got five sacks by accident against that atrocious Vikings O-line!

In 2017, they have a respectable 8 sacks and they’re hitting the quarterback on one of about every six dropbacks. Those aren’t staggering numbers but they’re certainly an improvement. The Lions don’t usually bring a lot of extra blitzers, so even a little additional pressure can be a big help for their coverage.

That coverage has been very opportunistic. The Lions are second in the NFL with seven interceptions and lead the league in turnover margin (+6). Darius Slay might not be in the “shutdown” category of cornerbacks but he’s still very good. Veteran safety Glover Quin is an excellent center fielder that usually shows very good instincts on the ball, like he did last week on this pick six of Matt Ryan.

Third-year corner Quandre Diggs is doing well in the slot too. It will be interesting to see how he does against Adam Thielen, and of course in the much-anticipated DIGGS VS. DIGGS Highlander showdown. (THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE!)

Then again, perhaps Detroit’s early defensive success is based more on sample size and opponents than actual improvement. The Lions kept the Cardinals and Giants in check, but it’s not like those two offenses are lighting the world on fire so far. The Falcons gashed Detroit for 428 yards last Sunday, which is why they were able to win despite being -3 in the turnover battle.

I’m not saying the Vikings offense is quite on the Falcons level yet, but they might be a lot closer than we thought. After all, Minnesota currently boasts the NFL’s second-leading rusher (Dalvin Cook) and two of the top three leading receivers (Thielen and Stefon Diggs). With weapons like that, some decent blocking, and Pat Shurmur dialing up a good variety plays, just about any quarterback could be successful in this Vikings offense.

That isn’t meant to take anything away from Keenum’s performance against the Buccaneers. He was great. But his receivers bailed him out a few times as well. On this play, Keenum has a clean pocket thanks to play action and a quick block from Cook. Diggs gets wide open on the right side. The pass is still off enough where Diggs has to dive for it.

Diggs’ second touchdown was another example. The pass from Keenum was a little under-thrown. If Diggs doesn’t time his jump perfectly, Vernon Hargreaves III might have been able to make a play similar to what Trae Waynes did on his interception.

Arm strength and downfield passes have been a concern with Keenum since his college days. Even in his best game as a pro, these shortcomings didn’t completely go away.

Of course this is obviously picking nits; if Keenum plays like he did last Sunday, I’ll take that ten times out of ten. It is more of an illustration of just how important Diggs, Thielen, and Cook are to the offense. I said throughout the offseason and preseason that if the offensive line could be even mediocre instead of a dumpster fire, it would be fun to see what the weapons in this offense can do. So far the line has been solid and the weapons have been nothing short of outstanding.

Those weapons will have to be outstanding again on Sunday, because the Lions are always formidable on offense. Matthew Stafford is earning at least a decent chunk of that richest contract in NFL history. He isn’t putting up video game numbers but he’s making smart decisions and moving the ball at crucial times. Even if he has a lazy left tackle.

Yes, Everson Griffen gave the Lions some bulletin board material with his comments about Greg Robinson this week. But let’s face it—Griff wasn’t wrong. Robinson has consistently been rated as one of the worst tackles in the league since being the second overall pick by the Rams in 2014. (We’re talking T.J. Clemmings levels.) Zone Coverage’s Sam Ekstrom did a great job of breaking down examples of how Everson correctly came about his conclusion. Just like the Buccaneers last week, the left side of the Lions’ line is very suspect.

But even if the offensive line isn’t ideal, don’t just assume that Griffen and Danielle Hunter will be waltzing into the backfield every play. The greatest name in all of sport, Lions Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, has installed an offense that relies on Stafford making quick passes that have the chance to turn into big plays.

The Lions are running the ball a little this year, but Ameer Abdullah shouldn’t worry the likes of Linval Joseph and Eric Kendricks much on the ground. What the Vikings need to be wary of are the short passes to Theo Riddick and Eric Ebron while making sure not to get beat over the top by Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr.

Detroit has plenty of players with ability. But as the old saying goes, sometimes the best ability is availability. The Lions are already pretty beat up. Ezekiel Ansah and T.J. Lang, crucial pieces of each line, didn’t practice on Wednesday. Rookie wide receiver and Week 1 waiver wire darling Kenny Golladay is fighting a hamstring injury. Quin was limited with a knee injury. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ injury list currently consists of two players: Bradford and Stephen Weatherly. Being nearly at full strength could be a big advantage for Minnesota.

As the Lions proved in both games last year, few things come easy for the Vikings when these two teams meet. Detroit’s solid start has a lot of people taking notice. While I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect an encore of what Keenum did last week, the Vikings still have plenty of weapons that can do plenty of damage on both sides of the ball. As long as they can take care of the ball and keep Stafford uncomfortable, Keenum should be able to walk out of U.S. Bank Stadium with his second straight win.



Vikings 27, Lions 20

And now for the rest of my Week 4 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

PACKERS over Bears

I would be more than OK with getting this pick wrong and have Sunday’s game be for sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

Saints over Dolphins (in London)

New Orleans is getting Willie Snead back, and Miami just lost to the Jets, which of course means they’re automatically relegated to the Championship division next season.

FALCONS over Bills

It appears that Buffalo is implementing the Minnesota Twins’ tried and true strategy of “trade everyone away and still somehow end up competitive.” But I’m not picking them to beat the Falcons in Atlanta.

Bengals over BROWNS

Winner gets Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. (The Buckeyes will open as a 7.5-point favorite regardless of who wins.)

COWBOYS over Rams

The Cowboys offense has looked shaky while the Rams offense has been surprisingly exciting. But I’m going to wait for L.A. to beat someone better than the Colts and 49ers before I jump on the bandwagon.

Titans over TEXANS

I’m actually intrigued by an AFC South divisional matchup.

And that concludes this week’s version of “sentences I never thought I’d type.”

PATRIOTS over Panthers

The Pats can score on anyone. And if Carolina couldn’t score on the Saints at home, there’s no way they’re keeping up this week.

Jaguars over JETS

I’m picking the Jacksonville Jaguars to go 3-1.

And that concludes this week’s SPECIAL BONUS EDITION of “sentences I never thought I’d type.” (It’s still more believable than typing “I’m picking the 2017 Jets to go 2-2.”)

RAVENS over Steelers

These two always play super-close games, even if both of them are coming off embarrassing losses. I’ll take the home team in the coin flip. That Pittsburgh offense still doesn’t look right.

Giants over BUCCANEERS

We saw that Bucs defense in person last week; they’re beat up and in really bad shape. Odell Beckham Jr. is going to have a field day in Tampa.

Eagles over CHARGERS

The Chargers have too much talent to go 0-4. But they’re still going to go 0-4 because they’re the Chargers.

CARDINALS over 49ers

Meh. I just hope Larry Fitzgerald keeps playing like this for another decade. He’s the best in every way possible.

Raiders over BRONCOS

The good news for the Raiders: I still believe in them even after Derek Carr put up a clunker in Washington last week.

The bad news for the Raiders: I haven’t picked a Broncos game correctly yet this year.

SEAHAWKS over Colts

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 2-1 on the season after Green Bay snuck past Cincy in overtime last week. I’m guessing that Jacoby Brissett versus The Amazing Block Whiffers isn’t exactly what the NBC folks had in mind when the schedule first came out.

CHIEFS over Redskins

A surprisingly good primetime matchup between two football teams that have Native American-themed nicknames with varying degrees of offensiveness that will still likely get overshadowed by what players may or may not do during the National Anthem in protest of things that have nothing to do with the anthem or the flag or the military at all yet will upset large swaths of fans because the protests are somehow perceived as an affront to freedom and our way of life.

All set in motion because the leader of the free world clicked “Tweet.”

The NFL in 2017, man. What a trip.

Last week: 7-9
Season so far: 28-19