The Detroit Lions roll into US Bank Stadium at 2-1, but could/should be 3-0 were it not for a controversial ‘10 second run off’ rule that cost them a chance to beat the Falcons last week, after an apparent touchdown was overturned on an official review. The Lions look like they’ve taken another step from good to possibly very good...or have they? See, that’s the thing with me and the Lions. Every year I can just as easily be talked into the Detroit being 6-10 as I can 10-6. They have a legit QB in Matthew Stafford, a defense that’s really emerging as a force to be reckoned with...but they kind of feel like the 5-0 version of the 2016 Vikings. That team was a paper
lion tiger, and when some unsustainable things became, well, unsustainable, the Vikings crashed back down to Earth.
Let’s get into what I’m talking about, ‘What I’m Looking For’ style.
Limit turnovers. One of the first comparative things I noticed when looking at the 2017 Lions and the 5-0 2016 Vikings was how opportunistic they were/are. Through three games last year, the Vikings forced three turnovers in each game, and only committed one, for a +8 turnover margin. This year, the Lions are a +6, forcing 8 while giving it back twice. Last year, the Vikings scored scored three defensive or special teams touchdowns in three games. This year, the Lions have done the same. The Vikings have yet to turn the ball over this year, and if they can keep from doing it again, thy should consistently win the field position battle, which gives them the upper hand. Winning the turnover battle will go a long, long way in determining who wins this game.
Get Cook rolling early. Last week the Vikings used Dalvin Cook to get the offense in an early rhythm, and Case Keenum comfortable in the pocket. The Lions are 12th in the NFL in run defense, but a lot of that has to do with them playing with significant leads in their first two games. Last week against the Falcons, Devonta Freeman ran for 106 yards on 21 carries, and the Lions interior run defense seems suspect. Cook’s early success against Tampa Bay allowed the whole playbook to open up, and the Vikings made money downfield with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. I suspect the Vikings will try that again this week, and look to have similar results. The Lions are 22nd against the pass, and look for the Vikings to target CB Nevin Lawson from the opening whistle to the final gun.
Hit Matthew Stafford early and often. The offensive line of the Lions again reminds me of the 2016 Vikings in some respects. The left side is really vulnerable, and I expect Everson Griffen to have a good game. He better, since he called out Lions LT Greg Robinson for being lazy. Robinson is literally a Honolulu Blue version of Matt Kalil, posting a PFF grade of 30.5 through 3 games, the second worst tackle in the game if you believe their numbers. Their guards, former Viking Zac Kerin and ex-Packer T.J. Lang, are both dealing with injuries. Lang is probable, but Kerin is questionable, and has been iffy this year. Stafford isn’t mobile, per se, but he can move in the pocket and avoid the rush. It’s important for the Vikings to speed up his internal clock, and hurry his throws. When that happens to Stafford, he’s a lot more prone to turning it over. But if he has time, he’s going to kill the Vikings.
Offense needs to win time of possession. One of the more encouraging things is that even on drives the Vikings don’t score on, the offense can at least produce a first down or two. They are currently second in the NFL in third down conversion rate:
Best/Worst 3rd Down Conversion %— NFL EXPERT PICKS (@NFL_expertpicks) September 27, 2017
Conversely, the Lions are only middle of the road in keeping drives alive, at just over 40%. At home, that does nothing but help the Vikings win and maintain field position. Even on drives they don’t score on, keeping Detroit on their end of the field is going to be essential, because even if the Vikings do all of these things, it’s still going to be a close game, and that’s where my last key is.
Keep Matt Prater off the field. Prater is 6/6 on field goals this year, and has hit four of those from 50 yards or more. We know first hand what he can do, as his foot beat the Vikings twice last year. He nailed a 58 yarder at the gun to send the home game against to overtime, a game which the Vikings promptly lost on the first possession, as Detroit marched down the field and scored a touchdown. That game was a game that really laid bare the Vikings weaknesses last year—they had a hard time maintaining drives at critical moments of the game, the defense couldn’t get off the field when they had to, and they let an eminently winnable game slip away.
It was the same story a few weeks later on Thanksgiving, as Prater hit two late field goals to first tie and then win the game. Again, the Vikings had a 4th quarter lead, the defense couldn’t get off the field, and then the Vikings offense turned the ball over right after the Lions tied it.
This Vikings team feels different, though. Especially at home. Consider:
Those are eye popping numbers, the Lions defense is vulnerable, and the home field will treat the Vikings right.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Lions 17