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Vikings vs. Lions Week 9 Preview: Whoa, We’re Halfway...Where?

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At the midpoint of the season, we take inventory of the Vikings and Lions before their crucial division battle.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Kirk Cousins had been great this season outside of a handful of big (often pressure-induced) mistakes. Is that simply what we should expect from the Vikings this year?
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We’re eight weeks into the 2018 season and I haven’t done a single song parody to open one of my preview articles yet. It’s time to remedy that egregious oversight!

[Ignores the fact that most of you are waving your arms and shaking your heads at your screens like someone on a sitcom that’s silently trying to urge someone else to stop what they’re doing right now]

I humbly present to you:

“Kirk Can Get Us There” (to the tune of “Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi)

Kirk is used to passin’ a lot
Just lost to the Saints, he’s down on his luck
It’s tough...so tough...

Cousins under pressure all day
Throwin’ for big yards unless he gives it away
It’s love...hate/love...

We say ‘Kirk please don’t hold on, find the read that’s hot’
It really makes a difference ‘cause you fumble a lot
Find Adam Thielen, or Diggs in the slot
But we love...when you take that deep shot!

Whoaaaaa, we’re halfway, but where?
Hooooope, Kirk can get us there!
The NFC North is for the takin’ I swear
Hooooope, Kirk can get us there!

Dalvin’s got his hamstring in hock
He’s still sittin’ out, while Tay Train totes the rock
So tough...it’s tough

Pass rush has Kirk running away
O-line is a fright but we whisper
“It’ll be OK...someday...”

So we gotta hold on, give Detroit our best shot
They just dealt Golden Tate who used to burn us a lot
But they have a run game, and that’s a shock
Zimmer’s D...has got to make stops!

Whoaaaaa, we’re halfway, but where?
Hooooope, Kirk can get us there!
The NFC North is for the takin’ I swear
Hooooope, Kirk can get us there!

Kirk can get us theeerrrrre!


Now that you’re done rolling your eyes and you have a 32-year-old earworm stuck in your head for the rest of the day, let’s proceed with previewing Sunday’s crucial divisional matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. All four teams in the NFC North have different records, yet they’re all separated by only one game. Each team has had some impressive wins mixed in with some astounding clunkers.

The Lions home games this season have been a perfect cross-section of the NFC North highs and lows: wire-to-wire domination of both the Patriots and Packers book-ended by mistake-filled disasters against the Jets and Seahawks. While Detroit’s up-and-down nature is nothing new, they finally have some semblance of balance on offense. After going 70 straight games without a 100-yard rusher, rookie running back Kerryon Johnson has broken the century mark twice this season. The dynamic second round pick out of Auburn appears to be the feature back this franchise has been desperately searching for since the departure of Barry Sanders. Johnson has 624 yards from scrimmage and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry. It looks like the Lions may finally emerge from the mediocrity by committee they have patched together in their backfield for the past several years.

The addition of Johnson has lessened the burden on Matthew Stafford and the passing game. Outside of the four interception abomination in Week 1, Stafford has had a quarterback rating of 96.7 or higher in every game since. He is on pace to take his fewest amount of sacks since 2013. Detroit’s offensive line isn’t exactly star-studded, but they’re solid across the board in blocking for both the run and pass. They have also been healthy this year—a luxury that has certainly not been afforded in Minnesota. Outside of T.J. Lang missing a couple games, the rest of their starters have been in place all season.

Coming into the week, I was preparing to preview the daunting three-headed monster the Lions had at wide receiver. On Tuesday, the Lions elected to remove one of Hydra’s heads, dealing their leading receiver Golden Tate to the Eagles for a third round pick. The surprising move has a lot of Lions fans scratching their heads.

Parting ways with Tate was big on a lot of levels for Detroit. In ten career games against the Vikings, he had 50 catches for 422 yards and four touchdowns. His teams won seven of those ten games. (WR Winz!) Those numbers aren’t staggering, but he always seemed to hurt the Vikings at the worst possible time. For instance, that walkoff touchdown in overtime of the 2016 game in Minnesota. There’s a reason why Xavier Rhodes named him one of the seven best players in the division earlier this year. Tate is an absolute terror to bring down and can make big plays out of almost nothing.

Taking Tate out of the equation will drastically change what the Lions have done this year in both scheme and personnel. He took 241 snaps from the slot this season, which is ten more than all of the other Lions wide receivers combined. Detroit had run four receiver sets on 12% of their snaps, more than twice as often than any other team in the league. That number is bound to decline with only two proven receivers remaining on the roster.

Those two proven receivers are still dangerous though. Kenny Golladay has already emerged as one of the league’s best deep threats in his second season as a pro. Marvin Jones Jr. is still a force to be reckoned with and one of the few players that has had consistent success against Rhodes. Still, Tate was was Stafford’s safety valve. It will be interesting to see who gets an uptick in snaps and targets with him gone, especially in crucial situations. We’ll see if Golladay is ready to be a true WR1 in Detroit.

If the Lions struggle to maintain drives on offense, their defense hasn’t exactly been a unit they can lean on this season. Detroit currently ranks 30th across the board in defensive DVOA. They’re second worst in yards per game and yards per carry allowed on the ground. Despite the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. (aka “Snacks”) last week, the Seahawks still ran for 176 yards. Detroit actually has an impressive group of run stoppers on the interior line now; Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and rookie Da’Shawn Hand have all been solid against the run this year. But if Latavius Murray, Mike Boone, and Roc Thomas (assuming Dalvin Cook misses his fifth straight game on Sunday) can bounce to the outside or get to the second level, watch out. Linebackers Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones haven’t been impressive. The Lions have been susceptible to runs out of shotgun this year, especially in the Dallas and Seattle games. I could see Boone and Thomas being utilized on plays like this Sunday.

Even if the Vikings’ run game fails to get going—after all, they’re still only 29th in rushing yards, 28th in rushing DVOA, and ranked 26th in the run game by Pro Football Focus—you can still pass on this Lions secondary. While the raw pass defense numbers seem good at first glance, a closer look shows a team that has regressed a bit in that area. Darius Slay and Glover Quin aren’t enjoying as much success as they had a year ago. Nevin Lawson is exceedingly average. But if the Vikings can target one player like they picked on Eli Apple and P.J. Williams (except for those two turnovers he caused) last Sunday, it would be Teez Tabor, who has started the last three games at outside corner for Detroit. The Seahawks were 4 of 4 for 97 yards against him last week. Look for John DeFilippo to try and scheme ways to throw his direction.

The Vikings should be able to move the ball against Detroit, with one very important caveat that we’re forced to talk about each and every week: limiting pressure and costly mistakes. After a couple respectable showings against the Cardinals and Jets, the offensive line was back to their usual disorder against the Saints on Sunday night. Kirk Cousins was under pressure on 22 of his 45 dropbacks against New Orleans, and a few of those instances proved to be disastrous. Cousins couldn’t see that Diggs had stopped his route on the game-sealing pick-six because of a collapsing pocket. Three of the four Saints sacks happened so fast that Cousins barely had time to blink, let alone scan the field.

The Lions could be getting Ezekiel Ansah back this week, who has been out since the opening game with a shoulder injury. If he’s in and Riley Reiff and/or Tom Compton are still out, that’s one more way things could go horribly wrong for the Minnesota line.

The frequent pressure has oftentimes started a domino effect that leads to horrible mistakes that kill promising drives. It should surprise nobody that the Vikings are +8 in turnover differential in their four wins this season and -6 in their four non-wins. Likewise, the Lions are +3 in their three wins and -7 in their four losses. Win the turnover battle, win the game. Sometimes it’s just that simple. It’s probably unrealistic to expect the Vikings to play a full game without any major mistakes; we now have half a season showing us otherwise. At some point, all the weekly gaffes and miscommunications transition from “working out the kinks early in the season” to their actual identity as a team. But if they can limit the damage—and that’s about as big as ifs get these days—they should be able to grind out long drives against a suspect Detroit defense.

Taking care of the ball and controlling the clock are two excellent ways to get off to a fast start, which the Vikings will definitely want to do on Sunday. The Lions have jumped out to a double-digit halftime lead in each of their three victories, which is the best medicine for hiding a sub-par defense. Stafford’s performance has been markedly better with the lead as well; his quarterback rating is 15 points higher when Detroit is ahead compared to when trailing. If the Vikings can put some points up early and make the Lions more one-dimensional, they should be able to maintain or improve upon the impressive 3.2 sacks per game average they have enjoyed against Stafford.

Divisional games are always tough to predict, especially with an opponent as volatile as the Lions. But as long as Minnesota can limit the game-changing negative plays that have plagued them at times throughout the season, they should be able succeed on both sides of the ball. The Lions could be struggling to find their new offensive identity in their first game without Tate, and their defense just isn’t very good overall. I expect a healthy dose of the run game and some chunk plays through the air by Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs (if Diggs is able to suit up with his rib injury, of course) on offense. The (hopefully) healthier defense should be able to contain Johnson and force Stafford into a couple key negative plays. Going into the bye week on a high note is just what this team needs.

If the Vikings can’t take care of business at home and start their three-game division gauntlet with a win, their playoff hopes will truly be livin’ on a prayer.

Prediction

Vikings 26, Lions 20


And now for the rest of my Week 9 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

49ERS over Raiders

I’m heading up north for my annual deer hunting trip Thursday night, and I’ll be driving for most of this game. I don’t anticipate scanning the airwaves for a Westwood One station so I can catch this dreck.

Falcons over REDSKINS

I know Adrian Peterson left town with more baggage than a 747, but I’m still low-key excited to see him chugging along at age 33. I keep doubting Washington, and they keep proving me wrong. So I’m going to doubt them yet again this week! I think Atlanta can outscore them despite their injury-ravaged defense.

Bears over BILLS

My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 6-2 on the season after the Chiefs held off the Broncos in Week 8. Picking Mitchell Trubisky on the road is never a sure thing...but it’s also that Chicago defense against that Buffalo offense. I’ll take my chances.

Chiefs over BROWNS

The Browns put both Hue Jackson and Todd Haley out of their misery this week, resulting in the rare power struggle where both sides lost. That leaves none other than professional dirtball Gregg Williams as interim Head Coach! USA Today’s Doug Farrar said it best:

Jets over DOLPHINS

I know the Jets already lost at home to Miami, but I’m still picking the upset. Why? I have no idea. Do you really care? I mean, it’s the freaking Jets and Dolphins. Let’s just move on.

Steelers over RAVENS

I’d point out how Pittsburgh is playing better than Baltimore lately, but I have strict instructions from NFL talking heads that I am required to throw the records out when these two teams meet.

PANTHERS over Buccaneers

AP having a career renaissance in Washington is surprising. Norv Turner actually coaching to his players’ strengths and transforming into one of the more creative play callers in the league is downright flabbergasting.

BRONCOS over Texans

Just because I want to see the hilarity of Demaryius Thomas losing at his former home stadium five days after getting traded to the visiting team.

Chargers over SEAHAWKS

If we’re going to take the Chargers seriously—and I am, despite the fact that Anthony Lynn is running the show—they have to win on the road against the surprisingly plucky Seahawks.

Rams over SAINTS

P.J. Williams allowed 8 catches on 9 targets for 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings. But since he forced a fluke fumble and caught a ball that was thrown directly to him, he was somehow named NFC Defensive Player of the Week. I was going to pick the Saints to win, but I changed it out of protest for that bullshit.

Packers over PATRIOTS

I hate the fact that the Pats are coming off a short week, they don’t need the game nearly as much as Green Bay does, and this has all the makings of a 3.5-hour Cris Collinsworth/Aaron Rodgers slurp fest. I really hope I get this one wrong.

COWBOYS over Titans

When people talk about the innovations and evolution of “today’s NFL,” they are most definitely NOT talking about these two teams.

Last week: 11-3
Season so far: 77-42-2