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Vikings at Lions Week 7 Preview: Ref-erendum

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To win their third straight game and avoid an 0-3 division record, the Vikings will have to beat an improved (and angry) Lions team.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers
Matthew Stafford and the Lions are airing it out this season.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

[Scene: a meeting room at NFL headquarters, Park Avenue, New York. Commissioner ROGER GOODELL sits at the head of an expensive boardroom table. To his right sits AL RIVERON, Senior Vice President of Officiating. To his left sits DeMAURICE SMITH, NFLPA Executive Director. Various lackeys scurry about in the background answering phones and bringing files to the leadership at the table.]

GOODELL: Gentlemen, I have brought you here today to discuss one of the biggest issues surrounding our great game today.

SMITH: Concussions? Trying to expand to a 17-game schedule in the next CBA while claiming player safety is paramount? The uptick in disgruntled star players demanding a trade or release well before the end of their contracts? Teams like the Dolphins openly tanking, which threatens the competitive balance of the league? Running backs being extremely devalued despite playing one of the most dangerous positions in the sport? The wildly inconsistent enforcement of the player conduct and substance abuse policies?

[GOODELL, startled, gives SMITH a puzzled look. A pregnant pause hangs over the room as the background noise stifles. Everyone in the room stares in disbelief. A smile slowly creeps across SMITH’s face.]

SMITH: Just kidding! You know that I’m just here as a puppet and I’ll go along with anything the league decides, even to the extreme detriment of the players I’m supposed to be representing the best interests of!

[The room erupts in laughter.]

GOODELL: Oh man, you almost got me there D! I thought I was going to have to tell on you to Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones!

SMITH: You mean the guys with the REAL power in the NFL?! No thank you!

[The laughing continues until GOODELL suddenly realizes the last comment was a dig at him.]

GOODELL: Uh, well, anyways, the real reason I brought you two here today was to discuss officiating. Our referees are constantly in the headlines. Nobody knows how to enforce the new rule tweaks we introduce each year. We need to fix this as soon as we can. Otherwise I might not be able to say my favorite empty press conference phrase: “the integrity of the game.” Al, what was that in Green Bay on Monday night? I thought we discussed that we can’t have the refs deciding games that blatantly. Do you want Sean Payton back in here throwing a tantrum until he gets his way again?

RIVERON: Sorry, boss. Clete Blakeman is one of my best guys. He did the Super Bowl a few years back. Clete and his guys had very specific instructions: make sure the Packers win, but—

RIVERON, SMITH, AND GOODELL: [in unison] —make it look like an accident.

GOODELL: Exactly. Now people are starting to actually care about football in Detroit. Nobody has given a crap about the Lions since Barry Sanders left! We need to make this go away.

RIVERON: On it, boss. I’ll make sure next week’s crew understands that they need to be “friendly” to Detroit.

GOODELL: Good. Wait, who do they play though? I don’t want the public catching on that most of these games are fi—

[SMITH interrupts, holding his fingers in his ears]

SMITH: La la la la la can’t hear you! Plausible deniability! Plausible deniability!

GOODELL: Thanks, D. My bad. Anyways, Al, who do they play?

RIVERON: The Vikings.

GOODELL: Oh, perfect. Those poor bastards will be used to it!

[The room erupts in laughter once again.]

[End scene]


I’m guessing that isn’t exactly how league discussions went down after Monday night’s debacle, but the fictional scene properly captures the psyche of the Lions and Vikings fan bases heading into Week 7. Detroit would be leading the division had they won in Green Bay. Instead, they’re last in the über-competitive NFC North. Lions beat writers have been reduced to combing through replays of all the horrible calls like the Zapruder Film. Their fans are so depressed that they’re literally listening to Radiohead. The Lions’ golden opportunity to defeat the Packers for a fifth straight time—a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 65 years—was snatched away by officiating that would have made Tim Donaghy blush.

Things aren’t nearly as bleak for the Vikings and their fans. At least, for now. Since their abysmal performance in Chicago, the Vikings have rattled off back-to-back 18-point wins while accumulating 937 total yards of offense. Kirk Cousins went from public enemy #1 to player of the week nominee. Stefon Diggs went from irritated to indomitable. People are suddenly realizing that the 2019 iteration of the Minnesota Vikings might actually be...good. That dangerous four-letter word is getting tossed around the Twin Cities again: hope.

Of course, we’re still prepared for everything to come crashing down at any moment. I tweeted an abbreviated version of the introduction to this article on Sunday night. It was met with countless variations of “that’s exactly what I was thinking!” from Vikings fans in the replies. So how can the Vikings avoid the other shoe from dropping in the Motor City and win their third straight game?

The Lions we’ll see at Ford Field on Sunday will have a lot of familiar faces, but they won’t look much like the Detroit team we saw last year. For starters, they’re lining up a lot differently than they did last season. Like the Vikings, the Lions ran the majority of their offense out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) in 2018. This season, Detroit is utilizing multiple tight ends and running backs a lot more, just like the Vikings. The difference for Detroit isn’t quite as stark as it is in Minnesota, but this table shows how much each team is mixing it up compared to last season.

Vikings/Lions personnel grouping differences

Personnel grouping 2018 Vikings 2019 Vikings Difference 2018 Lions 2019 Lions Difference
Personnel grouping 2018 Vikings 2019 Vikings Difference 2018 Lions 2019 Lions Difference
11 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) 68% 28% -40% 61% 46% -15%
12 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) 19% 27% +8% 15% 19% +4%
13 (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) 1% 7% +6% 2% 3% +1%
21 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) 7% 26% +19% 9% 19% +10%
22 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) 2% 11% +9% 3% 7% +4%
10 (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR) 1% 0% -1% 5% 1% -4%

[Note: if you still aren’t 100% sure what those two-digit personnel grouping numbers mean, here’s a quick breakdown.]

Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak have done well to revamp an offense that struggled in 2018, including a master class of play calling against the Eagles last week. But Stefanski isn’t the only Offensive Coordinator that has turned things around this year. Jim Bob Cooter’s replacement has made some big strides for the Lions. Of course, I’m speaking of none other than...[checks notes]...Darrell Bevell?!

Yes, that Darrell Bevell. He has done much more than simply mix in more variety with formations since arriving in Detroit. Matthew Stafford is playing some of the best football of his 11-year NFL career. He’s at or near career bests in quarterback rating, QBR, interception percentage, and every yards per attempt metric there is. Bevell has introduced more balance to the Lions offense—they’re running the ball 6% more often than last season—but the biggest difference is how they’re passing in 2019.

According to Next Gen Stats, Stafford averaged 7.0 air yards per attempt and his average pass was 2.0 yards behind the first down marker in 2018. Both numbers put him in the bottom five in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. This year his passes are traveling 10.9 air yards per attempt and they’re an average of 2.1 yards beyond the first down marker. Both of those marks would be best in the league if Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t constantly chucking the ball up for grabs in Miami. The combination of more formation variety and more shots downfield have made the Lions tougher to game plan for.

Kenny Golladay is always a big play threat and Marvin Jones Jr. is as reliable as they come. Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson is already showing some of the potential that made him the 8th overall pick. Kerryon Johnson is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield. The Vikings defense will need to stop the big plays from Detroit’s deep passing attack. Preventing big plays was something Minnesota did very well through the first five weeks of the season: they had allowed only eleven passing plays of 20 or more yards, and a good portion of those came in garbage time at the end of comfortable victories. Last week, the Eagles had six such plays. Doug Pederson was able to find a handful of mismatches, especially when they charged back during the third quarter.

The Lions can throw deep and the Vikings got beat deep a few times last week. Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes aren’t exactly having All-Pro seasons on the outside. I still wouldn’t count on Detroit bombing the ball all over Ford Field on Sunday. The Lions are a good passing team, but not unstoppable. In fact, many of the analytics surrounding their passing game are near or below that of the Vikings. Detroit is 4th in passing DVOA; Minnesota is 7th. The Vikings are 10th in expected points added by the passing game; the Lions are 12th. The Vikings are 3rd in adjusted yards per attempt while the Lions are 5th. The numbers are very similar even though Cousins barely passed in the first two wins and could barely pass in the only two losses.

While the passing offenses are fairly similar, the two offenses vary greatly when it comes to the running the ball. The Vikings have leaned on the production of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison to literally carry them through large stretches this season. The Lions haven’t had that luxury with their run game. Johnson is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. Detroit ranks 26th in team run grade from Pro Football Focus, 28th in rushing DVOA by Football Outsiders, and 29th in expected points added in the running game. It would be surprising to see the Lions gain a ton of yards on the ground against a pretty stout Minnesota run defense.

Detroit’s run defense was supposed to be a strength this season. After all, they have Damon Harrison Sr. eating up space in the middle. But injuries along the defensive line and a suspect linebacking corps have caused the Lions to allow 5.1 yards per carry and over 100 rushing yards in every game. Da’Shawn Hand hasn’t played a snap yet this season and is still limited in practice. Mike Daniels had some big games against the Vikings in seven seasons with the Packers, but he’s been out since Week 3 and didn’t practice on Wednesday. If the Vikings’ zone blocking can move the Lions front four out of the way, there are plenty of yards to be had at the second level, especially with Josh Kline on track to return.

Run blocking will be important to set the tone for the Vikings offense, but one of the major causes for their offensive explosion over the past two weeks is vastly improved pass blocking. Former Lion Riley Reiff is at risk to miss Sunday’s game; Trey Flowers could give Rashod Hill trouble as long as he isn’t getting called for more phantom penalties. But the bigger mismatches might be Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter against Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner. Right tackle Wagner has allowed 18 total pressures on 198 pass blocking snaps this season.

The Vikings have sacked Stafford an average of 3.5 times per game throughout his career, including 12 in their two meetings last year. Look for Hunter to extend his record of most sacks before the age of 25.

We can get pretty deep into the weeds with analytics, averages, and tendencies these days. But oftentimes it can still be boiled down the basics, like getting an early lead and taking care of the ball. Remarkably, the Vikings haven’t had a single lead change in any of their six games this season. They’re also 4-0 when they don’t lose the turnover battle. This team can ill afford to go 0-3 in what’s shaping up to be the toughest division in the NFL. The Lions aren’t the pushovers we saw last season and they’ll be plenty motivated after getting jobbed on Monday night. But as long as the Vikings can execute as well as they have the past couple of games, they should be able to leave Detroit with a 5-2 record.

Even with a few makeup calls thrown in.

Prediction

Vikings 24, Lions 16


And now for the rest of my Week 7 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Chiefs over BRONCOS

Two weeks ago, these division rivals were polar opposites. They could be one game apart by the end of the night. I’ll stick with K.C. here, even though they’re pretty beat up on offense and can’t seem to stop anyone on defense. I certainly wouldn’t gamble on it though. At the beginning of the month I might have made this my survivor pool pick.

Rams over FALCONS

Speaking of teams that looked a lot better two weeks ago: your Los Angeles Rams! I don’t think the addition of jLAen RAMSey (see what I did there) is going to cure everything that’s wrong with the team, but it should certainly be enough to get past the lowly Falcons.

BILLS over Dolphins

Happily jumping back on the “the team that’s playing the Dolphins” strategy for my survivor pool pick of the week. (I’m still alive at 6-0 after the Ravens beat the Bengals last week.) The Dolphins are the worst team through five games in the history of DVOA, which dates back to 1986. So yeah, I feel pretty good about picking against them on the road against the 4-1 Bills coming off a bye.

Jaguars over BENGALS

The Gardner Minshew II Choo Choo has gone off the rails the past couple weeks, and you’d think that Cincy eventually has to win a game eventually. But with Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue against that offensive line, I don’t think Minshew will have to put up many points to win.

PACKERS over Raiders

My favorite part of the disgraceful Monday night refereeing: the memes. My second favorite part: Packers fans on Twitter twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify all of it. They had to endure the Fail Mary and Jerry Rice maybe fumbling that one time. So getting a win your team didn’t deserve against one of the most tortured franchises in the history of sports is cool because you’ve had maybe three calls not go your way, ever? A Lions team that already had to endure losing on that stupid Hail Mary in 2015 after a phantom face mask call extended the game? I hope Oakland wins by 50 on Sunday. (But they won’t, because karma isn’t real, and because Packers.)

COLTS over Texans

It’s pretty weird that both teams are coming into this game off of surprising road upsets over the Chiefs. I think these teams are really evenly matched, so I’ll take the home team coming off a bye.

GIANTS over Cardinals

Two of the worst defenses in the league. Two rookie quarterbacks. It’s the perfect recipe for football volatility! I’m not sure what to expect from this game other than popping up on the RedZone Channel a lot. I can already hear Scott Hanson giddily yelling “AND WE HAVE ANOTHER CRAZY PLAY TO SHOW YOU FROM METLIFE STADIUM!”

49ers over REDSKINS

OK Niners, you got me. I’m officially admitting that you’re a good team. Which you totally don’t need to be to beat the Redskins, but I’m still sold.

Chargers over TITANS

Ryan Tannehill is coming in for Marcus Mariota this week, as if that’s going to magically propel this offense out of the landfill they’ve been stuck in for most of the past decade. I’ll take the Chargers because they won’t have to deal with all the noisy fans of the other team in their home stadium this week.

Saints over BEARS

I went back and forth on this one quite a bit. Alvin Kamara is banged up and the Bears are at home coming off a bye. But Teddy Bridgewater has already proven that he can win ugly in Chicago and the Bears might have to deal with the return of Mitchell Trubisky.

SEAHAWKS over Ravens

I don’t really care about the outcome of this game; I just want my two fantasy quarterbacks to put up a million points. Go Russell and Lamar!

Eagles over COWBOYS

These 3-3 division rivals have some pretty big flaws that have been exposed in recent weeks. I trust Doug Pederson to hide his team’s flaws better than Jason Garrett.

Patriots over JETS

At least the Jets have Sam Darnold back and look like a real NFL team again. Not an NFL team that will take down the team that has dominated their division for the past two decades, but hey, it’s a step in the right direction.

Last week: 7-7
Season so far: 56-35-1