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Vikings vs. Lions Week 14 Preview: Handle It

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No more close calls. No more blown coverages. No more excuses. The Vikings need to take care of business against the lowly Lions on Sunday.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Washington Redskins
Radical idea: maybe don’t let Marvin Jones turn into Jerry Rice 2.0 this time around.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re Facebook friends with literally any women between the ages of 25 and 45, chances are you have seen some variation of this phrase posted roughly six thousand times:

It’s the pumpkin spice latte of inspirational quotes—its saccharine nature is overshadowed only by its ubiquity. Of course, there’s a reason why it has been shared countless times over every social media platform. The quote is widely appreciated by 80’s and 90’s kids that are starting to have kids of their own because it’s so relatable and applicable to so many situations. It’s basically a fun way of saying “everyone has problems, so suck it up and deal with yours” when faced with adversity.

After a disappointing loss in Seattle on Monday night, the Vikings certainly need to suck it up before hosting the Detroit Lions this coming Sunday. The once-proud defense was scorched for 444 yards by the Seahawks, which is becoming more of a norm than an anomaly. A disastrous third quarter erased a solid first half, and now the Vikings are just as close to the pack chasing for the final Wild Card spot as they are to an NFC North title. With three of their final four regular season games at home—where the Vikings are 5-0 this year—they need to get their affairs in order for the stretch run starting this week.

If you’re looking to get right, there are few teams you’d rather face than the Lions. The Motor City Kitties have lost five straight and are already resigned to yet another losing season at 3-8-1. They’re starting a third string quarterback and their second-year Head Coach has an extremely warm rear end. The Vikings were 2-point favorites in their Week 7 meeting in Detroit; as of this posting they’re favored by 13 on Sunday.

A double-digit point favorite at home, you say? Surely, the Vikings are doomed! They needed an epic comeback to beat the Broncos three weeks ago and got destroyed by the Bills last year! The Vikings are notorious for letting bad teams hang around!

It’s true that Minnesota has failed to cover the past five times they have been favored by ten or more points in the Mike Zimmer era. But outside of the Bills disaster, the Vikings have won the other six games where they were double-digit favorites. The notion that the Vikings always let bad teams hang around is based more in perception than reality.

So how do they ensure that a 9-4 record is a reality on Sunday afternoon? For starters, the defense could get their collective sh*t together. The easiest place to start is with Xavier Rhodes, who has taken the mantle from Kirk Cousins as the scapegoat for all the team’s problems. Rhodes certainly deserves a lot of the scorn he is currently receiving these days, because just about everyone is receiving against him these days. No defender has more penalties called (ten) and accepted (eight) against him this season. Rhodes leads all NFL players with 138 penalty yards. When he isn’t committing fouls, it’s just as bad. According to Pro Football Focus, Rhodes is allowing an astounding 86.9% of his targets to be completed for a 132.6 quarterback rating. (Cousins, who is currently leading the NFL in quarterback rating, is at 111.9.) Rhodes was an All-Pro two years ago. On Wednesday, he called his own impromptu press conference to issue an apology for his blown coverage and subsequent sideline outburst on Monday night. It’s alarming how quickly we have gone from #RhodesClosed to #Rhodested.

I was a guest host on the Zone Coverage Football Machine Wednesday night, and Sam Ekstrom had some excellent thoughts about Rhodes’ plight. The former shutdown corner is being asked to do different things this season because he can no longer do what he was best known for at a high level—namely, picking out the opposing team’s best receiver and shutting him down with lots of press coverage. Zimmer keeps talking about improving Rhodes’ technique in press conferences, which is kind of bizarre for such an established player that has traditionally been asked to do so much in this defense. Perhaps by giving Rhodes coverage tasks that are perceived to be easier, it’s proving to be more difficult because Rhodes spent the past six seasons covering in a different way. Does this absolve Rhodes from being the 116th ranked cornerback by PFF? Hell no. But I do think it’s an interesting theory about what has contributed to his struggles this season.

Having said all that, it isn’t just Rhodes that’s responsible for the Vikings defense taking a step back, especially last week. If you take away the easy 60-yard touchdown on the blown coverage, Russell Wilson averaged only six yards per attempt with his other 30 passes. The run defense was incredibly weak in Seattle, giving up 218 yards at 5.1 yard per carry clip. As Mark Craig of the Star Tribune covered, the Vikings seemingly had no answer when Seattle brought in tackle George Fant as an extra blocker.

Minnesota kept two safeties deep on a majority of their snaps, which is already inviting the run for an offense with extra blockers. Getting pushed around by an extra offensive lineman with fewer defenders in the box is one thing, but there were times in Monday night’s game where the Vikings seemed set up to fail from the beginning. The 25-yard Chris Carson run that set up the game-tying touchdown early in the third quarter featured some truly bizarre gap assignments by the Vikings linebackers.

Even when they were lined up correctly, Minnesota defenders routinely were moved off their spots and failed to set the edge. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen were often swallowed up by one of the extra blockers. Linval Joseph returned from injury on Monday but didn’t have his usual impact in the middle. Big Goon’s nagging maladies have prevented him from being the player we’re used to seeing.

Shamar Stephen and the rotating cast of three-technique defensive tackles did have their usual impact—very little. Hercules Mata’afa was a Training Camp darling but has been a healthy scratch for the past five games. Jalyn Holmes hasn’t done much when sparingly given opportunities. Jaleel Johnson has had some big plays this season but can blend into the background just as much as Stephen at times. Armon Watts has started to show flashes the last few games, but he only has 33 defensive snaps in his NFL career thus far. The Vikings are getting virtually no pass rush up the middle unless they move Ifeadi Odenigbo inside on passing downs. They carry six defensive tackles on their 53-man roster, yet it quietly remains one of the biggest issues on their defense.

Courtney Cronin of ESPN noted that the Seahawks had a whopping 143 yards rushing before contact on Monday. She also wrote about how this defense needs to fix their defensive issues if they hope to avoid a one-and-done playoff scenario. It feels totally foreign to have a Mike Zimmer defense be the part of team that could ultimately spell their demise, yet that’s exactly where we are at the moment.

The defensive assignment isn’t quite as difficult as facing Wilson this Sunday. Like Brandon Allen before him, David Blough is making his second NFL start in Minnesota. The undrafted rookie out of Purdue acquitted himself pretty well against the Chicago defense on Thanksgiving, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Blough quickly realized that throwing deep to Kenny Golladay is generally a good idea. The Lions were airing the ball out more than any other team when Matthew Stafford was healthy; that option still appears to be on the table with Blough.

The Vikings made Marvin Jones Jr. look like Jerry Rice 2.0 and Danny Amendola had over 100 yards in their Week 7 matchup, but Golladay remains Detroit’s biggest threat down the field. There obviously isn’t a ton of tape on Blough, which may work to the Lions’ advantage in a way. You can’t glean tendencies from a one-game sample size.

What you can do is get after Blough early and often to force him into rookie mistakes. The Vikings had 33 total pressures in their first meeting with the Lions. Detroit’s offensive line has been remarkably healthy this year, but they’re middle of the road in most metrics. Minnesota’s pass rushers need to have a better showing after being relatively silent in Seattle.

Defending Blough will be a new experience for the Vikings, and he won’t be the only new face in the backfield for the Lions. Bo Scarbrough has taken over the bulk of the duties in the run game over the past three weeks. He’s a big, bruising runner that usually finishes his runs falling forward. The Lions have over 100 yards rushing as a team in each of the games he has played after failing to reach that mark in the previous five games.

Scarbrough has yet to be involved in the Lions passing game though. J.D. McKissic is still filling the role that Jerick McKinnon used to have with the Vikings. Ty Johnson, who saw a team-high ten carries after Kerryon Johnson went down in Week 7, is still in the rotation as well.

There are a couple important pieces out of the rotation for the Lions this time around. Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury last week against Chicago. Jesse James and Logan Thomas will try to fill the void there. On the defensive side of the ball, Quandre Diggs got his second game against the Vikings a week earlier than anticipated because he was traded to Seattle. Several Lions players took to social media to voice their displeasure about the trade after it happened; perhaps they knew the trade was making an already shaky defense worse.

Detroit’s defense is bad just about any way you look at it. They’re dead last in pass rush win rate. They’re 29th in total defense, 28th in defensive DVOA, and 30th in overall PFF defensive grade. The Vikings racked up over 500 yards on them back in October. Looking back at Minnesota’s offense on that day, it’s hard to find a critique of their performance. If they can get close to a repeat performance on Sunday, they should win comfortably.

It would be a lot easier to duplicate that performance if the Vikings offense was going to be at full strength. Former Lion Riley Reiff suffered a concussion in Seattle and didn’t practice on Wednesday. Adam Thielen’s last reception was his 25-yard touchdown catch against the Lions seven weeks ago; his availability remains in question. Dalvin Cook keeps claiming that he’ll be ready to play on Sunday, but he appeared to be in a lot of pain after being hurt on a play where he fumbled on Monday night. Alexander Mattison should probably see an increased role even if Cook is close to 100%. If Cook is hampered at all, giving the rookie running back more touches is a nice available alternative.

Minnesota racked up 166 yards on the ground in the first game against Detroit, and the Lions are only 23rd against the run this season. However, their run defense has improved over the past few games even more than the run offense. Detroit allowed 135.8 rushing yards per game on the ground over their first eight games and only 82.5 over their last four. It’s a huge improvement, but two of those four games came against the Bears, who currently rank 31st in rushing DVOA. The Vikings should still be able to move the ball on the ground Sunday.

Luke Braun noticed a trend in the Vikings run game that has been more effective lately: draw plays. Opposing defenses have been attacking around the edges more in order to prevent the play action roll outs that have been so effective for the Vikings offense. Draw plays are a great way to take advantage of the wider defensive alignments. We could see more draws like this run by Mattison going forward.

In the passing game, look for the Vikings to target #27 in white and Honolulu Blue—cornerback Justin Coleman. Anthony Miller had 6 catches for 107 yards against Coleman last week. This wasn’t a one-game anomaly either. Coleman is the most targeted cornerback in the NFL and gives up the second most yards per coverage snap among all corners with at least 250 snaps played according to PFF.

There’s little doubt about the better team in this matchup. Detroit has some glaring holes and just can’t seem to catch a break. But don’t just assume that the Lions will lay down. Despite their abysmal record, they have had the lead in every single game this season. The Vikings are the only team to beat the Lions by more than one score this year.

Beware the team with nothing to play for and a coach trying to save his job. The Vikings got burned on a fake punt last week and a wide receiver pass the game before; I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the Lions tried some trickery of their own on Sunday. Hell, maybe they throw Kyle Sloter out there to get some revenge against his former team.

No matter what the Lions may throw at them, the Vikings need to take care of business and remain unblemished at home. If they drop this game, the division title is all but gone and they’re at serious risk of falling back to the Wild Card pack. That simply cannot happen.

The Vikings should already be plenty motivated to get the win on Sunday, but just in case, here’s an inspirational quote someone shared on Facebook:

Toss the ball around against this bad Lions defense
Drink in that U.S. Bank Stadium atmosphere
Put on some “Skol Vikings”
And handle it.

Prediction

Vikings 31, Lions 20


And now for the rest of my Week 14 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):

Cowboys over BEARS

Chicago doesn’t have a winning record, so Dallas can win and still keep their narrative. I’ll enjoy laughing at the losing team no matter what, but I’d prefer to get this pick right just to make sure the Bears aren’t lurking in the Wild Card race.

FALCONS over Panthers

The Panthers already got rid of Ron Rivera, so I’ll pick the team with the coach that’s still making a last-ditch effort to save his job.

Ravens over BILLS

Baltimore has been beating teams with great records for most of the past two months, and I don’t expect the run to end in Buffalo. The Bills have a great defense, but I’m not sure how you beat Lamar Jackson and that Ravens offense right now.

BROWNS over Bengals

If Cincinnati didn’t get their win out of the way last week, I’d be tempted to pick the upset here and watch the downward spiral continue for the Cleveland.

TEXANS over Broncos

My survivor pool pick of the week, now 12-1 on the season after the Packers dispatched the Giants last week. Drew Lock looked fine in his NFL debut last week, but the Texans won’t conveniently self-destruct like the Chargers did.

PACKERS over Redskins

Yawn. The tour of the NFC Least continues for Green Bay. The Vikings need the Pack to slip up once down the stretch outside of their Week 16 game to win the NFC North; this probably won’t be it.

BUCCANEERS over Colts

The Bucs are legit fun to watch every week. Jameis Winston can throw a touchdown to either team at any time. Meanwhile, Indianapolis is just too beat up. It sounds like T.Y. Hilton will remain out this week, even though his lingering injury has already murdered one of my fantasy teams. It looks like the Colts might finally be putting Adam Vinatieri out to pasture by claiming Chase McLaughlin off of waivers. It’s a sad end to an otherwise legendary career.

JETS over Dolphins

If the Jets lose this game, Adam Gase should be fired on the spot. You simply cannot get swept by this Miami team.

49ers over SAINTS

The Gauntlet of Death continues for the Niners. I thought they played pretty well in the rain in Baltimore, and I like how they match up against New Orleans. Plus I feel bad for them because the Vikings didn’t return the “beat the other team’s division rival” favor on Monday.

Chargers over JAGUARS

I know, I know. I’m picking the Chargers again knowing full well that they’ll probably blow it like they always do. I just want this to be the “so this is what the Chargers could be if they could just quit sabotaging themselves for once” game, instead of next week when they host the Vikings.

Titans over RAIDERS

Are the Titans...like...good? Even if they aren’t, I’ll trust them to suck less than the Raiders have over the past two games.

Chiefs over PATRIOTS

New England is something like 89-2 coming off a loss under Belichick and Brady, and they have won the last 21 games at Gillette Stadium including the playoffs. Belichick absolutely owns Andy Reid. But I seriously don’t know how the Patriots offense is going to score enough points to keep up with the Chiefs. I’m not declaring the dynasty dead by any means, but I do think the win streak is in serious jeopardy on Sunday.

Steelers over CARDINALS

This kind of feels like a trap game after a full week of “Wow look at what Mike Tomlin is doing with this beat up Pittsburgh team!” fluff pieces. But Arizona already appears to be packing it in for the year.

Seahawks over RAMS

OK, Seattle. We gave you a division lead. Now do us a solid and take care of our nearest Wild Card competition.

EAGLES over Giants

It sounds like we’re getting Eli Manning back in our lives for this one since Daniel Jones suffered a high ankle sprain. Manning beating the Eagles would be the cherry on top of a Philadelphia schadenfreude sundae, but I can’t bring myself to actually pick it to happen.

Last week: 8-8
Season so far: 117-74-1