Pregame: New faces mix with old rivalries in Vikings-Lions
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Two NFL greats have been mainstays of Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions football since 2007, but in the 13th meeting between running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Calvin Johnson -- it's the new faces that have coaches, fans and media buzzing.
Prior to kickoff, the win count stands at Adrian Peterson: 8, Calvin Johnson: 4.
Running back Reggie Bush, receiver Greg Jennings and kicker David Akers are a few key changes to Sunday's regular season opener for both squads, along with a retooled Lions' offensive line and a slew of Vikings' rookies.
"One of our new faces, Greg [Jennings], is familiar with the division," Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. "So that will help, we believe."
The loss of players like former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield and former Lions' defensive end Cliff Avril create question marks, while other roster moves provide exploitable mismatches.
However, coach Leslie Frazier isn't relying on the Vikings' undefeated record over the Lions last year, which included a bevy of strong defensive and special teams performances.
"There's nothing we can hold onto from a season ago," Frazier said.
For the purple:
The Lions return just two of their starting offensive linemen from a season ago after letting tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Steven Peterman walk and watching left tackle Jeff Backus retire after 188 career starts.
That leaves Vikings' defensive end Jared Allen salivating over second-year tackle Riley Reiff, who has only just began settling in at the anchor position on the left side after a rookie season at swing tackle.
"The weirdest thing is, it makes you realize how old you're getting, when guys you've played with your whole career start retiring [Backus]," Allen said. "I'm excited, I think having a new young guy over there just motivates you more."
Allen's presence on the right end often draws chips and double teams, opening things up for other defensive linemen like Everson Griffen, Fred Evans, Brian Robison and rookie Sharrif Floyd -- who is filling in for veteran Kevin Williams as he sits for the first time since 2011 (his first from injury since 2005).
In 11 career games, Allen has 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception for a touchdown against the Lions.
In Week 4 last season, the Vikings' scored just six points on offense, yet won 20-13 at Detroit because of former receiver Percy Harvin's 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the game and cornerback Marcus Sherels' 77-yard punt return for a score in the second half.
Detroit's longtime kicker Jason Hanson retired, but the Lions replaced him with a veteran in Akers. However, that likely won't solve their league-worst 0.6 non-offensive touchdowns scored against them each week last season (two from MN in Week 4).
The Vikings had the top special teams unit in football last year (rankings by the Dallas Morning News) and the loss of Harvin seems to have been buoyed at least by receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who flashed his kick return ability at the University of Tennessee and this preseason.
"That's a good foundation, but you can't rest on your laurels," Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "You can't ever say this is who we are all the time."
This one is a little self explanatory. The league's reigning MVP is a mismatch for any defense, no matter how many are stacked inside the box.
Peterson has seven 100-yard rushing games in his career against Detroit, including two last season. Frazier said Peterson will get as many carries "as we need to win," so if quarterback Christian Ponder looked like anything he did in the preseason, expect a heavier Peterson dose than normal (averaged 20 carries/game last season).
"I kind of like having the great running back that we have," Frazier said when comparing Peterson and Johnson.
For the blue:
The Vikings haven't lined up against running back Reggie Bush since 2010, but even then he was never really a problem.
In three career games against Minnesota, Bush has averaged seven carries for 17 yards. The former University of Southern California Trojan only hurts the Vikings when he gets out in space, averaging five receptions for 43 yards each game. Bush's dynamic speed and versatility provided a lethal bite just once, in their first meeting in 2008, when Bush returned two punts for touchdowns against the Vikings as a member of the New Orleans Saints (which was oddly the only time the Vikings have beaten Bush, winning 30-27 in the Superdome.)
"Very difficult," Defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "You have another dimension where not only can Calvin Johnson beat you but Reggie Bush can beat you underneath. That's the problem, but you have to pick and choose your poison. You can't defend everything."
Bush won't return kickoffs or punts in Detroit, as he starts in the backfield. But don't sleep on his ability to run after the catch, as the Lions will likely deploy a variety of screen passes and other manufactured touches for Bush to slow the Vikings' defensive line.
"We can guess and try and predict what they'll do with [Bush], but we just make sure we have to go out and read our keys and focus on what we're supposed to do," Williams said. "Because if we hunt up too many snakes or too many ghosts, we won't do anything."
The Vikings saw the contained Calvin Johnson and the untamed Megatron last season.
Megatron caught 12 of 13 passes thrown his way for 207 yards and a touchdown in Week 10 against the Vikings. That was with Winfield playing every snap and cornerback Chris Cook sidelined with a broken arm, which forced cornerback A.J. Jefferson into extended action.
The Vikings' often-used nickel packages, which provide an extra cornerback and remove a linebacker, are designed to slow down a passing team like Detroit. But with Winfield gone, the Vikings are relying on cornerback Josh Robinson, who allowed four catches on four targets for 47 yards and a touchdown to Megatron in the Week 10 meeting.
"We didn't leave covering him to just one guy, we kind of spread it around and had some different looks," Williams said.
To be fair, Johnson also caught every pass thrown his way over A.J. Jefferson (20yds), Winfield (11yds), former middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley (20yds), safety Harrison Smith (19yds), safety Mistral Raymond (2 for 50yds) and safety Jamarca Sanford (50yds).
The Vikings want to contain Johnson, like they did in Week 4, when he caught just five passes for 54 yards on 12 targets. However, the Vikings will place an unproven mixture of rookie Xavier Rhodes, along with Robinson, Cook, Jefferson and Sherels on Megatron.
"[Rhodes] is still going to be young when we line up on Sunday against one of the all-time greats at this point in our game," Frazier said. "So he'll have his hands full but he's made a lot of progress and he'll have to go through some things this coming Sunday."
The one tested theory against Johnson is quarterback pressure, and the Vikings can supply plenty of that.
"I think we just executed and tackled extremely well," Williams said.
The Vikings had just two sacks in the Week 10 meeting when Johnson went off for 207 yards.
•Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway and Harrison Smith were the only Vikings' defenders to play every snap in two meetings against Detroit last season.
•Winfield's production: 20 total tackles, two pass deflections and a forced fumble against the Lions a year ago, will need to be replaced.
•Lions' defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh lineup everywhere along the defensive line and should give Vikings' guards Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco a long day. Musgrave: "It will be one of the tougher fronts that well face the whole year, if not the toughest."