Preview: If Joe Webb starts, Vikings must help him by running on Lions
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Who: Minnesota Vikings (2-10) at Detroit Lions (7-5).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Ford Field (capacity: 65,000), Detroit.
Line: Lions by 10.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 5-13); Lions -- Jim Schwartz (3rd year, 15-29).
Series: Vikings lead 66-32-2 overall and 30-19-1 as the visitors.
Last meeting: The Vikings blew a 20-0 halftime lead and Jason Hanson kicked a 32-yard field goal in overtime to lift the Lions to a 26-23 victory at the Metrodome on Sept. 25.
At stake: If the playoffs started today, the Lions would be the odd team out in a three-way tie for two NFC wild cards with Chicago and Atlanta. Their remaining schedule includes a visit to Oakland, a home game against San Diego and then a trip to Green Bay -- making this game a must-win against one of the NFL's bottom-feeders.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (not injury related) is out. HB Adrian Peterson (ankle) and QB Christian Ponder (hip) are questionable. LG Steve Hutchinson (illness), LE Brian Robison (concussion), CB Asher Allen (shoulder), SLB Chad Greenway (elbow), DE Everson Griffen (quadriceps), TE Visanthe Shiancoe (hand), MLB E.J. Henderson (shoulder), RG Anthony Herrera (knee) and WR Percy Harvin (finger) are probable.
Lions: DE Lawrence Jackson (thigh) is out. S Louis Delmas (knee) and CB Chris Houston (knee) are doubtful. LB Justin Durant (hamstring), DT Nick Fairley (foot), RB Kevin Smith (ankle) are questionable. G Rob Sims (shoulder) and DE Willie Young (ankle) are probable.
Five things to watch
Game-day decisions: The Vikings are in a tricky spot with Peterson and Ponder, who admittedly are less than 100% healthy but want to be on the field for different reasons. Peterson -- who said on Friday he can feel he's not running normally -- is as competitive as they come and is 324 yards short of his fifth consecutive 1,200-yard rushing season. Ponder -- who is expected to go through a pregame workout if he feels good on Sunday morning -- was unhappy with the injury-prone label that dogged him in college and wants to show he can play through pain. The Vikings can't take chances if they're concerned either player can't protect himself. But if they declare themselves ready to go, will the Vikings really stand in their way? Complicating all of this is the fact they're playing a Lions defense that has a reputation for playing past the whistle -- and surely knows where two of the opponent's most important players are hurting.
Get a move on: Regardless of who's under center or in the backfield, the Vikings offense must find a way to carry over the momentum built in last week's 35-32 loss to Denver. Take away Ponder's three turnovers, and it was perhaps the unit's best performance all season -- 27 first downs, 6-of-15 (40%) on third down, nearly 38 minutes of possession and 489 net yards on a remarkable 81 plays from scrimmage (85 including penalties). That included scoring drives of 96, 95 and 64 yards, all culminating with Ponder touchdown passes against the blitz. If Ponder can't start on Sunday, it'll be on OC Bill Musgrave to call a game backup QB Joe Webb can execute efficiently -- perhaps starting with attacking a Detroit run defense that is giving up 4.8 yards per carry (28th in the NFL) and 125 yards per game (22nd). A strong performance by the run-blocking unit got HB Toby Gerhart going last week and the Vikings could use another one. The absence of suspended DT Ndamukong Suh won't hurt.
Robison's decline: Frazier said Robison will be "full-go" seven days after suffering a concussion. Whether Robison gets his usual snaps remains to be seen -- especially considering the way his pass rush has tailed off, along with the rest of his game. Through five games, Robison had 4½ sacks and 24 unofficial QB hits/pressures. In eight games since, Robison has only one sack -- a touch job after Raiders QB Carson Palmer went fetal off a bootleg on Nov. 20 -- and eight additional hits/pressures. That's unacceptable production for an end who is getting upwards of 85% of the snaps in a scheme that leans heavily on a four-man rush. If coaches are really this blind to the way Robison is wearing down, perhaps knowing he's nicked will be the push they need to give Griffen and rookie DL Christian Ballard longer looks.
Bring some heat: A more balanced and consistent rush sure wouldn't hurt a secondary that is coming off an embarrassing performance against the Broncos. Opposing quarterbacks' numbers over the past seven games -- 146-of-200 passing (73%) for 1,808 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions -- paint a dire picture of an injury-depleted group that isn't going to get an influx of talent anytime soon. Allen's return won't hurt, considering he was playing the best of the guys remaining. But would the Vikings really use a 5-foot-9 corner to shadow Detroit's 6-5 star, WR Calvin Johnson? The more sensible approach probably is playing sides with Allen and CB Cedric Griffin, using CB Benny Sapp in the slot in nickel, and mixing coverage and blitzes to try to confuse QB Matthew Stafford and throw off the timing of the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense.
No more flags: If the Vikings have any chance for pulling the upset, they have to reduce the penalties and fundamental miscues that crop up when young players get expanded opportunities. FS Mistral Raymond played OK on defense in his first NFL start last week but took two boneheaded penalties on special teams. CB Brandon Burton wasn't terrible in his first action on defense but couldn't get off a block that sprung a 63-yard kick return. Ponder set the franchise's single-game rookie passing record but served up two interceptions into a simple Cover-2 and got the ball knocked out of his hands in the red zone. Injuries or no injuries, playing younger players is the only way to go at this stage. Coaches just have to try to keep the mistakes from being their downfall.
The Lions have dropped two straight and five of seven, but there's really no choice here.
Prediction: Lions 31, Vikings 17.