Preview: Vikings vs. Lions
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Who: Detroit Lions (0-2) vs. Minnesota Vikings (0-2).
When: Noon Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome.
TV: Fox (KMSP, Ch. 9).
Line: Vikings by 11.
Coaches: Vikings -- Brad Childress (fifth year, 37-32); Lions -- Jim Schwartz (second year, 2-15).
Series: Vikings lead 65-30-2.
At stake: For the Vikings, it's as close to a must-win as a team could face in Week 3. They've scored 19 points total in offensively inept losses to New Orleans and Miami. Losing to Detroit -- a team they've beaten seven of eight times in the Childress era -- and going into the bye week 0-3 would be catastrophic, especially with a daunting four-game stretch awaiting them in October. The Lions also have lost two close games (to Chicago and Philadelphia by a combined eight points) and would get a huge boost from knocking off the two-time defending NFC North Division champions in their own building.
Vikings: CB Cedric Griffin (knee), CB Chris Cook (knee) and DT Jimmy Kennedy (knee) are questionable. WR Bernard Berrian (knee), QB Brett Favre (ankle/right elbow), WR Percy Harvin (hip), LB Ben Leber (back), LT Bryant McKinnie (finger) and C John Sullivan (calf) are probable. WR Sidney Rice (hip) is on the reserve/physically unable to perform list.
Lions: WR Nate Burleson (ankle), LB Zack Follett (concussion) and QB Matthew Stafford (right shoulder) are out. DE Cliff Avril (knee/finger), LB Landon Johnson (neck), LB DeAndre Levy (groin) and G Stephen Peterman (foot) are questionable. S C.C. Brown (forearm), S Louis Delmas (groin/biceps/calf) and LB Ashlee Palmer (ankle) are probable. Seven players, including DE Jared DeVries (knee) and LB Jordon Dizon (knee), are on injured reserve.
Five things to watch
Passing test: The Lions defense ranks among the NFL's worst in pass defense (305 yards per game), opponent passer rating (108.1) and points allowed (27), including touchdown passes of 89, 28 and 45 yards. So, is this the week the Vikings' passing game gets on track? That depends on several factors, including Favre's ability to get the ball to his wide receivers -- who have combined for only 13 catches through two games -- and the offensive line's ability to handle a Detroit pass rush that already has nine sacks. The marquee matchup is McKinnie versus RE Kyle Vanden Bosch, who had 1½ sacks last week against three-time Pro Bowl pick Jason Peters of Philadelphia. McKinnie has been excellent in protection so far, allowing only one QB hit -- albeit at a bad time on the final drive last week against Miami. RT Phil Loadholt, on the other hand, has been only a shade better than awful, and Sullivan and RG Anthony Herrera have had costly lapses, too. The Lions can rush from all four spots with LE Turk McBride (two sacks), DT Corey Williams (one) and DT Ndamukong Suh (two), the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft. It'll be tough to exploit the secondary downfield if Favre doesn't have time in the pocket.
Back-end help: Barring a setback, there is a decent chance CBs Chris Cook and Cedric Griffin both will return from their respective knee injuries and play against WR Calvin Johnson and company. CBs Asher Allen and Lito Sheppard have held up OK in their absence, but each was burned on the opening drive of a loss and has limitations in coverage -- especially Sheppard, whose lacking man skills can be exploited if an opponent isolates him on the perimeter. Superior size helps Cook (6-foot-2, 212 pounds) and Griffin (6-foot, 203) beat up receivers at the line and sink in Cover-2, although Johnson (6-5, 236) has gotten the better of Griffin in the past. A secondary with either Griffin or Cook opposite Antoine Winfield in base and the other bumping Winfield inside in nickel is an upgrade, period. Sunday could provide the first glimpse of how that group will look for the long haul.
Where's the rush?: RE Jared Allen simply hasn't been himself in the Vikings' first two games -- the latest slow start for the All-Pro pass rusher, whose career average of .77 sacks per game in September is far lower than his numbers in October (1.38), November (1.15) and December (1.12). When Allen has pressured the quarterback, it's mostly been off late counter moves, and Miami LT Jake Long was the clear victor in last week's All-Pro showdown. But there won't be many better matchups for Allen than playing at the Metrodome against aging Lions LT Jeff Backus, who allowed the hit to Chicago's Julius Peppers that sidelined franchise QB Stafford in Week 1. So far, LE Ray Edwards has been more impactful, and it's not all because Allen draws more attention in protection on the opposite side. Edwards has been better against the run, too, and there will be plays to be made on the edge against dynamic rookie RB Jahvid Best. Bottom line: the Vikings need more production than Allen, and history suggests it'll come -- perhaps beginning against the Lions, who will start veteran backup QB Shaun Hill for a second straight week.
Moving people: Another week, another challenge in the run game for Sullivan, who hasn't generated the consistent movement the Vikings need to make their inside-zone scheme go. In fact, the Vikings have done a lot of their damage on "power" plays with a pulling guard -- calls that more easily hide Sullivan's struggles moving big nose tackles. Though RB Adrian Peterson can make a lot of things happen on his own, no back should be asked to generate so much unblocked yardage in his own backfield. Suh isn't huge (6-foot-4, 307 pounds) but packs a punch and has a quick first step, primarily lining up over the right guard. Sullivan's biggest asset is his mental aptitude, so facing a 4-3 front that loves to run stunts and twists probably is more favorable than trying to stand up a zero-technique over and over for 60 minutes.
Happy returns: At this early stage, the Vikings' willingness to throw Darius Reynaud into the Sage Rosenfels deal looks like a mistake. Reynaud did fumble three times last season and hasn't lit it up with the New York Giants, averaging 15.3 yards on six kick returns and 6.0 yards on five punt returns. But WR Bernard Berrian has muffed two punts in as many games, WR Greg Camarillo fumbled on one of his two returns last week and neither has shown Reynaud's aptitude or explosion in that phase. Special-teams coordinator Brian Murphy said the plan is to give Berrian and Camarillo another shot this week, but don't be surprised if Harvin gets his chance sooner than later. Averaging 3.2 yards per return just won't cut it.
No matter how poorly the Vikings offense has performed so far and how improved the Lions appear to be in Schwartz's second season, it's tough to bet against the home team. Detroit hasn't won at the Metrodome since 1997 and has lost 21 consecutive road games overall. The Vikings know their season is at a crossroads. The guess here is the Lions are the team that falls to 0-3 unless turnovers make a mess of things for a second straight week.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Lions 13.