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Updated: December 6th, 2011 11:39pm
Scouting Report: Vikings should try to exploit Lions' weak safeties

Scouting Report: Vikings should try to exploit Lions' weak safeties

by Sam Monson
Special to 1500ESPN.com
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The first time these two sides met, the Minnesota Vikings were reeling from an 0-2 start, having been firmly in control of both games. They blew their first encounter with the Detroit Lions as well, and things have been on a downward spiral since. The Lions may be in third place in the NFC North, but they have a winning record and are firmly in the playoff hunt. Sam Monson from ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down tape of every NFL game, takes an inside look at the Lions:

Scheme

The Lions remain the same schematically as they were earlier in the season, but we now have a little more information about what they like to do from a personnel standpoint. They still use their power scheme on the O-line with pulling guards, but they are flexible between running with heavy, multiple-tight end packages, and three-receiver sets. They don't even have a fullback getting snaps, but you will occasionally see a tight end lining up in the backfield to lead block. Their offense is at its best when it can establish play action and go deep down the field to WR Calvin Johnson (6-foot-5, 235 pounds).

The Lions' defense is a 4-3 scheme, with a lot of Cover-2 and Cover-1 on the back end, but the difference in this scheme lies in the front seven players. The defensive line presents some unusually wide splits, allowing them to target the gaps in the offensive line and pass rush effectively. The problem with that type of defense is that it puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers, who are asked to patrol more space behind the D-line and deal with more unchecked blockers when they work towards the football. They have a pair of big, thumping linebackers to pick up the slack from that scheme and it has been working so far.

Notable players

There really isn't anywhere to look on the Lions roster before you talk about Johnson, who is a physical freak and may be the most difficult receiver to cover in the NFL. He has the kind of size and athletic ability that puts almost all corners at an immediate major disadvantage, and he has the kind of ball skills to fix all but the most errant throws and come down with the reception.

The Lions will lean on Johnson and throw the ball to him when they are in doubt, and it takes a serious amount of dedication to stop him getting the ball and killing you. The Saints did it last week, but they employed the kind of creative double-teaming you're unlikely to see the Vikings go with, including jamming Johnson down by the goal line with a pair of defensive backs as if he were a gunner on the punt team.

Earlier in the season, you couldn't have expected the fine form of CB Chris Houston (5-9, 188) to continue at corner, but it has. Houston has been thrown at 66 times but allowed only 35 receptions (53%) at under 10 yards per completion. He has allowed just a pair of touchdowns compared to the four interceptions he has and a further four passes defended. In short Houston is having an extremely good season and is by far the Lions' best cornerback. He is playing well enough the Vikings would be wise to avoid him if possible in the game, instead choosing to target some of the far weaker defenders in coverage.

QB Matthew Stafford (6-2, 225) was kind of anointed as a star quarterback before anybody had really had the chance to properly evaluate him in the NFL. He kept suffering injuries that ended his season, but was flashing enough on either side of them that people were convinced he was a star who just couldn't catch a break in terms of health. Now he's been playing and we're starting to see some flaws that all young passers have, and you can't just gloss over them. Matters are made worse by a broken finger on his throwing hand, which has forced him to experiment with a glove on that hand, and in the past few weeks, it has caused some seriously errant throws. Stafford is well capable of making every throw in the book, but he is also capable of a catastrophic poor decision or a wayward throw straight to a defender.

Strengths and weaknesses

The Lions have a hole at safety that you could drive a truck through. FS Amari Spievey (5-11, 195) in particular is the free, cover safety, and he is allowing 69.6% of the passes thrown into his coverage to be completed for 15.9 yards. SS Louis Delmas (5-11, 202) is performing better in coverage but has struggled in run support, which should be his strength. The pair has combined to miss 24 tackles and represent a major weakness the Vikings should be trying to exploit.

Even with the loss of DT Ndamukong Suh (6-4, 307) to suspension, the Lions remain a formidable outfit on the defensive line. Players earning spot-duty such as DE Lawrence Jackson (6-5, 268), DT Sammie Lee Hill (6-4, 329) and DE Willie Young (6-4, 251) have all been playing very well and are crying out for more snaps. Eight different players on the D-line have notched sacks this season and seven players have managed more than a dozen total quarterback pressures, or one per game. What they lose in raw talent and athleticism, the Lions may actually make up in gap integrity and run discipline.

The offensive line is fast becoming a problem for Detroit. LT Jeff Backus (6-5, 305) has been a steady player for years but is struggling this season, already coughing up six sacks and 32 more total pressures and surrendering 10 penalties on top of it. At the moment, he is struggling to protect the blind side for the Lions, which is the last thing they need with a quarterback who struggles to stay healthy. The right side is still an issue, and none of the unit is performing well in terms of run blocking this year.

Bottom line

For the first time in forever, the Vikings face the Lions as major underdogs, and it's a tag they deserve to carry. The Lions are slipping towards .500 because they are a team with flaws, but the Vikings may not be able to exploit them enough to do anything about the final score.

Sam Monson is an analyst for ProFootballFocus.com.
Email Sam | @PFF
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