Scouting report: Inside the Lions
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
The Minnesota Vikings find themselves traveling to Ford Field for the second time in three weeks. This time, they're actually supposed to be there. Can they finish their season on a positive note, or will it end how it started, in defeat? Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com, which breaks down tape from every NFL game, takes an inside look at the Detroit Lions.
Detroit has stuck with their system on both sides of the ball this season and it has paid dividends. The franchise is moving in the right direction, and the players are clearly more comfortable than they were earlier. On offense, they run a simple power-blocking scheme, and they like to pull their guards a lot, in particular LG Rob Sims (6-foot-3, 312 pounds). The Lions like to run out of the shotgun, especially with the various injuries to their quarterbacks. QB Shaun Hill (6-3, 220) has a damaged finger on his throwing hand, so the less time spent taking snaps from under center, the better for him. That kind of offense actually helps a runner like HB Jahvid Best (5-10, 199), who is at his best in a bit of space -- reading blocks from a distance and using his speed to navigate holes.
On defense, the Lions have backed off the stunts and twists they used to run a lot -- aimed largely at getting DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (6-4, 278) in favorable matchups. Instead, they're now relying on the front four simply to shoot gaps and create havoc in the backfield. They will still run stunts and twists, but they are getting enough pressure without that they have backed off the frequency with which they run them. The Lions' coverage is still a work in progress. They have run through 15 different defensive backs during the 2010 season trying to find guys they're comfortable with. They play a lot of vanilla Cover-2 but will run man schemes at times, especially on first downs.
Rookie phenom DT Ndamukong Suh (6-4, 307) has the gaudy numbers to justify his Pro Bowl selection, and he can certainly be a dominant force. However, he is not the all-conquering player people think. Suh was exposed badly early in the season with trap blocks, down blocks and generally being blocked by anybody other than the lineman right in front of him. The Bears in particular put on a clinic on how to take advantage of Suh's aggression and use it against him. He has improved as the season has gone on, but he is still vulnerable to those types of blocks, and it definitely slows him down. If the Vikings can kick him out of his assigned gap, then HB Adrian Peterson can do some damage at the next level.
The Lions' O-line is largely holding its own with the notable exception of RG Stephen Peterman (6-4, 323), who is PFF's 81st-ranked guard this season. Peterman has been poor as a pass protector, but he has been exceptionally poor as a run-blocker, and he will be going up against Vikings UT Kevin Williams, who seems to be close to his best form as of late. The Lions will struggle on offense if they find Peterman spending much of his time in the backfield.
The Lions have some serious firepower on both sides of the ball, though. Pro Bowl WR Calvin Johnson (6-5, 236) remains a matchup nightmare for any corner, especially given the height of the Vikings' cornerbacks. Minnesota has no corner within 6 inches in height of Johnson, and their two starters at the moment (Winfield and Allen) are both giving away 8 inches to the Lions' top receiver. The Lions are at their best when they can find Johnson in the passing game, and given the height mismatch, they would be well-advised to take a few shots.
Strengths and weaknesses
The main weakness for the Lions remains the defensive backfield. All of the defensive backs to see significant time for them this season are sitting with negative PFF grades, and only CB Nathan Vasher (5-11, 185), who has been seeing time as a starting corner as of late, is grading positively. They struggle to contain receivers, especially if their front four isn't generating pressure.
The good news for Detroit is its D-line is arguably its biggest strength, masking a lot of problems in the secondary. We know about the season Suh is having, even if it is hyped up a bit too much, but DE Cliff Avril (6-3, 260), DT Corey Williams (6-4, 320), DT Sammie Lee Hill (6-4, 329) and even DE Lawrence Jackson (6-4, 271) are all having fine seasons. They have been able to show a surprising depth in talent on the defensive front, and they will cause problems for a Vikings offensive line that is depleted to end the season.
The Vikings seem to have chosen the moment they had nothing to play for as the moment to start playing. The Lions have been playing for pride all season -- and playing hard -- so it will be an interesting matchup. The Vikings have to find a way to contain Detroit's defensive front for a shot to end the season on a high.