Detroit is next up for the Vikings. Here are our five big questions about this pivotal early season match-up:
1. Can the defense handle the Lions’ passing game?
The Vikings did a good job defensively against the 49ers but let’s be frank. The Niners didn’t exactly put a ton of pressure on the Vikings’ secondary in that game. The Vikings have a glaring weakness back there but the Niners failed to exploit it. Alex Smith didn’t take any chances downfield. He took all his check downs and all the underneath stuff the Vikings were willing to give him. If the Niners thought the conservative approach could beat the Vikings, they thought wrong. Obviously they didn’t watch the Vikings’ first two games. When the Jaguars and Colts racked up yards against the Vikes, it was in 2 minute situations with the quarterback hitting big plays to receivers 15 and 20 yards down the field. The hurry-up offense with vertical receivers challenging up the seams and up the sidelines, putting the onus on the dropping linebackers and the helping safeties. That’s how you tear up the Vikings. The Vikings should try to counter this action by pressing at the line but they’re unwilling to do it, possibly because they don’t trust their safeties to pick up receivers if they happen to beat the jam and get free. The Niners exploited none of this. Detroit certainly will. Although Detroit lately has been trying to mix in more of a running game with Mikel Leshoure becoming their workhorse back. So maybe Detroit won’t load up and throw as much as we expect. But if they’re smart they will. Reportedly, the Vikings will line up Chris Cook across from Calvin Johnson for the whole game, so we’ll see how that works out. Expect bracket coverage on Calvin and probably a nice day for Brandon Pettigrew with Jasper Brinkley attempting to operate in nickel. Although we could see some dime with A.J. Jefferson as the fourth corner in. He was matched up one-on-one with Vernon Davis for at least one play on Sunday and knocked a pass away. If Jasper Brinkley is your nickel corner? You’re probably going to want to go dime. And then Detroit will probably start throwing screens or some crap.
2. Will the defensive line finally get it revved up?
Here’s a stat you wouldn’t expect: The Vikings have 7 sacks as a team and only 2 of them are from the defensive line. Jared Allen and Everson Griffen have one apiece. Kevin Williams and Brian Robison are both sitting on goose-eggs. Sacks don’t tell the whole story of course. Williams had a strong game against Indianapolis and Robison was very good – great in fact – in week 1 against Jacksonville. So those guys have had their high moments. Just, no sacks. What will happen Sunday when the Vikes match up against Detroit’s offensive line? It’s always an interesting duel. Jared Allen usually owns Jeff Backus, so you can count on some pressure from that side. But Detroit does a pretty good job of keeping Matthew Stafford clean even though their line isn’t really that good. They just get the ball out quick. And now they’re trying to become more of a running team if the last couple games are any indication. That’s probably about preserving Stafford as much as anything. That guy gets hurt a lot and you don’t want him taking shots. But the Lions are still going to be a dangerous team throwing the ball, as long as Calvin Johnson is on the field. They will go for home run shots. And if you play back they will peck you to death with underneath stuff. So, you’ve gotta get to the QB. Hopefully without having to blitz a lot.
3. How will the offensive line do against Detroit’s front?
We all know how the Vikings were able to hold up against San Francisco’s vaunted front last week. They got physical. But Detroit isn’t so much about power as speed. The wide-9 places a different kind of pressure on the tackles, and that’s where the troubles could start for the Vikings. The main worry is Phil Loadholt against Cliff Avril. Mr. Avril absolutely owned the hell out of Loadholt the second time the two teams played last year. Loadholt is having a nice year so far but this is a test for him. And of course the up-the-middle pressure has been a problem for the Vikings. It didn’t show up as much against San Francisco with Charlie Johnson doing a surprisingly nice job against Justin Smith, but it was there in the previous two games. Here’s the good news: Corey Williams will be on the shelf for Detroit. So that makes life a little easier since his replacements Sammie Hill and Nick Fairley are both stiffs. But you still have to deal with Ndamukong Suh who, despite being a bit overrated, is still a guy who can cause issues. Brandon Fusco isn’t as good in pass protection as he is run blocking so there’s that to worry about. And John Sullivan has been physically not quite right all year. So as well as this unit played against the 49ers, there’s still reason to be a little concerned. This is a road game against a supposedly great front that was somewhat embarrassed last weekend. They failed to register a single sack against Jake Locker and you have to believe they will be fired up this week.
4. Is this the week Adrian Peterson busts out?
We’re just sort of sitting here waiting for Adrian Peterson to have a truly bust out game. Everyone was impressed by his initial performance, then he sort of didn’t do much against Indy, then he had a solid but nonetheless nondescript game against San Francisco. If you start listing this team’s offensive stars in 2012, Peterson probably ranks no higher than fourth. You’ve gotta go Percy Harvin 1, Christian Ponder 2 and probably Kyle Rudolph 3. This is not a problem as long as the Vikings continue producing offensively and getting wins. But you have to figure, at some point, they’re going to need Peterson to do more than just put up 60, 70 yards and maybe get into the end zone once. At first glance, Detroit doesn’t look like a good candidate for a break-out running performance. They’ve handled the run well this year so far and have actually had more struggles against the pass, with their secondary basically in shambles and their defensive line underachieving. Historically, Peterson hasn’t had great games in Detroit anyway, only cracking 100 yards once in his five trips there. Of course he did have a 160-yard game against Detroit in Minnesota. I’d take 110 with 2 TDs. It’s nice that Christian Ponder is a playmaker now but this team will still need more from their running game if they’re going to keep rattling off wins.
5. What will Jerome Simpson add to the mix?
Leslie Frazier says Jerome Simpson is going to dive right in on an unlimited basis, no restrictions on his snaps. But what exactly is the plan for using Simpson? It’s hard to guess from the limited action he saw in preseason. This is probably an advantage for the Vikings. If we can’t guess, the Lions probably can’t guess either. Only thing we know for sure is, the Vikings definitely need to find more of a deep game. The offense has worked pretty well so far but if anyone thinks they can keep winning with only Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph as viable receiving weapons, well, then they haven’t been paying attention to the NFL for the past 25 years. Simpson has to become that third guy, and it starts with Bill Musgrave figuring out how to get him open. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem against the Lions since their secondary is dog crap. My guess is that the Vikes will try to get Simpson established early. Maybe try to hit him on a deep one on play action. We also saw Simpson take a quick slant for a huge gain in the preseason on a Ponder blitz read. The Vikes like those quick hitters and Simpson can obviously be a weapon on those too. The question is, can he give you a red zone target? Can he out-leap a defender on a fade? Is he a guy who’ll come back to the ball when the QB is scrambling? He’s such an unknown quantity to us right now. So there’s a very high curiosity factor. No matter what happens, this should be an entertaining game.
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