These are seven things I’ll be watching for when the Vikings face the Detroit Lions for the first time this season.
1) Ball Security
The Star Tribune‘s Andrew Krammer has the stats:
The Lions defense ranks sixth with 11 takeaways, including a league-leading eight fumble recoveries. It’s a group effort as eight different Lions defenders forced those fumbles.Vikings-Lions scouting report
We know we have some fumblers on this team: Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook and Ameer Abdullah and now….Alexander Mattison, as well.
2) Double Teams?
Head coach Matt Patricia’s Lions are known for playing agressive man-to-man defense and we’ve seen opponents in the past double team receivers Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs or even both.
So what if they do and do so successfully?
That leaves fewer defenders to play the run and we’ve got some pretty good backs in Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison.
3) The Run Game
The Lions are not very good defending the run (ranked 27th in the league), so it will be interesting to see how Kevin Stefanski approaches this game.
Skor North’s Matthew Coller had a very nice breakdown of how the Vikings’ tight ends contributed to the passing success against the Eagles by giving the opponent a heavy run look and using that to suck linebackers in with play-action and bootlegs.
The Vikings took advantage of Philly’s fear of Dalvin Cook and used big personnel packages to give the indication that they planned to run the ball down the Eagles’ throats when really they used multiple tight end sets and packages with fullback CJ Ham to create confusion and mismatches that had the Eagles scrambling.How the Vikings’ tight ends (subtly) played huge role in win over Eagles
Could the Vikings use the same heavy personnel to keep the Lions off-balance yet providing the extra blockers to succeed running the ball?
4) Speaking Of Tight Ends
What we haven’t seen yet this season is a breakout receiving game for Kyle Rudolph nor, though we’ve seen glimplses of what he can do catching the ball, for rookie Irv Smith Jr.
That’s despite the Vikings frequently deploying two tight end sets. ESPN’s Courtney Cronin has the stats:
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Vikings have taken 140 snaps with two tight ends on the field, which is the second-most in the NFL behind the Philadelphia Eagles (143). The percentage of plays (39) Minnesota has run out of 12 and 22 personnel leads the NFL.Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph still productive even if he’s not catching TDs
In addition to the extra run support, playing heavy personnel could set up some favorable matchups for Rudolph and Smith in the passing game.
5) The X-avier Factor
On defense, the one player I’ll be watching the most is Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes might be the weakest link among Vikings defensive starters this year. USA Today‘s Kyle Ratke observes:
Rhodes has fallen off quite a bit from his peak form in 2017. Per Pro Football Focus, he has a career-worst player grade of 52.6, a mark that ranks 87th out of 109 cornerbacks.Could Vikings trade CB Xavier Rhodes?
It’s a concern Zimmer had when he publicly proclaimed the cornerback needed to play up to his contract.
It’s a concern that has played itself out this season, with opposing quarterbacks are picking on Rhodes this year. Getting picked on by Aaron Rogers is one thing, but when even rookie quarterbacks are targeting you like the Giants Daniel Jones did, that’s a problem.
Pete Berchich breaks down the Lions offense and highlights the fact that with the receivers Matthew Stafford now has at the ready in Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay, Danny Amendola and tight end T.J. Hockenson, the Lions have an explosive offense. (I’ve skipped ahead a bit to spare you the insufferable Paul Allen commentary).
If Stafford is going to take shots, I’d bet on him targeting Rhodes, who looks to have lost a step in recovery speed.
6) Zimmer’s Game Plan
The Vikings defense has historically been suseptible to giving up touchdown on their opponent’s game-opening drives.
It drives me absolutely nuts and I lay the blame directly at the feet of head coach Mike Zimmer. It does seem to be a phenomenon that’s more prevalent on the road that at US Bank Stadium.
As Pete Berchich noted in his Film Room segment, the Lions like to take shots early in the game. And we know that playing from behind is not exactly the ideal scenario for Kirk Cousins to thrive. Especially on the road. During a must-win divisional game.
The Lions might be the best last-place team in the NFL. They played the up-and-coming Cardinals to a tie to open the season, beat an awful Chargers team and a not-very-good Eagles team, lost a close one to a superb Chiefs team and had a potential win against the Packers stolen from them by the refs.
This will not be an easy game.
7) Make-Up Calls
Will the officiating crew make calls or ignore penalties in order to make up for handing the Lions’ last game to the Packers?