By Jason Wisniewski
The Minnesota Vikings are set to take on the Detroit Lions this Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit for a Week 16 NFC North showdown. The Vikings are in the playoff chase currently sitting in the 2nd wild card spot with a record of 7-6-1 and are coming off a 41-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins in new Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s debut. The Lions come into this game at 5-9 and are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. They lost last week to the Bills in Buffalo 14-13. The last time these 2 teams met was back in Week 9 in Minneapolis at US Bank Stadium and the Vikings won 24-9 in a game where the defense sacked Lions QB Matthew Stafford for a team record 10 times. A win here would clinch the Vikings a playoff berth if the Eagles & Redskins both lose their games so let’s take a look at the injury reports, key match ups and Keys to a Vikings Victory!
MLB Eric Kendricks (Out)
The Vikings are fully healthy for this game with the exception of MLB Eric Kendricks who is dealing with a hamstring injury. Look for LB Eric Wilson to replace Kendricks. The Vikings will also get WR Chad Beebe back for this game who has missed the last several.
WR Bruce Ellington, S Charles Washington (Out)
NT Damon “Snacks” Harrison, RB LeGarrette Blount, CB Jamal Agnew, WR Kenny Golladay, LB Devon Kennard, QB Matthew Stafford (Questionable)
The Lions potentially being without top NT Damon “Snacks” Harrison (who missed 2 practices earlier this week and was limited on Friday) could certainly be a big blow to their team this week and the number of players they have banged up this week is also concerning but perhaps the biggest story of the Lions injury report is not so much the injuries of this latest week but the injuries that have piled up and resulted in so many key players going on IR for Detroit since the last time these 2 teams met in Week 9. As of this week the following Lions players are on Injured Reserve and out for the season:
DE Ziggy Ansah, TE Michael Roberts, OG TJ Lang, RB Kerryon Johnson, WR Marvin Jones, LB Jalyn Reeves-Mabin, DE Da’Shawn Hand, LB Steve Longa, FB Nick Bawden
Many of these players were either starters or key role players for the Lions and their absence will surely be felt in this game at all levels of the team. Although QB Matthew Stafford is listed as questionable with a back injury and probably should be shut down for the rest of the Lions meaningless games, he practiced all week and has a starting streak of 126 consecutive games he’d like to keep going so he is likely to play Sunday, albeit not at 100%.
Key Match ups
When the Vikings have the ball
Vikings RBs Dalvin Cook & Latavius Murray vs Lions front 7
New Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is committed to the running game and the Vikings are now taking on a more physical run first identity offensively with Stefanski calling the plays. This of course helps to set up play action passing and create one on one match ups for the Vikings speedy WRs on the outside. Detroit has played better against the run as of late but with top run stuffing NT Damon “Snacks” Harrison either out or not at 100% for the game the Vikings could find some success up the middle with Murray and also with TE David Morgan back in the mix for the Vikings it has helped spring Dalvin Cook loose on the perimeter with outside runs. With the Lions also missing both starting DE’s in this game it will make it all the more easier for the Vikings to attack the edges of the Detroit defense in the running game with Cook.
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins vs Lions Safeties Glover Quinn & Quandre Diggs
With their D-line shorthanded this week, the Lions might tend to play their safeties Quinn & Diggs closer to the line of scrimmage to help against the run. It will be up to Kirk Cousins to read the Safeties and recognize if they are playing zone or man or if they might run blitz. If Cousins can catch the Lions safeties coming downhill and check to a play action pass he will likely have one of his top 2 WRs against single coverage downfield and this can lead to big plays and TDs. This happened against the Dolphins in the opening drive last week on the TD pass to Diggs and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again on Sunday. It’s up to Cousins to find the gold and he can do it!
Vikings WR Aldrick Robinson vs Lions Secondary
With teams focusing so much on Stefon Diggs & Adam Thielen and many times devoting double teams or bracket coverage schemes against them the Vikings have begun to use Aldrick Robinson more in the passing game and he has produced when called upon, racking up 5 TD passes this season, including catching a 40 yard bomb for a TD from Cousins last week and averaging over 13 yards per catch on the season. Robinson can win one on one down the field and could use also be used on quick routes or drag routes across the middle as well to help keep the chains moving or create big chunk plays downfield or TDs…since that’s basically all he does is catch TDs!
When the Vikings are on Defense
Vikings D-line vs Lions O-line
The last team these 2 groups met, the Vikings D-line set a team record for 10 sacks in a game against Lions QB Matthew Stafford and DE Danielle Hunter also had a fumble recovery returned for a TD. All in all it was a disaster for the Lions O-line who will be missing OG TJ Lang on Sunday. Neither Ricky Wagner or Taylor Decker were able to stop Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen & Stephen Weatherly in Week 9. We could see a similar performance on Sunday if the Lions get behind the chains on 1st and 2nd down so it will be important for the Vikings to stop the run,. That will be a little easier with the Lions missing their leading rusher and speedy rookie RB Kerryon Johnson who recently went on IR.
Vikings Safety Harrison Smith vs Lions QB Matthew Stafford
Harrison Smith just made another Pro Bowl this year and a lot of that has to do with his ability to disguise his intentions before the snap. He might be blitzing or he might be bluffing and going back into coverage. His intentions are disguised usually until the ball is actually snapped, that’s how good he is at disguise. The cat and mouse game between Smith & Stafford will be one to watch on Sunday.
Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes vs Lions WR Kenny Golladay
With WR Marvin Jones on IR and Golden Tate currently in Philadelphia as a member of the Eagles, Kenny Golladay is now the Lions #1 WR. He was originally the #3WR when the Lions started the season. Golladay will likely draw Rhodes who has been rounding back into form as of late with some very impressive games the past month. If Rhodes can hold up for the most part in one on one coverage against Golladay the Vikings will be free to use Harrison Smith as a blitzer more often. If Rhodes should need help over the top look for the Vikings to use a different member of the secondary to blitz from time to time such as Mackensie Alexander or Anthony Harris and perhaps blitz more from the LB spot with Anthony Barr who’s been hot as pass rusher lately.
Keys to a Vikings Victory
Run the ball with both Cook & Murray and use heavy multiple TE sets to wear out the Lions D-line and to set up play action against this Lions team who may bring their safeties down into the box more often in this game. Outside of Darius Slay the Lions CBs can be susceptible to getting burned deep and the Vikings have several speedy WRs who can get downfield off of play action in Diggs, Thielen & Robinson. Defensively it will be imperative to stop the run so that the Vikings can do what they do best which is rush the pass rusher. The Vikings lead the league in sacks and when they get Stafford flustered he tends to play very poorly and make crucial mistakes. In a game like this ball security is important and getting off to a fast start to take the crowd out of the game early would be helpful as well. The Vikings special teams units played their best game of the season last week and another solid performance by Sherels, Bailey & Wile would also go along way in getting a win in Detroit. So let’s get ready for an NFC North showdown in the Motor City & #SKOL!