LIONS INSIDER

Twentyman: Lions can advance in division with a win against the Vikings

Posted Nov 11, 2012

Today's game in Minnesota features two teams headed in different directions at the midway point of the season.

The Lions are still looking up at the Vikings in the NFC North division standing, but they no longer need binoculars to see them. In fact, with a win Sunday, the Lions can escape the division cellar for the first time since the very beginning of the season.

After starting 1-3 following a Week 4 loss to the Vikings, the Lions have rolled off three wins in their last four games. The Lions are clicking on both sides of the ball after two consecutive wins over the Seahawks and Jaguars. The Lions are one of only three teams in the NFL to rank in the top 10 (total yards) on both offense and defense, and are the only team to average more than 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing.

The Lions are playing their best football of the season, and that's a good thing, because they have the hardest remaining eight-game schedule in the NFL based on opponents winning percentage.

At 4-4 at the midway point of the season, the Lions have to at least finish 5-3 the remainder of the way to have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. A win Sunday gets the Lions above .500 for the first time since a Week 1 win over St. Louis and gets the third quarter of their season started on the right foot.

“This is an important game for us,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said this week. “It’s a tough game. It’s on the road.

“But we’re not defined by what we do in the first eight games of the year anymore as we’re defined by what we do in the first four or what we do the last, you know, whatever. It’s 16 games and when we get done with those 16, we’ll go a long way with how we’re defined this year.”

The Vikings were riding high after getting off to a 4-1 start, but have since come back to earth losing three of their last four. They’re not getting the same kind of play from quarterback Christian Ponder as they were early in the season and their run defense has been the worst in the NFL over the last month.

“Well, I didn’t expect us to be 5-4. I thought we’d be much better than where we are record-wise,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said. “But the good news is there’s a lot of games to be played and we want to continue to improve. That’s what you’ve got to be able to do in November and December and that’s where we’re heading. Trying to improve and get better.”

HISTORY

This division rivalry dates back to 1961 when Minnesota defeated Detroit 37-10 in the first-ever meeting between the two. Overall, the Vikings hold a commanding 67-33-2 advantage in the series. Since 2000, the Vikings have beaten the Lions 21 of 26 times, including a 20-13 victory earlier this season at Ford Field.

2012 REGULAR SEASON RANKINGS (Rank)

LionsVikings
Record 4-4 5-4
Points per game 24.0 (12) 22.7 (17)
Total yards per game 410.9 (2) 334.0 (22)
Rushing yards 103.6 (22) 145.4 (5)
Passing yards 307.3 (1) 188.6 (30)
Points allowed 23.5 (22) 21.9 (14)
Total yards allowed 320.5 (7) 337.7 (11)
Rushing yards allowed 106.3 (14) 117.3 (18)
Passing yards allowed 214.3 (8) 220.3 (9)
Turnover ratio -2 (19t) -6 (26)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Lions

Calvin Johnson, WR:

Johnson practiced for the first time in two weeks on Friday, and is listed as questionable for Sunday. Megatron is playing, no worries there. He said this week that his injured left knee bothered him more last week than it did this week, and he was still able to go out and catch seven passes for 129 yards at Jacksonville.

The Vikings held Johnson to 54 yards receiving in their first matchup.

DeAndre Levy, LB:

Levy is expected to return to the starting lineup this week after missing the last two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Ashlee Palmer has played well in his place, emerging as the team’s No. 4 linebacker behind Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant and Levy.

Before Levy was injured, though, he was playing the best football of his career and was one of the defenses most valuable players. How will the hamstring react in a game situation?

Mikel Leshoure, RB:

The Lions run game has hit it’s stride over the last four weeks and running back Mikel Leshoure, fresh off a three-touchdown performance last week in Jacksonville, is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over his last four games.  Over the Vikings last four games; they’ve allowed a 100-yard rusher in each game.

“They’re running the ball a lot better and more intentional,” Frazier said of the Lions. “That’s probably the biggest difference (between the Lions now and the team the Vikings saw in Week 4).

“They’ve always been able to throw the ball and throw it well. I mean, I think they’re leading the league in passing offense, but they’ve created some balance with their run game.”

Vikings

Christian Ponder, QB:

Frazier told Detroit reporters in a conference call this week that he has the utmost confidence that Ponder can go out and lead the Vikings to a win Sunday. The numbers don’t paint the same picture. His 372 yards over the Vikings last three games is proof that his struggles have been a big part of their current slide.

Which Ponder shows up Sunday at the Metrodome? The one who went 144 passes without throwing an interception to begin the season, or the Ponder who’s thrown for 63 yards or less in two of his last three games.

Jarius Wright, WR:

The Vikings have listed receiver Percy Harvin as doubtful with an ankle injury, which means rookie fourth-round pick Jarius Wright will be on the active 46-man game roster for the first time this season.

Wright was the eighteenth receiver taken in the draft this year and all seventeen ahead of him have been active at least once already this season, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“We were all teasing him, saying ‘Are you ready for this prime-time action?’” Frazier told the paper. “He’s handled (practice) well. He’s pumped up about the chance to get some action.”

Jared Allen, DE:

Has there been a bigger thorn in the side of the Lions than Allen over the past few years? If the guy played the Lions more than twice every year he might already have the NFL’s career sack record.

He has seven sacks vs. the Lions in his last three games. Allen currently owns a 11-game streak with at least one half sack.

The Lions weren’t using the Riley Reiff package as much as they are now the first time they faced the Vikings, and Allen. We’ll see how much Reiff will help today and how much that package might slow him down.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Limiting Peterson

There’s no stopping Adrian Peterson, so the next best thing is limiting the explosive plays and making him work for every yard he’s going to get. The Lions did a pretty good job of that the first time around. His longest run was 18 yards and it was his only run of more than 15 yards, despite recording 102 total rushing yards for the game.

The Vikings didn’t score and offensive touchdown in the first meeting and Ponder threw for just 100 yards. Limit the big runs and the explosive plays from Peterson and the Lions have a great shot of containing the Harvin-less Vikings offense.

“It’s definitely a team effort,” Schwartz said of tackling Peterson. “One guy out of their gap, he’s going to find that hole. He’s very good at setting those things up. He can go the distance on anything. He can threaten the inside. He threatens every gap along the front - outside, inside, pass game, everything else. I think it has to be a team effort and you have to have a gang tackling mentality when it comes to playing him.”

Maintain the special effort

The Lions headed to their bye week on the worst stretch of special teams blunders in the modern era of football following their Week 4 loss vs. Minnesota.

After becoming the first team to allow scores in consecutive games by both kickoff and punt return, the Lions (4-4) have not yielded a special teams touchdown since.

The Lions were last in the league in punt coverage heading into their bye and ranked 30th in kickoff coverage. Since then, opponents are averaging six yards per punt return and 20 yards per kickoff.

Survive the environment

Three of the toughest places to play in the NFL in terms of crowd noise are CenturyLink field in Seattle, Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City (when they have something to cheer for) and the Metrodome in Minnesota.

Those enviroments can be inhibitive on quarterbacks and an offenses, specially when changing the play call at the line of scrimmage or switching the protections.

"It's always a really loud stadium,” said quarterback Matthew Stafford of the Metrodome. “They do a good job of cheering and creating noise however they can.

“We just have to be ready for it. I think most everybody on our team has played there before with the exception of Riley and (Ryan) Broyles and maybe the two backs. We should be able to handle that kind of stuff.

Be ready for all the Vikings’ weapons

Frazier said this week that unless there is an injury to Ponder, backup quarterback Joe Webb isn’t likely to see the field today. The Vikings don’t use the much more mobile Webb in any packages, either.

Webb replaced Ponder in the second half of their game at Detroit last year, and he nearly orchestrated a come-from-behind victory with a long touchdown run and some other nice plays using both his legs and arm.

“It's difficult especially with these guys,” Lions defensive end Cliff Avril said of going into a game where the backup quarterback has a different style than the starter. “You prepare all week for the starter and you expect the starter to be there. You prepare on how he plays, what type of quarterback he is and then the backup quarterback is completely opposite.

“He's a runner, he's fast. It's tough, but luckily we've played him a couple of times already anyways so we kind of have a feel for him. You really can't prepare for both of them.”

Maintaining red zone and third-down efficiency

The Lions aren't likely to lose many more games this year if they continue to be 100 percent efficient in the red zone and convert on more than 70 percent of their third-down attempts on offense.

Over the last two weeks, the Lions are 7-for-7 in the red zone and 20-for-28 on third down. Those numbers are likely to continue at that pace, but even if they're close, the Lions will be tough to beat.

The Vikings haven’t been very good defensively on third down this year, allowing teams to convert 43.2 percent of the time, which is the sixth-worst percentage in the league.

If the Lions can take advantage of their red zone opportunities, keep drives alive on third down at around a 50 percent clip, they'll have a good shot of coming back to host the Packers next week with a 5-4 record.