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10 QUESTIONS WITH TWENTYMAN: What has been the Lions' biggest improvement this season?

Every week during the regular season Tim Twentyman will answer 10 good questions from his Twitter account @ttwentyman in a feature we call "10 Questions with Twentyman."

20man: Not a bad problem to have in Week 16, right?

I do believe they will ease C.J. Gardner-Johnson back into the mix when they deem him ready for game action. They have the luxury of doing that because third-year defensive back Ifeatu Melifonwu is playing really well right now. Melifonwu is a terrific matchup piece for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn because of his size (6-3, 210) and cover ability. Don't forget he was a cornerback that shifted to safety. Glenn loves that.

Don't be surprised if you see packages with all three safeties on the field when Gardner-Johnson is back. Glenn can do that because Melifonwu and Gardner-Johnson tackle well. You're not losing much in the run game replacing a safety for a linebacker, and you're upgrading the passing defense by having more range and coverage ability on the field. I'm sure Glenn will get creative with some packages and that will be advantage Lions creating a package with those three that opponents haven't seen on film all year.

20man: It's a good question. I'll preface my response by saying the Lions don't get to 10 wins without all three for the reasons you stated. Also give owner Sheila Hamp a lot of credit for her vision of how she wanted to change the culture and for surrounding herself with great people that shared her vision and are executing it.

But to answer your question, you have to start with getting the right pieces for Campbell and Johnson and the coaching staff to develop, and that starts with GM Brad Holmes and his front office team. What he's been able to do in the draft and free agency over the last three years has been terrific.

In three draft cycles he's brought in tackle Penei Sewell, defensive lineman Alim McNeill, wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, safety Kerby Joseph, running back Jahmyr Gibbs, tight end Sam LaPorta and defensive back Brian Branch. That's a huge chunk of the young core of this football team.

He's also drafted key players like Melifonwu, linebacker James Houston, linebacker Derrick Barnes, linebacker Jack Campbell, wide receiver Jameson Williams, linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez and defensive lineman Josh Paschal.

In free agency, he's signed core players like linebacker Alex Anzalone, running back David Montgomery, offensive lineman Graham Glasgow, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cam Sutton, Gardner-Johnson, defensive lineman John Cominsky, wide receiver Kalif Raymond and defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs. All key veterans for this football team.

Claiming wide receiver Josh Reynolds off waivers and then re-signing him was a savvy move that sometimes flies under the radar. Reynolds is a glue player on offense.

Then there's the trade that Matthew Stafford requested and Holmes' ability to get quarterback Jared Goff in return. The Lions are not at 10-4 this year without Goff.

It all starts with getting the right pieces here, and Holmes has been terrific in that regard.

20man: I've been pretty consistent since the end of last year saying if the defense could just be marginally better in 2023 this team has a chance to win a division. I was talking just middle of the pack improvement. Though they were better the second half of the year, the Lions still finished last season ranked near the bottom of every major statistical category on defense.

What's been the biggest change in 2023? The offense is still one of the best in the league, just like last year. It's the defensive numbers. The defense ranks 15th in total defense, 23rd in points allowed, 8th against the run and 17th against the pass.

When you rank in the top 5 offensively in points (5th), total offense (3rd), rushing (2nd) and passing (4th) and have a defense that hovers right around the top half of the league in a lot of categories, you are going to win a lot of football games.

20man: The one that really jumps out to me and always plays a huge factor in wins and losses is turnovers. The Vikings have given the ball away 26 times this season, which ranks 30th in the NFL.

Just look at last week. Quarterback Nick Mullens threw two critical interceptions at the Cincinnati 14 and 22-yard line in what ended up being a 27-24 overtime loss. Those are killers.

It's been a problem for Minnesota all season long. The Vikings have a minus-six turnover differential on the year.

Detroit has just 15 takeaways this season, which is tied for 24th in the NFL, but there could be a few chances this week to get them, and the Lions have to take advantage.

20man: This comes via Some of the key players on expiring contracts are guard Jonah Jackson, Gardner-Johnson, Josh Reynolds, Reeves-Maybin, both Okwara brothers, outside linebacker Charles Harris, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, cornerback Will Harris and fullback Jason Cabinda.

Players who currently have expiring contracts in 2025 include Goff, St. Brown, left tackle Taylor Decker, McNeill, Melifonwu, safety Tracy Walker, Cominsky, defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike, Barnes and Buggs.

20man: I don't expect to see Hendon Hooker play in a game this year unless it's an injury situation. Even if the Lions clinch the North and can't improve or worsen their seed in the NFC in Week 18 and decide to rest Goff, I expect Teddy Bridgewater to start and play in what could be his last start before a potential retirement.

Maybe in that situation Hooker gets a few plays, but the Lions have always treated this as a redshirt year for the rookie with his chance to compete for the backup role and maybe some playing time in certain packages in 2024.

20man: You really have to think of the NFL as a matchup league and what works one week doesn't necessarily fit against the scheme and personnel of the opponent the next week. It's important to generate pressure and Glenn isn't afraid of creating it via blitz. His 26.4 blitz percentage ranks 15th in the league.

The caution this week for me is the three-headed monster at the skill positions the Vikings have. Wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison and tight end T.J. Hockenson can all make big plays in one-on-one matchups. Detroit's defense is going to find themselves in one-on-one matchups Sunday and they'll need to win those more often than not to win the game and the NFC North. But how many of those do you create yourself? How much do you limit the risk and make a third-string quarterback drive the field and make plays? It's a decision Campbell, Glenn and his defensive coaches will have to make this week. Glenn said Thursday that was a fun game to call last week.

20man: I certainly wouldn't put it past him. I asked him Wednesday how long it would take to get his football legs under him, and he said he already had them. We see how unique he is just being able to come back same season from a torn pectoral muscle so him being able to play a few days after returning to the practice field wouldn't surprise me in the least bit.

But I'd say that hasn't been how this coaching staff has operated all season. They've been pretty cautious with players coming back from injury. We'll just have to see Friday's game designations and Sunday's inactive list.

20man: Goff. He's coming off his best performance of the season with five touchdown passes and a 134.6 passer rating. This is a unique Vikings defense led by defensive coordinator Brian Flores who will blitz and play Cover Zero just as much as he'll drop eight in coverage and rush three. It's a unique scheme.

How did Ben Johnson and Goff prepare for it this matchup? How well does Goff execute the plan? When Goff plays well and doesn't turn the ball over the Lions typically win and that will have to be the case again Sunday in Minneapolis.

20man: Mullens and Joshua Dobbs are very different players, so it does change the defensive game plan. Mullens is an experienced pocket passer who will go through his reads and wants to run the offense on schedule.

Dobbs is more of a playmaker and can hurt teams with his legs. He's also turned the ball over a lot, which is why the Vikings are going with Mullens to start Sunday.

Honestly, I agree with Minnesota head coach Kevin O'Connell that Mullens gives the Vikings a better chance to win.

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