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NOTEBOOK: Lions need to better protect Stafford vs. Vikings

In the long history of the Minnesota Vikings, only once have they recorded 10 sacks in a game. That was earlier this season against Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions.

Stafford was sacked 10 times, and hit 17 times total in a complete onslaught by the Vikings' defense on Detroit’s offense.

Fast forward seven weeks and here we are again with the Vikings defense fresh off a nine-sack performance last week vs. Miami.

The Vikings lead the NFL with 47 sacks on the year, and are just the second team since 1990 and the seventh since 1970 to register nine-plus sacks in multiple games in a season.

“They have just multiple different ways to pressure the quarterback and to just kind of keep the heat on the offensive line,” Lions head coach Matt Patricia said this week.

“So, a lot of really great players, a lot of good scheme, everybody kind of working together and I think that’s something that they have been able to develop through the course of a number years and kind of being in the same system and the same scheme with a lot of the same players.”

Detroit will have to do a much better job upfront this time around if they hope to slow down the Vikings' rush. To their credit, they’ve been pretty good in that regard over their last five games. They’ve allowed just eight sacks over that span and half of those (4) were by the talented Los Angeles Rams front. Detroit’s allowed the seventh fewest sacks in the league over the last five weeks.

Part of that has been Stafford getting the ball out of his hands quicker, but Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer said on a conference call this week he’s noticed some schematic differences.

“I think protection-wise, they’ve changed up a little bit,” Zimmer said. “And I do think that (Stafford’s) getting the ball out a little bit faster in some of the route combinations. They do a few different things like you always do throughout the course of the year.”

The Lions are coming off a game in Buffalo last week where they didn’t allow a single sack against the Bills’ No. 1 ranked defense. Stafford was hit just four times total.

“I think we’ve adapted and done things differently as our personnel and situations have changed,” Stafford said. “I’m sure we look a little bit different to (Minnesota).

“I know they’ll have something different for us. They always do. They’re a really well-coached football team, really good defense, a bunch of good players, and a real good scheme.”

Whether or not the Lions can continue to play well upfront and keep Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and the rest of the Vikings' defense off Stafford will go a long way in deciding if the Lions can come up with an upset Sunday in their home finale.

LONG SNAPPER DEPTH?

After sitting out practice Thursday, leading to speculation about how serious his calf injury might be, longtime long snapper Don Muhlbach returned to the open portion of practice Friday. That’s obviously a good sign for his availability for Sunday.

The Lions haven’t started a game without Muhlbach as their long snapper since Week 15 of the 2009 season.

This coaching staff obviously has a plan in place for an emergency long snapper, just in case something kept Muhlbach out of the game Sunday vs. Minnesota, or he aggravates the injury, though Patricia didn’t want to share that plan with the media Friday.

“You’re always aware of that situation where one play could obviously alter that situation pretty quick, so you have to be prepared and ready to go,” he said.

“We have a couple guys in there that we use, so we’ll kind of wait until Minnesota (Sunday) to try and figure that out, if we need it.”

Muhlbach has played in 146 consecutive games and 226 games total over his 15-year career.

RED ZONE

The Vikings are No. 2 in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing teams to convert those opportunities into touchdowns just 42.2 percent of the time.

Minnesota has a terrific front, active linebackers and a good secondary, which are all keys to their success in the red zone, but Patricia said the biggest key for them is how well they play on first down in those red zone situations.

“They are doing a really good job on early downs creating negative plays and that kind of gets you off track as an offense,” he said. “And then obviously, just like out in the field, when they can get an offense into a passing situation and kind of allow those pass rushers to tee it up and get after the quarterback, along with their pressure packages and blitzes similar to what they do on third down, some of those things will show up in the red area.”

The Lions were 0-for-3 in the red zone in their first matchup in Minnesota Week 9 and rank 25th in the NFL this season with a 51.1 red zone efficiency percentage. They’ll have to be better Sunday.

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