The Detroit Lions (3-4) look to make it 2-0 against the NFC North to start the year as they square off in Minnesota against the Vikings (4-3-1) later today. The Lions play three division opponents over the course of their next four games, so we’ll probably have a better idea of what a currently jumbled up NFC North looks like after this month.
Can the Lions kick off a big stretch of games with their second straight road victory?
Here’s five things to look out for in today’s contest:
REPLACING GOLDEN TATE
The Lions traded their leading receiving for a third round pick at Tuesday’s trade deadline. Tate had 44 receptions for 517 yards and three touchdowns in seven games.
Veteran TJ Jones and undrafted rookie Brandon Powell seem like the most likely candidates to get work in the slot. We’ll see if those two can step up their games and take advantage of this enormous opportunity.
Detroit could also rely on their improved ground game a little more, or target outside receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay more. Tate’s been a fixture in Detroit for the last four and a half years, so it will look different, for sure, but the NFL is all about adapting to change and having a next-man-up mentality.
Minnesota was without six starters – three on each side of the ball – last week in their 30-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints at home. Some of those names included cornerback Xavier Rhodes, running back Dalvin Cook, safety Andrew Sendejo, linebacker Anthony Barr, tackle Riley Reiff and guard Tom Compton.
“I think we’re going to get some guys back, hopefully,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said in a conference call this week. “It sounds more encouraging.”
Cook, Reiff, Rhodes and Sendejo all returned to practice early in the week, though they were all limited.
Minnesota’s health will play a big factor in this game, so be sure to check back on gameday for the inactive list.
Minnesota’s new home, U.S. Bank Stadium, hasn’t been too bad of a place to play for the Detroit Lions. They are 2-0 at Minnesota’s new stadium.
In fact, Detroit’s been pretty good on the road vs. Minnesota in Zimmer’s tenure with the Vikings. Zimmer is 7-5 at home against NFC North opponents. Against Detroit, Zimmer is 1-3 at home and 3-5 overall. Against Green Bay, he’s 2-2 at home and 4-4-1 overall. Against Chicago, he’s 4-0 at home and 6-2 overall. Those numbers are courtesy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
The Lions were the only team to beat Minnesota at home a season ago.
The Lions are plus-five in the turnover battle against Zimmer-coached Vikings teams. That’s the key right there. Look for the turnover battle to be crucial again today.
Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen is on pace to challenge a lot of the NFL’s single-season receiving records. He’s already tied an NFL record previously held by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson in that Thielen’s recorded at least 100 yards receiving in eight straight games. That ties Johnson’s mark from 2012. He’ll be looking for another 100-yard performance today to hold the record by himself.
He’s also tied an NFL record by recording at least 100 receiving yards and a touchdown in five straight games.
The Vikings move Thielen around quite a bit, but he is running about 62 percent of his routes from the slot. Do the Lions trust Nevin Lawson and maybe some bracket coverage to try and contain him? Would they think about shadowing him with Darius Slay? Whatever the strategy, the Lions know Minnesota wants to get Thielen the football. Can they stop it?
RUSHING THE PASSER
Both the Lions (sixth) and Vikings (10th) rank in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks. The Lions have 23 in seven games. Minnesota has 21 in eight games.
This is a much different matchup at quarterback this week for the Lions’ defense than the one they faced last week against Seattle’s Russell Wilson. Kirk Cousins is more of a pocket passer. He has good instincts in the pocket, but he’s not going to get out on the edges and make a lot of plays like Wilson did a week ago. The Lions can crash down a little more on Cousins in an attempt to disrupt him.
Danielle Hunter leads Minnesota’s defense with 8.0 sacks. Lions right tackle Rick Wagner will have his hands full with that matchup all afternoon. This will also be the second game back for Everson Griffen, who recorded 13.0 sacks last season, and has 62.0 in his career.
Whichever defense is able to make the other quarterback the least comfortable has a terrific chance to come out on top in this one.