Free Press sports writers Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez break down the season with their annual holiday gifting for the Detroit Lions.
Dave Birkett and Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down Sunday’s game between the Lions (5-9) and Minnesota Vikings (7-6-1) at Ford Field:
Lions run offense vs. Vikings run defense
With no passing game to speak of, the Lions have become a run-first offense. They’ve topped 100 yards rushing in each of the last four games, and have used a running back by committee approach to replace Kerryon Johnson.
Zach Zenner got the start in last week’s loss to the Buffalo Bills and had an effective day with 45 yards on 10 carries. He’s expected to see heavy minutes in the rotation again with LeGarrette Blount battling a calf injury. Theo Riddick had his best game of the season against the Bills as well. He has had success against the Vikings in the past, both rushing the ball and catching it out of the backfield.
More on Lions: Zach Zenner once broke his face playing baseball
The Vikings rank 13th against the run at 111.4 yards per game, but they might be without middle linebacker Eric Kendricks on Sunday because of a hamstring injury. The Vikings have given up more than 145 yards rushing in four of their last five games, but they held the Lions to 66 yards on the ground and a 2.8-yard-per-carry average in their November meeting.
Lions pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense
The Lions just don’t have many weapons in the passing game right now. Bruce Ellington will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury, TJ Jones has just 10 catches on the year and no receiver other than Kenny Golladay has had more than 35 yards receiving in a month.
Golladay is coming off a monster game, but he’s the only true downfield threat for a Lions team that’s throwing the ball less than 5 yards downfield on 61 percent of its passes. Matthew Stafford was limited in practice again this week by back injury that could spell trouble against the NFL’s best pass rush.
The Vikings sacked Stafford 10 times in their first meeting and held the Lions to just 199 yards in the air. Harrison Smith is one of the best safeties in the NFL, and Danielle Hunter has a decided matchup advantage up front against right tackle Rick Wagner.
Vikings run offense vs. Lions run defense
The Vikings changed offensive coordinators last week in an effort to recommit to the running game and they came out and set season-highs with 220 yards rushing on 40 attempts in a win over the Miami Dolphins.
Minnesota is a better team when it runs the football, and Dalvin Cook finally looks healthy after battling a hamstring injury much of the season. He can be fumble-prone at times, but he averages 4.7 yards per carry and is a good receiver out of the backfield. Latavius Murray handles some short-yardage work and leads the Vikings with six rushing touchdowns.
Cook broke a 70-yard run against the Lions in the first meeting, but Minnesota had just 58 yards rushing on its other 22 carries. The Lions have been one of the best run-stopping teams in the NFL since they acquired Damon Harrison in an October trade from the New York Giants. Harrison rolled his ankle last week, but is expected to play Sunday.
Vikings pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Kirk Cousins is closing in on his fourth straight 4,000-yard passing season and is on pace for a career-high in touchdowns. He’s committed too many turnovers this year – 15, including five fumbles – and the Vikings, like the Lions, rely heavily on the short passing game.
Minnesota does have two good receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Diggs missed the first game with a rib injury, when the Lions used Nevin Lawson to shut down Thielen. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has 51 catches this year, but he hasn’t been used much near the goal line (just two touchdowns).
Pro Bowl cornerback Darius Slay should draw the assignment on Diggs, while Lawson likely will be matched with Thielen again. The Lions don’t force many turnovers and haven’t been able to sustain much of a pass rush, but they still rank 11th in the NFL in pass defense (230.7 ypg).
Just when it looked like the Lions were getting over some of their special-teams issues, they went ahead and had a game like last week. Don Muhlbach had errant snap, Matt Prater missed a fourth-quarter field goal and the Lions had a key penalty that negated a nice punt return. The unit has been very inconsistent overall, though Sam Martin has punted well the second half of the season and Prater is 24 of 28 on field goals for the year. Explosive return man Jamal Agnew is back on the 53-man roster, but it’s unclear if he’ll play Sunday for the first time since he hurt his knee in early October. Muhlbach also is battling a calf injury that forced him to miss practice time this week.
The Vikings have had their own share of special-teams problems this year. Kicker Dan Bailey is 4 of 10 on kicks of 40-plus yards, and Matt Wile had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown in September. Former Lions running back Ameer Abdullah handles kick returns for the Vikings, and Marcus Sherels is still one of the most dangerous punt returners in the NFL.
The Lions were officially eliminated from playoff contention last week, so they’re playing out the string with division games Sunday against the Vikings and next week against the Green Bay Packers. Players are still playing hard, but they’re just not a very good football team right now, at least not on the offensive side of the ball. The Lions can’t throw the ball and don’t have an explosive element to their running game, and this is not a good matchup against one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Vikings won’t have 10 sacks again like they did in October, but it’s hard to see them allowing many points. Minnesota can clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday and some help elsewhere across the league, and I think they’ll at least get their side of business done.
Pick: Vikings 17, Lions 9
Contact Dave Birkett: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!