Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings: Dave Birkett’s scouting report, prediction

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down Sunday’s Detroit Lions-Minnesota Vikings game and makes a prediction: 

Detroit Lions (3-4) vs. Minnesota Vikings (2-5)

The coaches: Lions: Matt Patricia (12-26-1 overall, 12-26-1 with Lions; Vikings: Mike Zimmer (59-43-1 overall, 59-43-1 with Vikings).

Last game: Lions lost to Indianapolis Colts, 41-21; Vikings beat Green Bay Packers, 28-22

Last meeting: Dec. 8, 2019: Vikings won, 20-7.

Key matchups

Lions DE Everson Griffen vs. Vikings RT Brian O’Neill — Griffen will make his Lions debut Sunday, 12 days after being acquired in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys. He’s expected to play a significant role at defensive end after Trey Flowers went on injured reserve earlier this week, and while he’s not as lethal a pass rusher as sack-leader Romeo Okwara, he does have extra motivation playing against his old team. Griffen said this week he took offense to comments Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made, calling him merely a “good” player; with 74.5 sacks in 10 seasons in Minnesota, Griffen felt he deserved the “great” label. Real or imagined, Griffen seems to have extra fuel in his belly, and that makes him a must-watch against a Vikings team that’s allowed sacks on nearly 8% of its pass plays.

Lions TE T.J. Hockenson vs. Vikings LB Eric Kendricks — Zimmer dropped the “good” label on Hockenson this week, too, and he meant it in the most complimentary of ways. The Lions’ first-round pick in 2019, Hockenson leads the Lions with 29 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns. He has emerged as a reliable intermediate receiver and the team’s top red zone threat, and he could be in line for an even bigger share of targets Sunday with Kenny Golladay out with a hip injury. Kendricks, though, is one of the best linebackers in the NFL and someone who Lions coach Matt Patricia said has the skill set to either “carry plays vertical downfield or line up downfield in certain situations and make the plays and read the quarterback.” Kendricks’ responsibilities will go beyond covering Hockenson, but he’ll play a major role in trying to keep Matthew Stafford’s favorite target in check.

Scouting report

Lions run offense vs. Vikings run defense

The Lions’ rushing attack is back to being well below average. After a couple nice performances from Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift to start the season, the Lions rank 29th in the league in rushing at 97.1 yards per game. They have not run the ball effectively in short-yardage situations all season, and in the last two weeks have gotten just one carry of 10-plus yards from their backs.

Peterson should be extra motivated going against his old team, but he has seen his yards per attempt drop every game this season as the Lions have moved away from two-back sets. Swift has shown flashes of game-changing ability, but he remains most effective as a pass catcher.

The Vikings have not been great against the run at 124.4 yards per game, but they’ve strung together their best performance the last four games. Replacing nose tackle opt-out Michael Pierce has been an issue, but Minnesota remains strong up the middle with linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith. Edge: Vikings

Lions pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense

Matthew Stafford’s status is up in the air based on his trip to the reserve/COVID-19 list, but the Lions hope he’ll be cleared and ready to play Sunday. Stafford did not practice all week but took part in virtual meetings, and given his breadth of experience, diligence in the film room and knowledge of Mike Zimmer’s defense, there should not be much drop off in his performance.

Stafford’s status, however, is not the only uncertainty facing this offense. Kenny Golladay will not play because of a hip injury, and offensive linemen Taylor Decker, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Joe Dahl all missed practice time with injuries this week. T.J. Hockenson and Marvin Jones should see more targets in Golladay’s absence, so long as whatever combination of linemen the Lions put out there can keep their quarterback upright. If Stafford cannot play, Chase Daniel will start at quarterback.

For years, the Vikings had one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the NFL, but with Danielle Hunter out for the season and Everson Griffen (now a Lion) and Yannick Ngakoue (traded) playing elsewhere, Minnesota is using a pass rush by committee. Two rookies, Jeff Gladney and Harrison Hand, figure prominently into the Vikings’ cornerback rotation. Stafford can take advantage of their inexperience, though Smith and Anthony Harris make a formidable safety duo. Edge: Lions

Vikings run offense vs. Lions run defense

Dalvin Cook showed why he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL in his return from a hamstring injury last week. Cook shredded the Green Bay Packers for 163 yards and three touchdowns, and touched the ball on 32 of Minnesota’s 49 offensive snaps.

It’s no stretch to say Cook is the most important player on Minnesota’s offense. He’s a perfect fit for Gary Kubiak’s stretch running game, and his presence buys quarterback Kirk Cousins time in the play-action and bootleg passing games. Alexander Mattison will get a few carries in a reserve role, and the Vikings have shaken up their line in recent weeks, moving rookie Ezra Cleveland into a starting role at guard.

The Lions have made noticeable strides in their run defense since the bye, and that’s despite giving up 119 yards rushing last week. In that game, the Lions actually held the Colts to 3.1 yards per carry, but played far too many plays on defense. There’s no reason for the Lions to go away from the Danny Shelton-John Penisini-Nick Williams run front that has led the turnaround, especially with Trey Flowers on injured reserve. Edge: Vikings

Vikings pass offense vs. Lions pass defense

Cousins has been a turnover machine this season with 10 interceptions in seven games. He’s prone to making bad decisions, which happens when you play behind a suspect offensive line, and while the Vikings do take shots down field — they lead the NFL at 8.3 yards per pass play — they’re at their best when they put less on their quarterback’s plate.

Minnesota relies primarily on Adam Thielen and rookie Justin Jefferson in the passing game. No other wide receiver has more than five catches this season, though Cook and tight end Irv Smith do get a handful of targets each game.

The Lions rank 19th against the pass (248.4 ypg), but have shown some life in the pass rush department the last few weeks. Romeo Okwara has five sacks, and Griffen will make his Lions debut against his old team. In the secondary, Desmond Trufant is poised to return from a nagging hamstring injury, though the Lions have given no indication how they’ll split time at cornerback between him, Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah and Justin Coleman. Edge: Lions

Special teams

Matt Prater’s struggles have been a bit confounding this season. One of the most historically reliable legs in the NFL, Prater is 2-for-5 on kicks of 50-plus yards this season and he has missed one field goal in each of the Lions’ last three games. Special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs said Prater has generally struck the ball well, even on his misses, and that the focus this week was refining basic techniques. Prater’s inconsistency aside, the Lions are one of the best special teams units in the NFL. Jack Fox still leads the league with a 47.6-yard net punting average, opponents are averaging just 21.2 yards a kick return and Miles Killebrew blocked a punt last week. Danny Amendola and Marvin Hall could share return duties this week if Jamal Agnew can’t play because of a rib injury.

The Vikings rank 14th in Football Outsiders’ composite special teams rankings, a few spots behind the Lions. But kicker Dan Bailey does not have Prater’s range on field goals and Britton Colquitt ranks near the bottom of the league in net punting (37.9 yards per punt). The Vikings have gotten very little out of their return game this season, so expect Coombs to be aggressive in kicking the ball to whoever handles those duties, K.J. Osborn or ex-Lion Ameer Abdullah. Edge: Lions

Prediction

As long as Stafford plays Sunday, and all signs point to that happening, this should be an interesting game. Beyond the return-home storylines of Griffen and Peterson, the Lions need a win to remain in playoff contention, and they’ll try to get one against a division rival that has given them fits the last few years. The Vikings have had some pronounced struggles this fall. They play a ton of rookies on defense and have a mistake-prone quarterback. But they showed signs of life last week and have one of the best running backs in the NFL in Cook. If the Lions can keep Cook in check, there’s no reason they can’t win for the third time in four games. If they can’t, even with three winnable games up next against sub-.500 teams, you can pretty much close the book on the season. Pick: Lions 27, Vikings 21

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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