Allen Park — As the Lions chart a path to relevancy, there are going to be certain hurdles they’ll need to overcome. On Sunday, they’ll have an opportunity to show they can clear one of the biggest ones by winning the first road game of Dan Campbell’s tenure as coach.
Despite finding a late-season groove in 2021, the Lions remained unable to secure a victory outside the confines of Ford Field, only occasionally coming close. One of those games was early in the campaign, against the Minnesota Vikings, where a 54-yard field goal as time expired proved to be the difference.
The Lions will return to the scene of that emotional disappointment this week, looking to show they’re not the same team that won a paltry three games in Campbell’s first year running the ship. And despite the roster’s relative youth contrasted against the rest of the league, they must prove that before the franchise’s rebuild can be taken seriously.
“It’s the first road game, and this is something that we have a lot of urgency about us,” Campbell said. “This is big. We need to try and set the tempo for ourselves, and it starts on the road, division game. Of course it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hostile. It shouldn’t be easy. And those guys are going to be ready to go. They’re going to get back to what they do best, and we know that, but man, it goes back to we’ve got to be able handle this pressure on the road.
“Because that’s really what it comes down to, collectively, when you go on the road. There’s a certain amount of pressure that is applied, and how do we handle that, overall? That’s something that we’ve been talking about for a long time now. So, we are young, but we’ll see where we’re at.”
Through the season’s first two weeks, the Lions are already presenting a different look. They clawed their way back from a 17-point deficit in the opener, taking the NFC East frontrunning Eagles to the limit a week before jumping out to a 22-point halftime advantage against Washington and weathering a comeback effort in a 36-27 victory.
The difference between last year’s offense and this year’s version has been stark. After failing to average 20 points per game in 2021, the Lions are tied for second in the NFL with a 35½-point average through the first two weeks.
The Vikings will undoubtedly test how viable that turnaround has been with a defense that has allowed just 15½ points per game their first two games, impressively limiting Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to seven in the opener.
But more than continuing to score at their current pace, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is more concerned about how his unit handles the environment of playing in front of a raucous crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I see it more about, how do we handle a challenging environment?” Johnson said. “We haven’t had this yet this season — go in to a loud, indoor stadium. We’re going to have some adversity. I have no doubt our guys will fight through any adversity that we see, but at the same time, this is going to be a big communication game for us. We all have to be on the same page if we want to see success on the field, so I think less so for points and anything — we need to see these guys come together, rally behind each other. Don’t go too low when we hit some valleys, don’t go too high when we do some good things, and just stay steady and take it as it comes.”
The potential for communication issues starts up front, where the Lions will be starting at least two backups along the offensive line, with the potential of a third depending on where center Frank Ragnow is at in his recovery from a foot injury.
Because of the expected noise levels, the Lions have been conducting practice with loud, nonstop music throughout the week to simulate the environment as best as possible since they understand they’ll need to be relying on a silent snap count throughout the matchup.
“The silent cadence is the big thing,” Campbell said. “It is the little things. You’re in the huddle, you’re trying to hear the play, ‘Did I hear that right? What did he say?’ Man, hearing it, being sharp, clear communication, really everything starts with (quarterback Jared) Goff.
“I thought Goff has handled (the week of practice) really well, and I thought our players handled it well yesterday. But that’s about as good as you can do to this point is just try to put them under that stress because — I just go back to this. If we can handle that offensively, I feel good about us being efficient.”
Defensively, the noise won’t be an issue, but the unit will still be under plenty of stress trying to bottle up a Minnesota offense loaded with dynamic weapons like running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson, both who have feasted against Detroit in the past.
“I think we’ve done some stuff really, really well,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “Obviously, there’s some things that we’ve got to work on. I’ll tell you what, you look at our young guys and you look at them from Game 1 to Game 2, you see growth there. … So, it kind of marries up to what our head coach expects is a race to improve. So, if we’re measuring it off that, I think those guys have done a pretty good job.”
To beat the Vikings, the Lions are likely to need to see even more improvement and more growth from that young unit. And if the Lions are able to show that maturity, to achieve what’s alluded them, they’ll get to experience one of the greatest joys in football — quieting a rowdy crowd on the road.
“There is something about being on the road and being in that with that group of guys and everybody’s on top of you, and nobody wants you there, nobody wants to see you win or succeed other than your own group,” Campbell said. “And there’s nothing better than, man, just honing in on each other and depending on one another, that, ‘Man, you’re going to do your job, I’m going to do mine.’ And when you make a play, the crowd just goes silent. There’s nothing better than that.”