By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions have gone opposite directions since their Week 4 matchup at Ford Field.
The Vikings won to move to 3-1 and the Lions fell to 1-3. Since then, the Vikings have gone 2-3 while the Lions have won three of four.
The Lions have climbed back into playoff contention with a 4-4 record. In its three wins since a bye week in Week 5, two have come on the road, including a trip to Philadelphia and Jacksonville. With the wins over the Eagles and Jaguars, the Lions have a 2-3 record on the road.
Lions on Offense
The improvement the Lions have made did not come from any schematic changes, but just better play on the field. Despite the loss of Nate Burleson to a season-ending leg injury, the Lions try to spread defenses out with multiple receiver sets.
The best matchup is Vikings right defensive end Jared Allen vs. Lions left tackle Jeff Backus. Backus has declined with age, but he has just one sack allowed this season. Allen has had the upper hand in this matchup in the last three meetings with seven sacks (three in each of last season’s meetings and one in this year’s).
The matchup the Vikings need to take advantage of is the linebackers vs. Lions running back Mikel Leshoure. The Vikings have missed a lot of tackles in recent weeks. Leshoure has come on strong as of late, but the running game is still the weakness of the Lions offense. Chad Greenway leads the NFL in tackles while fellow starter Jasper Brinkley is a downhill tackler. The Vikings have an advantage if the linebackers can make plays in the backfield.
The worst matchup for the Vikings is its smaller corners vs. Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson is big, fast and nearly impossible to stop. Fortunately for the Vikings Johnson is banged up and most likely will not be at 100 percent Sunday.
Lions on Defense
The Lions are aggressive and rely on penetration to blow plays up in the backfield. The Lions entire defense was mediocre at best to start the season, but more than half the starters were limited or no participants in practice Wednesday.
The best matchup is running back Adrian Peterson vs. the Lions front seven. The Lions use wide splits in the defensive front, which can put its linebackers in tough situations.
The matchup the Vikings need to exploit is Kyle Rudolph vs. the Lions secondary. Even when healthy the Lions defensive backs are not that good. This is an opportunity for the Vikings to fix its passing offense. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com tweeted that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave “re-analyzed scheme.” The Vikings hope it will help immediately. Getting Rudolph and his size the ball downfield is a pretty good way to do it.
The worst matchup for the Vikings is right tackle Phil Loadholt vs. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril. Loadholt has problems with pass rushing defensive ends. Avril is not having one of his better seasons, but his quickness is a problem for Loadholt. Loadholt was able to hold Avril to just a half sack in their previous meeting this season.
Seahawks Players to Watch
Quarterback Matthew Stafford: The fourth-year quarterback has picked up his play in recent weeks. He has recorded back-to-back games with a quarterback rating above 90, one more than the previous six games. The Lions go as the quarterback goes.
Linebacker Justin Durant: The sixth-year linebacker has recorded seven tackles in each of the last three games. In the previous meeting with the Vikings, he had six tackles, including a team-high two for a loss. He is the better run stopping outside linebacker for the Lions.
The Lions are right back in the thick of the playoff race. The winner of Sunday’s contest will be third in the NFC North, while the loser will fall to last place in the division. The Vikings need to win Sunday’s game to keep pace and hope for the playoffs. The purple has five of its final seven games within the division and five games against likely playoff teams, including three games against teams that likely will finish first or second in their respective conferences. It is a grueling final seven games of the season for the Vikings.
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Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. His work can be found on Examiner.com.