When: 4:25 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Ford Field, Detroit TV: Fox
The most recent time the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings played, Calvin Johnson was on the bench, Teddy Bridgewater had one of the worst games of his rookie season, and the Lions' defense continued to be dominant.
Now Johnson is back, Bridgewater is improved, and the Lions defense has remained one of the best in the NFL. So what happens Sunday in Detroit's regular-season home finale? Lions NFL Nation reporter Michael Rothstein and Vikings NFL Nation reporter Ben Goessling break down what you might see.
Rothstein: The Lions saw possibly the worst of Bridgewater in Week 6. It seems he has grown since then. Where have the biggest changes come for him in the past two months?
Goessling: You're right -- that game probably was Bridgewater at his worst, but he's really made a marked improvement since then, especially in the past few weeks. The biggest change I've seen is in his accuracy, particularly downfield. He was really struggling with his deep throws earlier this season -- we saw him overthrowing quite a few of them -- but the coaches worked with him to keep from dropping the ball during his delivery, which was causing him to throw higher-arcing passes that got away from his receivers. He's getting more confident in his progressions, and he's getting better at avoiding pressure -- in short, he just looks a lot less like a rookie. It's helped that Charles Johnson has emerged as a go-to option for him, whereas Cordarrelle Patterson has fallen short, but Bridgewater deserves plenty of credit for his progress.
The Lions, though, will get a shot at him when the Vikings' offensive line is in a state of disrepair. They've cranked the pressure back up in the past couple weeks after Arizona and New England kept them from getting to the quarterback. Is there anything the Vikings can take from the Cardinals and Patriots, in terms of protecting Bridgewater against the Lions' pass rush?
Rothstein: Not really. Detroit played one of the best at getting rid of the ball quickly in New England's Tom Brady, and Arizona was a strange game. But the Lions have been excelling at flustering quarterbacks the past two weeks, and considering how badly Ezekiel Ansah dominated Matt Kalil in Minneapolis, it might be another long day for Bridgewater. Teams have tried to take Detroit's pass rush and run defense away by using a lot of screens and quick passes to receivers on the outside, but the Lions have gotten good at adapting to that, too. Consider this: Ansah had nine quarterback hurries on Jay Cutler. Then the Lions hit Josh McCown 14 times Sunday. Bridgewater has more speed and agility than both of them, and if I were Norv Turner, I'd try rolling Bridgewater out and putting him on the run as much as possible to force Detroit to give chase. That might be the best strategy.
Speaking of defense, Jim Caldwell praised Mike Zimmer's ability to disguise defenses -- something Detroit has done well this season. How do the Vikings end up doing that, and does Sharrif Floyd's injury change that?
Goessling: The Vikings' ability to disguise defenses comes largely from their double-A gap blitz package, which we'll see plenty of Sunday. From that look in the Vikings' nickel defense, Zimmer can send both linebackers up the middle and drop one or both into coverage, but no matter what he does, offensive lines have to account for the possibility they'll see heavy pressure up the middle. The Vikings will occasionally blitz Harrison Smith off the edge in conjunction with a linebacker and will send slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn after the quarterback, too. The fact that they've got two defensive ends who have linebacker experience and can drop into coverage (Everson Griffen and Brian Robison) just adds to their options. The Vikings would love to have Floyd healthy -- he's had a nice second season, particularly as a pass-rusher -- but they've got enough personnel flexibility to be unpredictable even if he doesn't play Sunday.
None of this works, though, if the Vikings can't cover Johnson. They didn't see him in October, but it seems he's back to his old self now. If he's at split end, Xavier Rhodes will match up well with him, but if he's moving around, the Lions will get some mismatches. How do you expect they'll use him?
Rothstein: They've moved him around a bunch this season, which had been offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's plan all along. With the caveat that the Lions have played two poor defenses over the past two weeks, this is what Detroit had hoped its offense would look like when it brought in Lombardi, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron this offseason. Johnson makes everything else in the offense happen, though, because of the attention teams still pay to him. They'll continue to use him on intermediate and deep routes from varying areas of the field in order to find good pockets for him to run into. With Tate in the offense, they don't use him as often in catch-and-run situations on shorter routes, but he is still the team's main breakout threat. That he's had 12 or more air yards per target in four of the past five games is evidence of that.
Going back to the offense, we discussed Bridgewater earlier, but even without Adrian Peterson, Minnesota has a decent-to-good rushing offense. What's been the key there, and who is the running back of the future for the Vikings?
Goessling: Well, it hasn't been very good since Jerick McKinnon got hurt. Matt Asiata is only averaging 3.3 yards per carry this season, and he needed 33 carries to gain a total of 106 yards the past two weeks. He doesn't have the speed or the ability to make people miss once he gets through the line, and at this point, the Vikings' offensive line is in such a state of disrepair that I'm not sure the run game is going to rebound, short of Peterson walking through that door, so to speak. The Vikings' best two run-blocking linemen, Brandon Fusco and Phil Loadholt, are both out for the year, and though John Sullivan has had a good season, the Vikings just haven't been able to get the consistent push they need to run the ball without more people healthy. I don't see that changing Sunday against the Lions.
This is obviously a game the Lions need in a heated NFC playoff race. Do you see this team being able to secure a playoff berth? How far can they go if they get in?
Rothstein: Yes, I do. This team has a much different feel than last season's Lions team, which fell apart at the end of the season. Jim Caldwell has the attention and trust of his players, and it shows every week. They understand more than ever that they can't look too far ahead, and they haven't. But they also know they are in a good position right now. As far as how far they can go? It depends. This is a team that can probably beat most teams at Ford Field. On the road against a good team? I'm not convinced. If they ended up at Dallas or the NFC South winner, they can win. Otherwise, the road game is where Detroit's journey ends.