Last night I watched the Short Cut* of the Lions-Vikes game from Week 3 to get a preview of what we might see in this weekend's game. I had not seen much of the Lions this year aside from game recap highlights, but I knew they had come from behind after being down 20 points at the half, which is pretty impressive (on an interesting side note, the Vikings have lost all 3 of their games this year despite having increasingly large double-digit halftime leads - 13, 17, and now 20 points). I came away even more impressed. The Lions are a significantly improved team, but they do have weaknesses, and if we were at full strength this weekend I would like our chances. However, given the current state of our injury situation, this is going to be a very difficult game to win.
More on my thoughts from the game after the jump...
(* the Short Cuts offered by DirecTV as part of the Sunday Ticket package are incredible. You can watch an entire game in 30 minutes or less. Every play - minus, say, the occasional punt that is fielded for a fair catch. No commercials, no half-time show. Just play, play, play, etc. The only downside - if you can call it that - is that the announcers are pretty garbled, since the edits are always cutting them off in mid-sentence.)
1. It was a tale of two halves.
I realize that when one team leads 20-0 at the half, and then proceeeds to lose 26-23, this statement rings, well, a bit obvious. But that does not make it any less true. As you would expect from the halftime score, the Vikings completely dominated the first half on both sides of the ball, shutting down the Lions offense completely (something like 60 total yards) and holding a near 2:1 edge in time of possession. And while they had a difficult time overall running the ball, they were able to spring Peterson for a few nice runs in the 1st Quarter (including a 43-yarder, as well as a 29-yarder that was called back due to penalty), and were able to run the ball enough to sustain drives and score points.
However, in the 2nd half, it was like two different teams showed up. Actually, it was more like the two teams replaced all of their players with new ones. Stafford threw for more than 300 yards in the 2nd half alone, after throwing for barely 50 in the first half. Peterson ran for a total of 5 yards in the second half, after getting 65 in the 1st quarter alone. The most noticeable tactical adjustment that I saw was that Detroit basically abandoned the run, and started throwing to their TE Pettigrew. After catching 2 passes for 24 yards on 3 targets in the first half, he was targeted 10(!) times in the 2nd half, catching 9 of those passes for 88 yards, with most of those going right down the middle on quick passes before the Minnesota pass rush could get home. As a result, the Detroit OL was able to keep Stafford more upright - after giving up 3 sacks in the 1st half, they only gave up 2 in the 2nd, and the last sack didn't come until the last drive. And after having the ball for only 11 minutes in the first half, the Lions ended the game actually leading in time of possession by more than 6 minutes. In the 2nd half, the Vikings only had the ball for 9:05 - less than half of their time of possession in the first half. That is a serious reversal of fortunes.
2. The Vikings still could have won.
Despite getting completely dominated in all facets of the game in the 2nd half, the Vikings still could have and should have won, were it not for a terrible decision made by its coaching staff on one fateful play.
On their first drive of the 4th quarter, after having given up 17 unanswered points in the 3rd, the Vikings caught a break. Lorenzo Booker fielded a Jason Hanson kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone, and returned it 68 yards to the Detroit 37. After moving the ball down to the Detroit 17, the Vikes faced a 4th and 1 with 11:33 left. Instead of kicking the chippie field goal and boosting their lead back up to 6, they elected to go for it, and instead of giving the ball to their All-World running back, they elected to give it to his backup, the slightly bigger Toby Gerhart. Gerhart was stuffed for no gain, the Lions took over, and proceeded to drive 51 yards in 6 agonizing minutes for the tying field goal with a little over 5 minutes left. The teams then traded field goals before the game went into overtime, where the Lions moved 59 yards on the first drive of OT (40 on a fairly miraculous play to Megatron) for the winning kick.
Obviously, there was still a lot of time left when the Vikings decided to go for it, and it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we know that the Lions were unable to score any more TDs in the game, and thus kicking a FG at that juncture would probably have won the game for Minnesota.
3. The Lions weaknesses on O play to our strength on D.
The main reason why the Vikings were able to put up 20 pts on the Lions in the first half was that the Detroit O-line was consistently manhandled by the Minnesota defensive front, especially on the edges. Both DEs for the Vikings (Allen and Robison) consistently got to Stafford in the first half (3 sacks, plus constant pressure from the edges) as the Lions' RT in particular was a swinging gate. The resultant pressure forced Stafford into some rushed throws and an overall subpar first half (something like 53 passing yards), but I was impressed with how he hung tough in the pocket. The Vikings also completely dominated the Detroit running game from start to finish. Best carried 12 time for 14 yards, and had it not been for a missed tackle on a screen pass that went for 60 yards, would have been completely bottled up (his other 4 catches went for a total of 14 yards).
I think we can at least duplicate this performance. Minnesota could only bring pressure off the edges, but I think we can do that and more, with Ratliff pushing the pocket, as well as by moving Ware around. Best is only averaging 2.9 YPC this season, which seems low until you realize that he averaged 3.2 last year. This is not a strong rushing attack. As we have completely shut down 3 pretty good running games already this year, it's not a stretch to say that we should control the line of scrimmage here as well.
We need Sean Lee to continue to be a stud, both in sniffing out and shutting down running plays, but also in shadowing Pettigrew. I know that the PFF numbers have Lee not grading out very well in pass D, but I also know that Fred Davis came into last week's game among the leaders in TE receptions and yards, and he left with 1 catch. And the week before that, Vernon Davis was shut out. If we can similarly limit Pettigrew, that will go a long way towards controlling their offense. I think we can get to Stafford, especially if we force him to have to wait for longer developing WR routes. But if we can't stop Pettigrew, then they will dink and dunk us to death.
4. Conversely, the Lions strengths play to our weaknesses, on both sides of the ball.
There is no question that the strength of the Lions D is on the line, where Suh is a flat-out monster. He is every bit as disruptive at DT as Ware is at OLB. In fact, the single biggest play the Vikings had on Sunday was a play that Suh was a nanosecond from completely blowing up. He knifed into the backfield at the snap and was about to pounce on McNabb just as he handed the ball off to Peterson, who slipped by Suh and raced 43 yards down the sideline. Suh is much stronger and more agile than either Kosier or Nagy, and we are going to have to double team him to slow him down. But that's not all - Kyle Vandenbosch is a nice edge rusher, and Free has struggled of late with speed rushers (rumor is he has a bad back, but nothing has confirmed that). This is a game where Romo is going to be pressured early and often, and not just with a blitz. Detroit can generate extreme pressure with just its four down lineman, which is a tremendous luxury in this league.
We are going to have to figure out a way to run the ball against this front. With Romo's broken ribs, and our banged up (and mentally handicapped, apparently) WR corps, I don't see any way to success by dropping him back to pass 40+ times. However, if we did have a healthy Romo and a healthy Austin/Bryant, I think we would have the chance to do some damage. McNabb had WRs running free last week, but he overthrew Berrian in the end zone and he short-hopped a few other throws (I know, big surprise).
On the other side of the ball, we have no one, really, who can match up with Megatron. He's as much of a beast as Suh is - he's bigger, stronger, faster, and can out-jump any one of our DBs. We are going to have to double him with a safety, and even that is not a guarantor of success. Thankfully, the Lions don't throw to him as much as they should (an average of 9 targets a game, which is 10th in the league), and from what I have seen only throw him the deep jump ball about 3 times a game. If we can limit those, that will go a long way towards getting a win.