3TFO: Vikings @ Lions, Week 1
The Detroit Lions are coming off of yet another disappointing season. Despite leading the Lions to a long-awaited playoff appearance in 2011, Jim Schwartz (22-42 in four seasons) could be on the hot seat if the team does not play to its talent level once again. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings won both meetings last season en route to the playoffs. With Adrian Peterson looking more machine than human, the Vikings are looking for their passing game to progress through the additions of Greg Jennings and first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson.
The Bears and Packers each face challenging opponents in Week 1 so there is a possibility that this winner will stand alone atop the NFC North standings come Monday morning. Here are three key matchups to focus on.
Christian Ponder Handling the Lions’ Pressure
Last season, Christian Ponder showed very brief glimpses of the quarterback the Vikings thought he could be when they drafted him. Ultimately though, he was inconsistent and underwhelming for the majority of the season. Ponder’s 53.8% Accuracy Rate when under pressure was the fourth-lowest among qualifying quarterbacks last year, while his completion percentage dropped to a staggering 29.8% (70.1% to 40.3%) when pressured. Even with Peterson, the league’s best running back, Ponder ranked 20th in QB rating on play-action passes and his completion percentage was surprisingly higher on plays without play-action. The Vikings lacked weapons at wide receiver last year so having Jennings and Patterson to throw to should assist in Ponder’s progression. He does not need to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns, but he does need to improve his composure under pressure and increase his effectiveness on play-action passes.
The Lions on the other hand, have put together one of the most formidable pass-rushing defensive lines in the NFL. Last season, Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh ranked second and third among defensive tackles in Pass Rushing Productivity and both seem poised to have tremendous seasons this year. First-round pick Ziggy Ansah’s status is questionable for Sunday, though his would-be replacement, Willie Young, has had an impressive preseason. Young finished with the highest overall (+8.4) and pass-rushing (+5.5) grades for 4-3 defensive ends, even though 50 others played more snaps. Veteran additions Israel Idonije and Jason Jones may not be the most consistent players, but they have found success getting to the quarterback in the past. Expect Ponder to be under pressure often—how he reacts will be one of the biggest factors of the game.
Lions’ Receivers vs. Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes
The Lions’ offense was not only pass-heavy last year, but Calvin Johnson was targeted 36 more times than the rest of the Lions’ wide receivers combined. Matthew Stafford will continue to target his tight ends and running backs, especially with the addition of Reggie Bush, but he needs a consistent second option at wide receiver as well. Nate Burleson and Ryan Broyles are both coming off significant injuries from last year. Broyles put up big numbers in college, but it remains to be seen if he can still be that same dangerous receiver once healthy. It is unlikely he will factor into the game as he did not take a single snap with the starting offensive unit in the preseason. Undrafted second-year receiver Patrick Edwards currently sits second on the depth chart to Johnson and will play the first regular-season snap of his career on Sunday. He had a catch rate of only 46.7% in the preseason, fourth-lowest among wide receivers with as many targets.
The Vikings’ defense was ranked 28th in pass coverage last year and will be without Antoine Winfield now for the first time in nearly a decade. Josh Robinson will get the majority of snaps opposite Chris Cook and will move to the slot in nickel packages while first-round pick Xavier Rhodes takes over on the outside. Robinson is a young, quick cornerback, but he struggled in coverage last year, earning the lowest grade for cornerbacks (-12.6). He allowed 72.6% of passes thrown in his direction to be completed, including six touchdowns. Robinson did not fare much better in the preseason: in 14 targets he allowed 12 receptions for 88 yards and a touchdown in limited playing time. Meanwhile, Rhodes has played well, allowing just three receptions for 19 yards on only six targets, despite playing more than Robinson. The matchup with Robinson should provide an opportunity for one of the Lions’ receivers to step forward as another option for Stafford.
Riley Reiff and Jason Fox vs. Vikings Defensive Ends
Riley Reiff saw action in all 17 games as a rookie, but played less than one-third of the Lions’ offensive snaps. In 13 games at right tackle, he earned a +9.1 grade—an impressive feat in just 173 snaps. Still, he did not perform as well on the left side (-2.8), where he allowed seven pressures in three games. Many question whether Reiff is better suited at right tackle, but the Lions seem comfortable keeping him on the left after investing a first-round pick in him and lacking any other option. Taking over at right tackle is unproven Jason Fox, whose 26 career snaps all came in 2010 as a rookie. His 99.0 Pass Blocking Efficiency this preseason ranks second for offensive tackles, but the small sample size makes it difficult to predict if he can sustain the same level of play throughout an entire season.
On the other side of the ball, Jared Allen is still one of the league’s best pass rushers. Last year Allen, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffen all ranked in the top half in PRP for 4-3 defensive ends. The trio combined for 174 total pressures last season—more than the entire Chiefs’ defense (143) and only two behind the Jaguars (176). These matchups should provide a good idea of how well Reiff and Fox can perform in their new roles.
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