3TFO: Lions @ Vikings, Week 10
Meeting at a crossroads both figuratively (momentum) and literally (division standings), there’s no question this is the most critical game of the season so far for both teams. After stumbling out of the gate, the Lions have managed to string together some wins and are poised to regain their contender status. Can their offense still put up points with a gimpy Calvin Johnson? Can they continue to persevere with the injuries that have decimated their secondary? A loss here would drop them to 0-3 in their division — while a win would vault them ahead of the Vikings in the standings and back into legitimate playoff discussion.
While the Vikings surprised almost everybody by winning four of their first five to start the season, they’ve since come crashing back to earth. Can they right a defense that has been throttled the past few weeks? Can quarterback Christian Ponder reemerge as an complementary threat to Adrian Peterson’s running game? A loss here would have them back to where most predicted they’d end up — at the bottom of the division. A win puts them in striking distance of the division lead.
Expect high emotions and high entertainment value in this critical divisional battle. Here’s a closer look at why.
A ‘Backup’ vs. A Backup?
Controversy erupted this week surrounding comments attributed to an anonymous NFL general manager regarding Lions center Dominic Raiola. The comments published on a prominent website described Raiola as a “complete fraud” and suggested that perhaps with an improved work ethic, he might hope to be an “average back-up” someday. The website has since apologized for publishing the comments but that probably hasn’t stopped many NFL fans from wondering. Since grading every player on every play is what we do here at PFF, we feel it’s only our duty to weigh in.
So, would Raiola be lucky to make most teams as a backup center? Either this GM is just trying to get under Raiola’s skin, or he’s simply not looking at the same game film we are.
Raiola has been a starting center in this league for more than 10 years, and that’s saying something in itself. In our five years of grading, you could only look at Raiola’s 2010 campaign and legitimately make a statement like the one above. That year, Raiola ranked 30th in our overall grading and struggled in all aspects of his game. He rebounded last year (up to 24th overall) and was back to doing what he does best with a Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) rating good for fourth among NFL centers.
So far this year, Raiola is having one of his finest seasons. His +9.7 overall grade is good for seventh among centers and his pass protection has again been elite — only five QB disruptions allowed, and ranked third in PBE. He’s also made big strides in his run blocking. He isn’t dominant — not the kind of guy who’s going to drive a defender to the ground or even out of a play — but he often does enough to keep a running lane open and is rarely beaten man-on-man. His +5.0 run blocking grade leads his team and is currently good for 11th among centers.
Although Raiola looks like a starter to us, it’s likely he’ll be matched against a genuine backup this week, with Vikings starting nose tackle Letroy Guion uncertain with a turf toe injury. The silver lining is that Guion has been one of the team’s poorer performers on defense the season, especially in run defense. Career backup Fred Evans is likely next in line if Guion can’t go. He has shown significantly more impact against the run in limited playing time (18 snaps per game).
Lions DEs vs. Matt Kalil
We’ve been down a lot on defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch here at PFF in recent years. With as many snaps as this guy gets, there are few in the league who have been producing less. To make things worse he’s had some young players behind him grading out well in limited snaps. With Vanden Bosch disappointing yet again this year, the problem is that those guys behind him haven’t been playing much better.
After some promising play last year, we pegged Willie Young as Detroit’s Secret Superstar in the offseason and so far he hasn’t lived up to our hype. Young has only three tackles, zero sacks and five pressures and he’s ranked 60th among 4-3 DEs (only two slots above Vanden Bosch) in our grading. Penalties have also been a big problem, with Young drawing flags five times (two declined). Lawrence Jackson also had a promising 2011 season, but has been pretty quiet this year. Outside of a four-pressure game against the Eagles, he hasn’t had a positive grade in pass rushing.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil will face whoever lines up at DRE for the Lions. If history is any indication, expect another slow day pass rushing from that group. Kalil gave up only a single QB hit to Vanden Bosch during their Week 4 battle. He has continued to show that even as a rookie, he already deserves consideration as one of the league’s elite pass blockers. Kalil ranks fourth among NFL offensive tackles in our PBE ratings and seventh on our Race for Rookie of the Year watch list.
Chad Greenway vs. Joique Bell
Ever since I lauded outside linebacker Chad Greenway’s stellar play in pass coverage a few weeks ago, he appears to be on a personal mission to prove me wrong. In the past three games, Greenway has allowed catches on 93 percent of his targets, given up a 64-yard touchdown and amassed a –6.5 coverage grade. He’s also missed five total tackles (run and pass). He’s been having particular trouble navigating through downfield blockers on screenplays.
Greenway will have his hands full this week with Joique Bell, who has been the Lions’ surprise receiving threat out of the backfield with a pass grade good for third among NFL running backs. He’s been sure-handed (one drop) and tough to pull down in the open field (eight forced missed tackles). One of our signature stats, Yards Per Route Run, is a better indicator of receiver productivity than yards per catch, or even yards per target. Bell’s 2.46 YPRR ranks second only to the Chargers’ Ronnie Brown (2.70) among RBs. He’s been averaging more than four targets per game and with Greenway struggling, expect even more this week.
Follow Bryan on Twitter: @PFF_BryanHall