3TFO: Lions @ Vikings, Week 17
It has been a disappointing year for the Vikings and Lions, as both expected to be at least in playoff contention heading into the final week of the season. Instead, the Vikings have had a quarterback carousel all season and the defense has struggled to close out games. All of this has led to the hot seat for head coach Leslie Frazier and a potential Top 10 pick in the draft.
Meanwhile, in the last month the Lions have squandered a 6-3 start in the mediocre NFC North, in which either eight or nine wins could clinch the division. Detroit’s late season collapse has head coach Jim Schwartz’s job status also in question. With jobs and pride on the line, both teams look to finish the season on a high note in the final game at Mall of America Field. Let’s take a look at three key matchups to focus on in this Week 1 rematch.
The Vikings’ Offensive Line Versus the Lions’ Defensive Line
Minnesota’s offensive line as a whole has been one of the better offensive lines in the league this season. In terms of pass blocking, the offensive line ranks tenth with a 79.0 Pass Blocking Efficiency. While Charlie Johnson has been average and Matt Kalil has regressed from his impressive rookie season, the rest of the line has excelled. Phil Loadholt, Brandon Fusco, and John Sullivan all rank in the top five at their respective positions in overall grades. The right side has been successful in pass protection, but their strength has been run blocking. Loadholt is our highest ranked right tackle in run blocking, while Fusco and Sullivan rank third at right guard and center, respectively. As good as the line has been, their first matchup against the Lions was collectively their worst game of the year. Four of the five linemen earned ‘red’ grades and the line had a cumulative -9.2 overall grade. The line will have the benefit of Matt Cassel under center this go-around, instead of Christian Ponder. Cassel has released the ball in 2.5 seconds or less this year on 59% of his pass attempts—nearly 15% more than Ponder.
The Vikings will once again have their hands full with one of the most talented defensive lines in the league. Ndamukong Suh’s five sacks are tied for a career low but his impact spans much further. He has put together the best season of his career thus far with a +42.5 overall grade, ranking second among defensive tackles. He might lack sacks, but his 72 total pressures and 10.8 Pass Rushing Productivity are also career highs and second to only Gerald McCoy. Fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley has had a positive year, but not the developmental jump that many thought he would have this season. He continues to be more effective when pass rushing (+10.5) than against the run (-1.2). Rookie defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has been hampered by injuries for much of the year but has shown flashes of his pass rush ability as well.
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell Versus Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson
Reggie Bush had an impressive debut with Detroit, gaining191 total yards and a touchdown on 25 touches. The opening game turned out to be Bush’s best game of the year (+3.3). Although he has split playing time with Joique Bell and has recently been slowed by injuries, his playmaking ability out of the backfield has given the Lions’ offense an added dimension. As good as Bush has been, Bell has performed even better. Bell is our ninth-ranked running back with a +15.8 overall grade. He, too, has been effective catching the ball with 1.91 Yards Per Route Run, ranking fifth among all running backs. Bell is coming off his best game of the year but has not practiced this week, so Bush may have to shoulder the load.
The Vikings have had issues in pass coverage all season, largely due to of the play of their cornerbacks. However, linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson have been liabilities as well. Greenway’s -10.3 coverage grade and 786 receiving yards allowed are league-worsts for 4-3 outside linebackers. In the first game against the Lions, Greenway was responsible for four receptions and 123 receiving yards, including Bush’s 77-yard touchdown catch and run. Henderson has not allowed nearly as many catches or yards as Greenway, but has given up four touchdowns in 11 starts. The duo will have their hands full again versus the dynamic Lions’ backfield.
Which Quarterbacks Will Show Up?
Barring a season-worst performance, Matthew Stafford (+18.4) is on his way to a career-high overall grade. Stafford had six games in which he earned a +3.0 or higher overall grade in the first 12 games, but his play has faded down the stretch. Although his play has been overwhelmingly positive, his struggles have come when the Lions have needed him most. With two games below -2.0 in the last three weeks, Stafford needs to, and should, bounce back against a struggling Vikings’ secondary.
Because of continual injuries to Christian Ponder and a trade for Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel has been in and out of the lineup most of the season. When given the chance, his performances have been about as inconsistent as his playing time. In Week 13, Cassel earned the highest pass grade for a Vikings’ quarterback since Brett Favre’s second-to-last season in 2009. Yet, last week he earned his worst pass grade since the same year, his first season in Kansas City. Cassel will want to put another good performance on tape if he hopes to be the Vikings’ starter entering training camp next.
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