1 p.m. Sunday, Fox: Dave Birkett breaks down and predicts the Week 7 game at Ford Field
Detroit Lions (1-5) vs. Minnesota Vikings (3-2)
When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Ford Field.
Line: Vikings by 1 1/2.
TV/radio: Fox (Channel 2 in Detroit), WXYT-FM (97.1).
Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett reveals three story lines for Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Lions:
Rib meat: The last time Matthew Stafford met the Minnesota Vikings, he ended up in the X-ray room getting pictures taken of his ribs and chest.
The Vikings assaulted Stafford with an assortment of blitzes in their first meeting of the year, hitting him eight times, sacking him once and leaving him wincing, wobbly and in pain.
Minnesota has one of the best pressure packages in the NFL, and both Stafford and the offensive line need to do a better job picking up free rushers Sunday. One focus for the Lions: Staying out of third-and-long situations to keep the Vikings’ blitz at bay.
No bull: The secret to stopping the Vikings is the same as it’s always been — stop Adrian Peterson.
That’s easier said than done, of course, as Peterson is closing in on 11,000 yards for his career, with more than 10% of them coming against the Lions. He ran for 134 yards against the Lions in their first meeting, and defenders admit it’s no fun tackling him No. 28.
“What is it like?” safety Glover Quin said. “Imagine being in that ring and the bull breaks out and you’ve got to try to tackle him. And he’s trying to go eat or something. It ain’t fun.”
Protect the ball: The Lions rank last in the NFL in turnovers (18) and turnover margin (minus-8), and if they don’t find a way to fix those stats against a ball-secure Vikings team they’ll be back in the losing column Sunday.
Stafford has been one of the biggest culprits with nine interceptions, tied for second-most in the league. But he’s hardly alone as he and seven other Lions have lost fumbles this year.
Turnovers can be contagious, and the Lions right now are giving the ball away at an epidemic rate.
Know the foe: Minnesota Vikings (3-2)
Coach: Mike Zimmer (10-11 overall, 10-11 with Vikings).
Key players: RB Adrian Peterson, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Everson Griffen, CB Xavier Rhodes, S Harrison Smith.
Last game: Win, 16-10 over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last meeting: 2015: Vikings 26, Lions 16.
Birkett’s buzz: The Vikings sit alone in second place in the NFC North and are one of only five teams in conference currently with a winning record. They’re succeeding this year thanks to a couple big days by Peterson, one of the best turnover ratios in the NFL and a defense that mixes up its looks to make life hard on opposing quarterbacks. Peterson is fourth in the league in rushing yards per game, and the engine of an offense that’s had a hard time reaching the end zone. Mike Wallace is Bridgewater’s top target, but neither Kyle Rudolph nor Charles Johnson has distinguished himself this year and the Vikings don’t scare anyone through the air. On defense, Griffen and Anthony Barr are dangerous players in the front seven, Smith is one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the physical Rhodes likely will follow Calvin Johnson all around the field.
Lions run offense vs. Vikings run defense
The Lions had their best rushing day of the season last week, gaining 125 yards on the ground (not including a 30-yard fake punt), but they still rank last in the NFL in that category by a long shot.
Ameer Abdullah should start Sunday, but his fumble problems (four this year, with one lost) have been worrisome. Joique Bell is expected to return after a three-game absence due to leg fatigue, but at just 1.1 yards per carry this year, he might not be of much help. Theo Riddick has been the Lions’ most effective back this year, though most of his contributions come as a receiver.
The Vikings got gashed on the ground in their two road games this year against the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos, but they’ve held the other three teams they’ve faced to 185 total yards. Sharrif Floyd won’t play because of knee and ankle injuries, but the Vikings dominated the Lions up front in their meeting last month.
Lions pass offense vs. Vikings pass defense
Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson rekindled their long distance relationship last week, hooking up six times for 166 yards. The Vikings are significantly better on defense than the Chicago Bears. But if the Lions can give Stafford time, they’ll take some deep shots Sunday.
Stafford took a pounding against the Vikings last month, but Larry Warford was playing on one leg that game and Laken Tomlinson has since taken over at left guard. Eric Ebron should be back from a knee injury, too, and he could spell trouble for a Vikings team that’s struggled to cover tight ends this year.
Xavier Rhodes is one of the better press cornerbacks in the NFC. He’s a bit penalty-prone, but he’ll match up with Johnson most of the game. Harrison Smith is one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Vikings get good pressure up front from players like Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Anthony Barr.
Vikings run offense vs. Lions run defense
He may be 30 years old, and in the midst of an up-and-down season, but Adrian Peterson is still the best running back in the business. Peterson dominated the Lions earlier this year with 134 yards rushing, and there’s reason to believe he could be in for another big game Sunday.
Haloti Ngata is expected back for the Lions after missing two weeks with a strained calf, but outside of Ziggy Ansah no one up front has shined this year. The Lions rank 26th against the run (120.7 ypg) and have given up 10 touchdowns on the ground, tied for the most of any team.
Along with Ngata, the Lions could benefit from the return of James Ihedgibo, who’s probable to play with a quad injury. More than anything, though, they need to control the line of scrimmage against Minnesota’s so-so offensive line.
Vikings pass offense vs. Lions pass defense
Teddy Bridgewater is a career 64.4% passer, but the Vikings don’t take many chances with him on offense. Bridgewater has more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) this year, and Minnesota’s receiving corps isn’t exactly dripping with weapons.
Mike Wallace leads the Vikings with 22 catches for 256 yards, but Charles Johnson has been a non-entity most of the year and Kyle Rudolph is no longer a tight end to fear. Stefon Diggs has 13 catches the last two weeks and provides some semblance of a deep threat.
Ansah has 3.5 sacks in his last three games against the Vikings and owns left tackle Matt Kalil. If the Vikings take Ansah out of the game, they could have their way with a Lions secondary that might be without nickel cornerback Josh Wilson on Sunday and is allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 74% of their passes this year.
The Lions have two of the most reliable specialists in the league in kicker Matt Prater and punter Sam Martin. Prater is a perfect 6 for 6 on field goals this year and Martin is netting better than 40 yards a punt, but the Lions have had way too many penalties in their return and coverage units.
Lions special teams coordinator Joe Marciano was interim coordinator for the Vikings last year, so he knows just how dangerous return men Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels are. Both had decent-sized returns against the Lions in September. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh hasn’t made a field goal over 45 yards this year.
The Lions finally got in the win column last week, but their problems are far from solved. They committed three more turnovers, played uninspired football defensively, and needed some late-game heroics to beat one of the five worst teams in the NFL.
Winning Sunday against the Vikings won’t be nearly as easy. Peterson is a sledgehammer who keeps on swinging, and the Vikings, one of just five NFC teams with a winning record, have an underrated defense with playmakers at all levels.
The Lions need another good game from their offensive line to thwart Minnesota’s blitz packages. If they don’t get that, it’ll be a long day for Stafford.
Pick: Vikings 20, Lions 17