The Detroit Lions, standing proudly with a 10-4 record, are on the verge of a historic moment. Perched atop the NFC North, a win against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium could crown them the NFC North champions for the first time in three decades. Meanwhile, the Vikings, at 7–7, aim to defend their title and are facing a must-win scenario to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Understanding the Matchup
Lions’ Leap Forward: Under the guidance of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell, the Lions have transformed. With Jared Goff at the helm and Ben Johnson’s innovative strategies, they’re no longer the underdogs. Their well-rounded roster and powerful offense have earned respect and fear in equal measure.
Minnesota’s Hunt-ing and Playmaking: The Vikings’ path to victory hinges on leveraging their playmakers on offense and making Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff uncomfortable in the pocket. Minnesota’s offense, adept at exploiting weaknesses with wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison and tight end T.J. Hockenson, will test Detroit’s secondary. Their defense, led by defensive coordinator Brian Flores, is a study in contrasts, known for both aggressive blitzes and strategic restraint.
Keys to a Lions Victory
Key 1: Johnson vs. Flores – The Tactical Tug-of-War
Epic Coordinator Clash: The battle between Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores is the highlight of this game. Both coordinators are among the best in the league, with Johnson’s offense ranking near the top of the league in yards per carry and total rushing yards. They face Flores’ innovative defense, known for its ability to disguise pressure and coverage.
Goff’s Quick Reads: Goff’s performance under pressure is pivotal. Against a defense known for its unpredictability, his ability to quickly process his reads and react is essential. Johnson’s task is to set up plays that enable Goff to identify blitz patterns early and adjust rapidly. This means incorporating quick-release options and leveraging the versatility of the Lions’ backfield.
Synergy between Scheme and Execution: Johnson’s strategy should aim to exploit the Vikings’ defensive extremes. By alternating between quick strikes and sustained drives, the Lions can keep the Vikings off-balance. Goff’s role is to execute these plans effectively, making smart, swift decisions. Utilizing dynamic playmakers like Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta, Jahmyr Gibbs, Jameson Williams, and Kalif Raymond in various formations can create mismatches and open up passing lanes. This synergistic approach between Johnson’s play-calling and Goff’s execution could be the key to unlocking the Vikings’ defense.
Key 2: Strength on strength…POUND THE ROCK
Consistent Rushing Attack: Detroit’s running game has been nothing short of spectacular in the season’s latter half. They’ve consistently surpassed 115 rushing yards, thanks to the dynamic duo of Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery. This combination has become the backbone of the Lions’ offense, with Gibbs’ explosive speed and Montgomery’s relentless power leading the way.
Gibbs’ Explosive Potential: Gibbs stands out with his exceptional acceleration, posing a constant threat to defenses. Despite the Vikings’ strong run defense, his ability to break off significant gains can be a game-changer. Gibbs leads the Lions in scrimmage yards, showcasing his versatility and threat in both the running and passing game. However, the Vikings’ run defense, which has allowed only one run of over 20 yards this season, will not be an easy barrier to break through. Gibbs’ agility and speed will be crucial in finding gaps in Minnesota’s defensive front.
Montgomery’s Steady Influence: Alongside Gibbs, Montgomery’s consistent performance has been instrumental. Ranking among the league’s best in scrimmage yards, he brings a blend of power and reliability to the Lions’ rushing attack. The duo’s combined efforts have propelled Detroit’s rushing game to heights not seen since the era of Barry Sanders.
Utilizing Versatile Formations: Detroit’s offensive strategy should focus on maximizing the effectiveness of their running backs. Employing varied formations and personnel groupings can challenge the Vikings’ adaptability. The strategic use of Sam LaPorta and the offensive line’s ability to create lanes will be instrumental in outmaneuvering Minnesota’s defense. This approach not only establishes the run but also sets the stage for the play-action pass.
Key 3: Dual Focus: Shielding Goff and Pressuring Mullens
Keep Goff’s Pocket Clean: The Lions’ exceptional record in protecting their quarterback is a vital aspect of their game plan. Surrendering only 28 sacks this season, the best in the league, has allowed Goff to flourish. His ability to remain upright has been a significant factor in the consistency and effectiveness of Detroit’s passing game. The challenge in Minneapolis, however, will be to maintain this level of protection with star edge rusher Danielle Hunter headed in Goff’s direction.
Exploiting Vikings’ Defensive Gaps: While the Vikings boast a formidable pass rush led by Hunter, their aggressive approach can backfire, leaving opportunities for big plays. The Vikings’ pass defense, ranking 17th in the league, has shown vulnerabilities that Detroit can exploit. With Goff’s primary targets, St. Brown and LaPorta, complemented by the emerging talent of Jameson Williams, Detroit must exploit any defensive lapses. The potential absence of Byron Murphy in the Vikings’ secondary could open additional avenues for Detroit’s passing game.
Disrupting Mullens’ Rhythm: On the defensive side, the Lions face a Vikings offense led by Nick Mullens. Having shown vulnerabilities under pressure, Detroit’s defense has an opportunity to intensify their pass rush. The aim should be to disrupt Mullens’ rhythm, forcing errors and capitalizing on interception opportunities. Their pass defense can leverage the talents of Cam Sutton, Khalil Dorsey, and Kindle Vildor to contain the Vikings’ threats like Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson.
The Lions, with the division title within reach, cannot afford complacency. Their recent victory over the Broncos suggests a team hitting its stride at the right moment, but not without vulnerabilities. Facing the Vikings, a familiar foe with its own aspirations, Detroit must leverage its strengths and seize this critical opportunity. With the playoffs beckoning, the Lions aim not just for a win, but a statement of intent as they rewrite their narrative in the NFC North.
For more from our Detroit Lions beat writer, Matt Broder, check him out on Twitter here: @mattbro21
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Original Photo Credit: © Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK