Vikings vs. Lions: Why it’s a must-win for the Vikings

Vikings vs. Lions: Why it’s a must-win for the Vikings

Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald explains why Sunday’s battle between the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions is a must-win for Minnesota.

Three weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings were the best team in the NFL after sprinting to a 5-0 start.

And, as NFCN Barroom Executive Editor said to me on the About The Labor podcast this week, they looked 5-0.

They really looked 5-0.

In a matter of two weeks, everything has changed. Minnesota’s once-vaunted defense was exposed by the Chicago Bears, of all teams. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was outcoached by Chicago offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, which absolutely nobody would have bet on.

That’s not even the worst of it. Former (!) offensive coordinator Norv Turner led the Minnesota offense to a treacherous 10 points in each of the last two games, both of which included garbage time touchdowns. Injuries have continued to pile up, as Jerick McKinnon, Andrew Sendejo, Alex Boone and Eric Kendricks are among the key starters to go down with an injury since the 5-0 start.

In the past two weeks, the Vikings have looked disinterested, tired and confused. What was once the best team in the NFL has suddenly become the most vulnerable.

The one thing that hasn’t changed since the 5-0 start is Minnesota’s position in the NFC North. If you’re an optimist, maybe that’s your spin from all of this.

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Speaking of the NFC North, Minnesota’s next contest is a home contest with division rival Detroit. Returning to the friendly confines of U.S. Bank Stadium will inevitably help the Vikings, but they still cannot perform the same way they have the last two weeks and expect to win.

And they need to win this game. In fact, it’s a must-win game.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking — it’s way too early in the season to be declaring teams in must-win situations. And 99 percent of the time, that’s correct. But Minnesota is not in a normal situation because, let’s face it, when has this franchise ever been in a “normal” situation?

Let’s play the hypothetical game to explain why this game is a must-win for the Vikings. So, for now, just assume the Vikings have already lost to the Lions.

The Vikings are now 5-3, while the Lions have jumped to 5-4 and the Green Bay Packers also moved to 5-3 after a home win against Indianapolis. Considering each team’s performance to this point in 2016, the NFC North division is absolutely wide open, and the Vikings are definitely not the favorites.

The Vikings just lost at home to the Lions, who never win in Minnesota. Detroit has won in Minneapolis exactly twice since 1993 — and I’m not Lion about that (pun totally intended).

So, after the loss to the Lions, the Vikings have now been torched three games in a row after the bye week, and their schedule doesn’t get easier. In the next four weeks, Minnesota’s schedule includes games in the nation’s capital against the Washington Redskins, at home against a very talented Arizona Cardinals team, back in Detroit on a short week for a Thanksgiving game and home against the NFC’s top team, the Dallas Cowboys.

Additionally, the transition to interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is off to a rocky start and the blockbuster trade to acquire Sam Bradford before the season increasingly becomes a bust. Reeling on three straight losses with a difficult schedule ahead, Minnesota’s playoff hopes are dwindling.

Now, back to reality. Do you see now why this game is a must-win for the Vikings? Simply put, if the Vikings lose this game, a home game against the Lions, their journey to the playoffs becomes significantly more difficult.

Is this reactionary? Yeah, probably. Can you blame me for being reactionary after rooting for the Vikings for my whole life? No, you can’t.

With all of this said, the Vikings can still absolutely defeat the Lions on Sunday. Despite the injuries, Minnesota is the superior team and playing at home should help this team get back on track.

But to beat the Lions, a few key objectives will have to be accomplished first.

Contain RB Theo Riddick

Detroit’s most dangerous offensive weapon, besides quarterback Matthew Stafford, is running back Theo Riddick.

Running back might be a misleading name for the position Riddick actually plays. Last week against Houston, Riddick collected eight catches in addition to his 11 carries. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (hilarious name) creatively utilizes Riddick to get him the ball.

Riddick will line up in the slot or in the backfield and he’ll often be sent in motion before the snap. The absence of cover linebacker Eric Kendricks will only enhance Riddick’s ability to make plays in the open field.

Actually, now that I think about it, Kendricks missing Sunday’s game might be a good thing for the Vikings. Remember what Riddick did to him last year?

riddick

(I’m only joking. Kind of.)

The Vikings have been gashed multiple times this season by running backs either catching the ball out of the backfield or finding space on an outside run. Remember Paul Perkins’ 67-yard catch in Week 4? How about Fozzy Whitaker’s 70-some-yard touchdown catch in Week 3 that was called back due to a penalty? Or Jordan Howard’s entire 202-yard performance last week?

Mike Zimmer’s top priority should be finding ways to neutralize Riddick. If he does, his chances of winning on Sunday increase dramatically.

Protect QB Sam Bradford

Yeah, this is the obvious one. Minnesota’s offensive line has been one gigantic dumpster fire the entire year, and probably the main reason for the offensive struggles. And it gets better — left guard Alex Boone won’t play. So that leaves Joe Berger as the only starting lineman from August that is still healthy. This is fine. Everything is fine.

But “protecting” Bradford isn’t entirely up to the offensive line. The play-caller can find ways to neutralize the glaring weakness by finding ways to get the ball out of Bradford’s hands. Norv Turner was, uh, bad at this, to be really nice about it.

Shurmur’s West Coast offense should allow Bradford to stay upright more than he has the past two weeks. The West Coast offense is a more basic offense that calls for quick-hitting plays, screens and more calculated risks. Just look at the West Coast style Alex Smith orchestrates in Kansas City.

This isn’t to say that Turner’s entire playbook will be wiped out. In fact, I’d be surprised if any changes were made to the actual playbook. But Shurmur will inevitably call plays that more closely match the West Coast scheme than Turner’s Air Coryell scheme, which should keep Bradford more protected.

Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense isn’t a scary unit. But if there’s one thing he does well, it’s getting creative with his pass rush. Ziggy Ansah, A’Shawn Robinson, Kerry Hyder and a number of others line up in all different places along that defensive line. Austin utilizes a healthy mix of stunts and twists to get to the quarterback.

The communication through Minnesota’s offensive line will be essential to earning a win this Sunday.

(Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

Minnesota has a tall task ahead on Sunday — the Lions are not the same old Lions. But they are the superior team and they are returning to U.S. Bank Stadium.

It’s a game the Vikings should win. But of course, I’ve said that the past two weeks as well, so I need to try something different apparently.

Maybe if I say it’s a must-win game, they’ll get it done.

Be sure to check out the About The Labor podcast and follow Vikings Barroom on Twitter and Facebook!

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Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald

Drew Mahowald is a student at Saint John's University (MN) pursuing a degree in media communications and a career in sports media. In addition to serving as an assistant editor at the Barroom, Drew also writes about the Minnesota Timberwolves for OnTheProwlMN.com. You can follow Jim Kleinsasser's #1 fan on Twitter at @DrewMahowald.



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