The Detroit Lions hit the road for the first time this season as they head to Minneapolis this Sunday. The Lions take on the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC North divisional matchup, with both teams 1-1. The Lions head North after downing the Washington Commanders, while Minnesota will want to bounce back after a humbling defeat in Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. The Lions and Vikings split their season series 1-1 last year, and both games were one-score finals. It is a big divisional matchup, and by 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, the winner will be atop the NFC North. The Lions have not topped the division at any point since 2018. It is a significant target in front of them, and the following three keys to victory could lead Detroit to unfamiliar territory on Sunday evening.
Pressure makes diamonds and bursts pipes. Pressure may also be Kirk Cousins’ kryptonite. Against the Eagles, Cousins threw for 37 yards on five completions with one touchdown and two interceptions on pressured plays per Pro Football Focus. In total, the Eagles generated 23 pressures on Cousins. Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon also dialed up blitzes on Cousins. He did not complete a single pass vs. Cover Zero blitzes on Monday night. All of this is good news for the Lions. Detroit has generated 48 quarterback pressures through two games.
Aidan Hutchinson notched three sacks in Week Two and leads rookie pass-rushers in total pressures. Led by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, Detroit terrorized Carson Wentz, and they must do it again. Hutchinson was nursing a thigh injury and did not practice on Thursday. But he participated in individual drills with a compression sleeve on his right leg.
Nevertheless, Hutchinson is one part of this unit. Alim McNeill, Isaiah Buggs, Charles Harris, Julian Okwara, and Austin Bryant are capable of rushing the passer. Add in the high likelihood of Chris Board, DeShon Elliot, and Tracy Walker crashing down as blitzers on third down, and the Lions possess options.
While concerns still surround the Lions’ secondary, the defensive front must get home and hit Cousins. Rattling the veteran quarterback is a critical key to success on Sunday.
Hammer the Run Game
Football Outsiders currently rank the Vikings dead last in run-defense DVOA. With Ed Donatell shifting to a base 3-4 front and the infusion of Kevin O’Connell’s light tackle box philosophy, Minnesota is still finding its feet in run defense. Conversely, Detroit is motoring in the run game. The Lions lead the NFL in yards per carry, are third in rushing yards per game, and lead the league in explosive run plays. With the Vikings likely to spend a lot of time in two-deep safety shells, the Lions should see enough green grass (or turf) to attack Minnesota.
Furthermore, Harrison Smith is still in concussion protocol after getting buzzed against the Eagles. Smith leads the Vikings in tackling, and he is outstanding at rolling downfield and blowing up run plays. If the Lions create more angles for D’Andre Swift to cut through, the home run hitting plays could be available. Detroit’s run game is versatile and diverse.
They can run the ball out of 11, 12, and 13 personnel. And they can run out of shrunken formations and spread formations. They need more of the same to keep Minnesota guessing.
Bizarrely, the Lions are second in three-and-out percentage. Despite being seventh overall in offensive EPA, Detroit has endured spells during a game where the offense goes ice-cold. They cannot afford to do that in Minnesota. To win on the road, a team must quell the atmosphere and control momentum. The Lions must stay consistent and have long, punishing drives to suck the air out of U.S. Bank Stadium and the Vikings’ defense.
When Dan Campbell was a coach in New Orleans, the Saints played a game at the Buffalo Bills. In the third quarter, the Saints called a run play on every snap of an offensive series. It sapped the Bills Mafia and broke their football team. The Lions must find consistency and relentlessness if they intend to leave with a win.
It feels like a free hit for the Lions. The Vikings are the team everyone expects to win. At the same time, the Lions do boast some strong attributes to win this game. The games last year were tight, and Detroit will want to keep it close for as long as possible. When Dan Campbell opened training camp, he spoke about dragging teams to the deep, dark abyss. If the Lions can hang with Minnesota and take them into the deep water of a fourth quarter, that is when we will find out about both sides. If the Lions generate pressure, execute the run game and stay consistent on offense, they will have a shot at drowning the Vikings on Sunday.