The last time the Vikings played at Ford Field, they were the home team. Now, they couldn’t be less welcome guests. After the Week 3 contest that teetered on the brink of disaster, Jared Allen & Co. are coming to Detroit, dead set on finishing what they started. The Lions and Vikings are headed in opposite directions: the Lions started 5-0 but are 2-5 since; the Vikings are 2-10 but have found their quarterback in rookie Christian Ponder, and might be getting Lion tamer Adrian Peterson back.
As before, this game is a must-win for the Lions. The Lions are favored by as much as 11.5 points as of this writing; surely the heaviest they’ll be favored by for the remainder of the year. Moreover, as a division opponent (and common opponent with the Falcons and Saints), the Lions’ record against the Vikings strongly affects the Lions playoff tiebreakers.
Bill Musgrave vs. Gunther Cunningham
In the previous Watchtower, I found that Bill Musgrave had never faced off against Gunther Cunningham as a signal caller—and though he boasts strong Bill Walsh offense credentials, he has a diverse resumé and does not run a Childress-style WCO in Minnesota.
In the first meeting, the Vikings managed to score 23 points. That’s almost a field goal above their season average—fitting, because the Lions’ defense is currently ranked 21st, just below the middle. The Vikings are averaging a decent 6.28 YpA through the air, and a monster 4.92 YpC on the ground.
Of course, the Lions aren't facing the Vikings they faced last time. Donovan McNabb started at quarterback in that game, and he's since been supplanted by first-round rookie Christian Ponder. To the surprise of many observers, though, Ponder hasn’t been able to shake a supposedly-minor hip injury; he did not practice on Thursday. If he can’t play on Sunday, last year’s sixth-round pick Joe Webb will get the start.
The Vikings got some very good news when Adrian Peterson had limited participation in Thursday’s practice and was able to cut without pain. If Joe Webb is under center and All Day isn’t lining up behind him, the Vikings are going to get their doors blown off.
There's no evidence of a systemic advantage or disadvantage here, but if Ponder, Peterson, or both are not 100% the Vikings will be in trouble. If Ponder and Peterson can go, I’d still expect the Vikings to fall just short of expectations, scoring 17-20 points, passing for 6.00-6.50 YpA and rushing for 5.00-5.25 YpA. If either Ponder or Peterson cannot start, those figures fall to 13-17 points, 5.50-6.00 YpA, and 4.50-4.75 YpC. With little historical info, I have low-to-medium confidence in this projection.
Well, I pretty much laid them out for you up there: if Ponder and AD go at 100%, the Vikings should be good for roughly their season average. If either cannot start, or if one or both are significantly limited, the Vikes are going to be very hard-pressed to move the ball. Banged-up secondary or no, the Lions defense should be going for the juglar from the opening snap. An early turnover or barrage of sacks could get the Lions up quickly—and put it in cruise control. I don’t see a scenario where the Vikings score more than three touchdowns.
Scott Linehan vs. Leslie Frazier
From the last Watchtower:
In Watchtowers past, I’ve found there is a mild systemic advantage for Scott Linehan offenses against Leslie Frazier defenses. However, in each of the last two games, critical red zone turnovers have short-circuited that advantage, and the Lions’ offense has underperformed expectations. Today, Matthew Stafford will leading the offense, instead of Shaun Hill—and I’ll presume the Lions’ systemic advantages remain intact.
What happened was not quite what I expected. The Watchtower review explains:
The story of the game was the one I worried about: the Vikings playing their brains out, the crowd noise and the pass rush handing the Vikings the momentum, and the Lions finding themselves having to scrap their way out of a hole, as opposed to putting it in the cooler.
This is why I was so grumpy about the probably-enhanced crowd noise: it made an enormous difference in the way the game played out. The lesson to take away from this game, and this Watchtower, is that the Lions are clearly much better than the Vikings. The Lions took Minnesota’s best shot—and staggered—but leaned on the ropes long enough for their talent and skill to win the day.
So what we have here is the 4th-highest-scoring offense that squared off against what has been the 31st-best (2nd-worst) scoring defense and didn’t, quite, meet its season scoring average. This continues a trend we’ve seen with Frazier and Linehan that’s kicked in just since Linehan took over the Lions offense: turnovers (and dirty cheating fake Viking crowd noise) are severely depressing the Lions’ scoring, even as passing effectiveness is boosted.
Obviously, the crowd noise won’t be slowing the Lions down on Sunday, but this is too strong of a trend to ignore. I’m going to say Leslie Frazier defenses disproportionately disrupt Scott Linehan offenses with sacks and turnovers, even while allowing greater per-attempt passing effectiveness. Since the Lions have been especially turnovery lately, I project the Lions to significantly underperform expectations. However, expectations would be that the Lions, facing the second-worst defense in the league, would exceed their scoring averages by 10-14 points. So, the Lions should score 33-35 points, pass for 8.00-8.50 YpA, and rush for 4.00-4.25 YpC.
Or, the Lions crowd could give it to the Vikings almost as good as the Metrodome sound reinforcement system gave it to the Lions, and for the fourth time this year the Lions get back on track after a shaky game by hanging forty points on somebody.
I’m hoping this game mirrors the Broncos game: where the Lions work out a few weeks of frustrations by completely dominating an inferior opponent. The crowd will be on their side. The injuries to the Vikings’ stud running back, only serviceable quarterback, and half their defense should help swing momentum their way too.
But things haven’t gone too rosy for my Watchtower projections as of late, because the Lions keep drawing ridiculous penalties, shooting themselves in the foot, getting field goals blocked and other such nonsense. They’re moving the ball just like they have been all season, but it hasn’t translated into points. That this seems to be the Vikings’ particular mojo vs. the Lions scares me, too. So, I project that the most likely outcome of the game is a 35-20 Lions win. This presumes that Ponder and All Day make their starts and are significant fractions of healthy. If not, well . . . it’s time for that #BEATEMDOWN.