The first challenge for the 2013 season is a familiar one for the Detroit Lions. To win, all they must do is contain Adrian Peterson on the ground while moving the ball against a tough defensive front which has given them problems in the past.
As displayed by their two divisional losses to Minnesota last season, that's no easy task. The Vikings bring a bit of swagger and momentum into this contest left over from their playoff appearance last year. While things are always a bit different year to year, the Vikings will bring largely the same attitude that they always do, meaning game one should be a traditional NFC North fist fight.
Today, we set the table for Sunday further by scouting the Vikings inside and out.
Vikings' Offensive Difference Maker: Greg Jennings. That's not to say Peterson isn't an impact player, but rather celebrate what Jennings brings to the Vikings. For years, Minnesota hasn't had wide receivers to supplement Peterson on the ground. This past offseason, all the team did was sign Jennings away from the Green Bay Packers and draft Cordarrelle Patterson, seriously upgrading their passing game. Jennings has burned Detroit in the past, and provides Christian Ponder with a major target down the field. Should Minnesota establish Peterson like they wish, they likely won't have a problem finding an open Jennings, which could prove devastating for the Lions, as usual.
Vikings' Defensive Difference Maker: Harrison Smith. With respect to Jared Allen, Smith might be the second most important player for Minnesota's defense. Smith has big play ability at the safety position and is generating a reputation as a big, fearsome hitter. In this game that will be important, as the Lions will look to establish Reggie Bush out of the backfield as a receiver. It will be up to Smith to close the gaps over the middle and not let Detroit get anything going short.
Vikings' Major Problem: Passing offense. Last season, the Vikings ranked 31st in the league in passing offense (second to last), only compiling 2,751 passing yards. In that aspect, they were nearly out gained by Calvin Johnson himself. Given the appearance of Jennings and Patterson, those numbers figure to improve, but many will argue Ponder's inconsistent play is to blame. If the Lions generate pressure on him in the pocket, how will he react? It will be interesting to see if Ponder's new players make an impact. Still, the Vikings didn't go over 250 yards passing in any one preseason game, which is a concerning statistic. If Minnesota can pass with success, that will solve plenty of their problems.
Vikings' Major Strength: Run defense. Of course the Vikings run the ball successfully on offense, but defensively, the team does just as good stacking the box and stopping the run. Last season, they rated 11th in the league only allowing ten rushing touchdowns while forcing eight fumbles. The Lions will want to see if they can fare better on the ground than in 2012, but given these statistics, this likely won't be the game where they'll have much success.
Biggest Intangible: Detroit's emotion. The Lions failed to play well in two games last season against Minnesota, so they've likely been pointing to this game as a chance at NFC North redemption. It's not easy to play on the road for the first game of the year, so Minnesota will have to match the Lions' intensity in front of their home crowd. Conversely, if the Vikings grab a lead, how will Detroit react? Can they maintain a positive attitude, or will they simply give up?
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