- Ben Goessling, ESPN Staff Writer
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Two teams in win-or-else mode will open the season Sunday at Ford Field.
In 2012, the Detroit Lions had their third losing season in four years under coach Jim Schwartz. A fourth in five years could end his tenure.
The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, decided not to extend the contract of coach Leslie Frazier after his 10-6 breakthrough season last year. His deal is up in 2014, and assuming the Vikings don't want to bring him back in a lame-duck situation, Frazier will either get a contract extension or be fired after this season.
The Vikings swept the Lions in the 2012 regular season after the Lions did the same in 2011. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert discuss the matchup:
Kevin Seifert: Ben, the Lions have had all offseason to prepare for Adrian Peterson, who gashed them for 273 yards in two games last season. They've got Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing next to each other on the inside and overall have a bigger and more physical defensive line than they had last year. I'm not saying the Lions are going to shut down Peterson on Sunday, but I do think the Vikings can't go into the game relying on him to carry their offense. So that brings me to the big question surrounding this team: Do you think the Vikings' passing game has improved enough to do its share?
Ben Goessling: They'd certainly have to hope so based on what they did for Christian Ponder this offseason, adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson to their group of receivers. But the thing that concerns me with Ponder in this matchup is how he'll respond to the pressure the Lions will bring. He still seemed to struggle with that in the preseason, though he had one of his best games of the year against the Lions in the Metrodome last November. The Lions pressured him on just 11 drop-backs in both games last season, but if they can get to him more often than that, I don't like Ponder's chances of carrying the Vikings, should he need to do so. And if the Lions can exploit the Vikings' new-look secondary, Ponder could find himself playing from behind, where he hasn't been terribly good. The question is, will the Lions be able to burn the Vikings with their passing game enough to put Ponder in a hole?
Seifert: That's a fair question, Ben. The Lions seemed to do what they needed to this offseason by signing running back Reggie Bush, who would presumably keep defenses off balance and give the Lions a big-time outlet for all those times when Calvin Johnson was in the middle of some kind of exotic coverages.
But for many reasons, the offense never really looked sharp in the preseason. The most obvious factor was that Johnson didn't play much, of course, but Bush had almost no running room behind a still-evolving offensive line. It also seemed pretty clear that the Lions don't have a No. 2 receiver to play alongside Johnson, a role that was once targeted for Titus Young before his well-publicized off-field issues.
With all that said, however, the connection between Stafford and Johnson is real and special. There is every reason to consider them a formidable challenge for the Vikings -- especially considering the state of their secondary. Why don't you fill in our good readers on that situation, Ben?
Goessling: I'd be happy to. Essentially, it's my opinion that the Vikings' secondary depth might be the biggest issue facing their defense headed into the season. As a whole, it's probably the second-biggest concern behind Ponder.
The Vikings let Antoine Winfield go in March, moving ahead with a secondary that features one injury-prone corner (Chris Cook), a second-year man trying to replace Winfield's excellent slot coverage skills (Josh Robinson) and a rookie (Xavier Rhodes). There's enough talent and size to make it work, especially with safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford offering help in coverage, but the Vikings are rolling the dice with the cornerbacks they've got. The Lions might not be deep enough at receiver to fully test the Vikings' depth, but Calvin Johnson is as big of a challenge for Minnesota as Adrian Peterson is for Detroit.
The Vikings bottled Johnson up at Ford Field last year, bracketing him with Smith or Sanford on top of Cook and hitting him throughout the game. But with Cook injured at the Metrodome, Johnson went wild for 207 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Lions use him, and what kinds of matchups they can generate against an inexperienced secondary.
You brought up Bush earlier, too, Kevin. The Vikings' run defense isn't what it used to be, and it looks like they could be dealing with injuries at the defensive tackle position this week. Stafford threw the ball a combined 93 times against the Vikings last year, and lost both games. Will Bush be effective enough to give the Lions the balance they need to win?
Seifert: Let's put it this way. If the Vikings use the typical kind of defense the Lions usually see for Calvin Johnson, and Bush still can't get any yards against a depleted defense, then the Lions are going to have problems this season. The Lions have to be able to run the ball this year better than they did in 2012. Teams gave them more six-man boxes than any team in the NFL and they still couldn't get it done. It was a primary offseason goal and it has to be better this season.
Any last words, Ben? You're going to be out there in Detroit. I'll be elsewhere. What's the one thing that has to happen to ensure a Vikings victory? From the Lions' perspective, I'll say it will be Bush getting 100 rushing yards.
Goessling: I think it's Ponder playing like he did in the second game against the Lions last year. The Vikings don't need to get into a shootout -- and if the game turns into that, they probably won't be able to keep up anyway -- but they need confident, reliable quarterback play this season, and this game seems as good as any for him to start it.