Detroit Lions: Adrian Peterson

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC North

June, 19, 2014
6/19/14
10:00
AM ET

The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.

Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?

Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?

Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?

And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?

These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.

First Down

Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.



Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That is only happening if the other two quarterbacks end up as backups. First off, Bridgewater doesn't have to put up big numbers because he has a beast in the backfield in Adrian Peterson. So all he needs to do is hand off to Peterson and make sure not to turn it over on passing downs; be a game-manager. Perhaps Bridgewater is more of a gamer than workout performer, which is what all the scouts I have talked to would say. But I'm just not sold on Bridgewater based on what I saw from his pro day workout. That means he will probably wind up being Rookie of the Year.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.

Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.


Second Down

The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.



Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.


Third Down

Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.

Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.

Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.


Fourth Down

The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.



Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.

Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.

Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.

It has been almost 15 seasons now since his abrupt retirement from the NFL, when Barry Sanders indicated he had enough of what had been going on with the Detroit Lions and chose not to play anymore.

Though there is a complete generation of fans who have seen him play only on grainy highlights from the old, decaying Silverdome, he still remains popular. He beat out Adrian Peterson last year to be on the cover of Madden and has become part of this season’s Madden cover vote.

[+] EnlargeBarry Sanders
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesBarry Sanders scored 99 rushing touchdowns and is third on the all-time rushing list.
Considering how well he is still regarded and how familiar his name is to NFL fans young and old, the obvious question is how would the running back do today in an NFL now predicated on shotgun and passing instead of the running focus from when he played.

“I don’t know. I think I could adjust,” Sanders told ESPN.com this week. “I think I would just have to do more things in the passing game and out of the backfield, which I think that can make you more dangerous and you see that with a guy like [LeSean] McCoy and a guy like Jamaal Charles. In some cases that can make certain guys more dangerous.

“The two elements really kind of feed off each other and really go hand-in-hand. If you’re a dangerous running back and you can catch the ball out of the backfield, I think that makes your running game more dangerous and your passing game more potent as well. If you’re one-dimensional, I think it’s easier to contain you.”

In that list of do-it-all backs, Sanders also mentioned Detroit running back Reggie Bush as a player who has taken advantage of the new style of offense and running backs.

Sanders, for his time, was about as multipurpose as it came. Besides his 15,269 yards rushing over 10 seasons, he also caught 352 passes for 2,921 yards. Though he never caught more than 48 passes in a season -- 1995 -- he never had fewer than 24 receptions, either.

If one can imagine his explosiveness and ability in an offense like New Orleans or Philadelphia or what is expected with the Lions this season, he probably would put up similar numbers to what he did in his 10-year career.

So unlike some players from other eras, Sanders would have almost definitely been able to adjust and have his skills fit in with the NFL of today just as well -- if not better -- than they did in the 1990s.
When players reach the pros, so much of their personal brand and style goes beyond what the player actually does on the field and ties into what they are able to sell themselves as in the entirety of their being.

While that may be more true in the NBA and MLB, where the faces of players aren't obscured by helmets and facemasks, those same principles can carry over to the NFL.

And unsurprisingly, quarterbacks dominated the top 50 player sales list for the fiscal year from March 1, 2013, to Feb. 28, 2014.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the highest-rated player in the NFC North on the list, coming in fifth behind Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson was No. 13 and the second-highest-rated running back behind Seattle's Marshawn Lynch (No. 7). Right behind Peterson was Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, at No. 14.

Detroit's Calvin Johnson was the only Lions player on the list and the top-selling wide receiver at No. 20, just ahead of Victor Cruz of the New York Giants at No. 21. Two tight ends -- Dallas' Jason Witten and New England's Rob Gronkowski -- were ahead of Johnson.

Wide receiver Brandon Marshall was the highest-rated Chicago player at No. 31 and his quarterback, Jay Cutler, was No. 36. Their running back, Matt Forte, was No. 49 on the list.

Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson was No. 43, just ahead of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.

At least among Lions players, there weren't many surprises of who was not included, although running back Reggie Bush, quarterback Matthew Stafford and even defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh all could have ended up toward the bottom of that list.
In May, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew will run the team for his sixth NFL draft. He'll have been involved with the team's personnel decisions, at that point, for 10 seasons.

Though Mayhew's first draft as the team's actual general manager took place in 2009, he had been working with the team since the middle of the 2004 season as the assistant general manager. He did not make final decisions when it came to the draft in those first few years -- Matt Millen was still the general manager then -- but Mayhew was certainly part of the group that helped influence what happened with the Lions.

In 2007, Mayhew’s third year as assistant general manager, the team was coming off a 3-13 season with a strong-armed quarterback but not much offense. Over the next two weeks, we'll look at the first-round picks in each year for the Lions, who else would have been available and whether or not that pick ended up being a good call.

Past years: 2005; 2006

The pick: No. 2

The player selected: Calvin Johnson, WR, Georgia Tech

Johnson
The player’s credentials at the time: Johnson was the best player in the draft and one of the top receiver prospects to come out of college in a long time. He was a unanimous All-American and was the Biletnikoff winner in 2006. His numbers weren’t otherworldly -- mostly because he played with quarterback Reggie Ball -- but he still set Georgia Tech records in receiving yards (2,927) and touchdowns (28).

Who else was available at the pick: Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin; LaRon Landry, S, LSU; Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma; Patrick Willis, LB, Ole Miss; Marshawn Lynch, RB, California; Darrelle Revis, CB, Pittsburgh.

Did the pick make sense at the time: Yes. No doubt. The Lions needed offense and saw a transcendent player available at the No. 2 pick in an insanely talented top of the first round of the NFL draft. Johnson was the safe play, the smart play and the right play.

Did it end up being a good pick: Absolutely. Johnson has turned into one of the top receivers in NFL history and could end up holding many NFL records by the time his career ends. He has topped 1,000 receiving yards the past four seasons and surpassed 1,400 yards the past three. He has 572 catches for 9,328 yards and 67 touchdowns. He has also turned into the face of the Detroit Lions and one of the most consistent players in the game.

Who should the Lions have taken: Johnson. No question about that. Had Adrian Peterson not been coming off injury, maybe the Lions would have considered taking him instead, but either way they would have had a dynamic player who would eventually be considered among the all-time greats at his position. That said, the Lions made the smart and correct call in drafting Johnson. It is the best first-round draft pick the team has made in the past decade.

What can Detroit learn from this: Don’t overthink anything. Take the player that makes the most sense. In 2007 that was Johnson. Though it is unlikely there is a player like that available at No. 10 this season -- even in a deep draft -- if someone who has that high level of skill happens to fall to Detroit, take him regardless of positional need. Good coaches find ways to make use of their best talent, and if the Lions feel they have a good coach in Jim Caldwell, they should be able to do that.
Stafford/HendersonGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford's Lions are playing for pride, Erin Henderson's Vikings to send off the Metrodome.

When the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions squared off in Week 1, both teams had legitimate designs on playoff spots in what was expected to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Now, they’re the only two teams with no shot of winning one of the most mediocre divisions in football, and headed into their Week 17 rematch, both the Vikings and Lions could be playing their final games with their current coaches. The Vikings have reportedly been doing their homework on potential replacements for Leslie Frazier, while Jim Schwartz could also be on his way out in Detroit after the team followed a 6-3 start with five losses in its next six games. The final game at Mall of America Field (aka the Metrodome) could also be the last before each team embarks on some major changes.

To get you ready for the game and for what might be next for both teams, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discussed the matchup and the future of these NFC North foes.

Goessling: Michael, I’d wish you a relaxing offseason, but I think we’re probably both a ways from that starting, in light of what’s going on with these two teams. Frazier has been unable to get consistent quarterback play or reliable defense, particularly against the pass and at the end of games, but as usual, what’s happening with the Lions seems more combustible than that. After another late-season meltdown, do you think there’s any chance Schwartz survives as coach?

Rothstein: I guess there's always a chance, but I have an extremely difficult time seeing it after the Lions lost five of six games entering Sunday and played themselves out of a divisional title. That plus the mistakes Detroit has made, from turnovers to penalties to fourth-quarter collapses, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

But this is the Ford family, and it has shown more patience than almost any other owner in any sport, so there's always that chance it just rides things out with Schwartz. Still, it would send a pretty bad message after four seasons out of the playoffs in five seasons under Schwartz.

Flipping that question back to you -- what do you think Minnesota does with Frazier? The players really seem to like him, so do you think that plays into what we'll see Sunday?

Goessling: I have a hard time seeing Frazier survive, as much as the players like him. Adrian Peterson said on Sunday he planned to go to the Wilf family after the season and let the owners know he wanted Frazier to stay on as coach. He’s also said he wants to play the rest of his career for Frazier. Those are pretty strong statements from a guy whom the Vikings probably want to keep happy more than anyone else on their roster. But they also wouldn’t give Frazier a contract extension after he went 10-6 last season, and with everything that’s looked disjointed at times this year -- five blown leads in the last minute of games, the reluctance to use Cordarrelle Patterson early in the season and, of course, the mess at quarterback -- I can’t see the Wilfs standing pat. GM Rick Spielman is responsible for a fair share of this, possibly more than Frazier, but heading into a new stadium, the Vikings are looking for a jolt. They’re more likely to get that with a new coach than a new GM.

Shifting to Sunday’s game, the Lions came back to beat the Vikings in September because of how well they used Reggie Bush, but he hasn’t looked like the same guy in a number of games since then. Is that mostly attributable to the calf injury he’s had, or is there something else going on?

Rothstein: It's tough to tell with Bush. I think he is, in some ways, hampered by the calf injury and all of the earlier injuries he's suffered this season. There are also the issues of his fumbles, which have been a problem all season, and his dropped passes. Bush is still an electrifying player, but his ineffectiveness at times has been due to how Detroit chooses to use him. He sliced up the Vikings with screen plays and short passes out of the backfield, and Detroit hasn't done as much with him in that area lately. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Joique Bell, a gifted runner who plays hard.

Sticking with the game, and really this might be more of a finality point as well, how does Jared Allen view Sunday? Is this it for him in Minnesota, and how much of a problem can he cause for a somewhat-struggling Lions offense?

Goessling: I do think this is it for Allen in Minnesota. He’ll be a free agent after the season, he’s carrying a cap figure of more than $17 million this year and he’s talked in recent weeks about how he’d rather retire than be a situational pass-rusher. He might be overestimating his value, and he could be singing a different tune when he does get out into the free-agent market in March, but I don’t think he’ll be back with the Vikings. They gave an extension to Brian Robison during the season, and they could also bring back Everson Griffen, who’s inconsistent (and a bit unpredictable) but immensely talented.

Allen has talked about how he’s still creating opportunities but just hasn’t been able to finish a few sacks. But when did you ever hear him say that in the past? It seems he’s lost a bit of his ability to get around the edge in time, and a handful of his sacks have come because he’s so relentless. The Bengals did a fantastic job of getting the ball out quick on Sunday, and Allen was shut out. If the Lions can do what they did in September, it’s possible to keep Allen pretty quiet.

Last one from me: What kind of an effort do you expect from the Lions on Sunday? It seems a bit like they’ve packed it in after all the losses, and with nothing on the line now, I can’t imagine they’re going to suddenly be able to reignite themselves. Will the shot at an 8-8 record and the chance to save Schwartz a little face be enough, or will the Vikings close down the Metrodome against an uninspired opponent?

Rothstein: That's one of the biggest questions of this week, and it is a question I really don't know the answer to. I think it depends how much they have left. Calvin Johnson is banged-up. Matthew Stafford has struggled in the second half of the season. DeAndre Levy was hobbling out of the locker room Sunday. There are a lot of guys hurting at this point, a lot of key guys for the Lions going forward.

It might be the most unanswerable question with this team right now. All season, even during the losing stretch, there was the possibility of the playoffs and a division title to cling to. Now there's just pride. It'll be an interesting thing to see.

So I'll finish up with this for you. Since this is the last game in the Metrodome -- and my first -- is there any particular memory that stands out about the place to you?

Goessling: Boy, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been watching all kinds of games -- NFL, MLB, college football, college basketball and high school football -- since I was a kid, and I’ll have a piece on my blog on Friday with some of those memories. But I’ll share one quick story. It was from one of my first college football games when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was the fall of 2001 against Purdue, and there were too many bizarre things that happened in the game to recount here, but it wound up in overtime, and after Purdue scored, the Gophers lost the game on a finish that could’ve happened only in the Metrodome.

Here’s what happened: Travis Cole threw a touchdown pass to Antoine Henderson that would’ve tied the game. Henderson was clearly inbounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Why? Well, the Gophers used to paint their end zones gold but left a strip of green turf between the gold paint and the sideline to make it easier to convert the field for Vikings games. Henderson’s foot was inbounds but outside the gold paint, so the official lost track of the sideline and called him out of bounds. That’s kind of the Metrodome in a nutshell -- built to be serviceable for any number of different sports, but not really ideal for anything. Still, at a cost of $55 million in 1982, it’s certainly paid for itself several times over.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions will practice on Christmas Day. The Minnesota Vikings will not.

These are the two different approaches teams with the same endgame -- the season finale Sunday in the final game at the Metrodome -- are taking this week with the holiday on Wednesday.

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said Monday the Lions would have practiced Wednesday whether they had beaten the Giants last weekend or not, and receiver Nate Burleson said Tuesday the team’s veterans were not consulted for the decision -- although he had no problem with it.

Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said he spoke with some of his veteran players, and they chose to take their day off Wednesday instead of Tuesday so they could have time with their families.

“Yeah, I am [glad he is getting Christmas off],” Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. “Get to stay and not worry about getting up in the morning and coming in for practice, spend Christmas with the family.

“So it was a good call. We’re practicing [Tuesday], getting it out of the way, and get to spend Christmas with our people.”

The Lions will, too. Kind of. Schwartz is giving his team Wednesday morning off to be with their families but then holding meetings and practice Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve got enough time to open presents,” Burleson said. “Do we really deserve a day off? You know what I’m saying. We get paid to play football. We’ve got to come in and practice.

“We still want to win this game, coaches still want to win this game, so he gave us some time off in the morning and we’re going to open up some presents with our family and then we’ll come back to work [Wednesday], which is what we should be doing.”

Of course, Minnesota has been out of the playoff picture for weeks. The Lions were eliminated on Sunday.

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 1

September, 9, 2013
9/09/13
12:00
PM ET
A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions’ 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings:

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsSunday wasn't the first time Lions coach Jim Schwartz has seen a play from Ndamukong Suh come under scrutiny.
Ndamukong Suh facing discipline: Suh’s low block on Minnesota center John Sullivan eliminated an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker DeAndre Levy in the second quarter. Frankly, it isn’t that surprising, either. By the time Suh made contact with Sullivan, Levy already was well past Sullivan and on his way to the end zone. Suh told reporters he spoke with Sullivan about the play and that he wasn’t going for his knees. Watching it again, it is tough to say. Suh said he was aiming for Sullivan’s waist, but it is not clear from the re-watch exactly where Suh was trying to hit Sullivan. Either way, Suh’s conduct and play will come into scrutiny again this week.

First-half miscues can’t happen again: In some ways Detroit got away with one Sunday against Minnesota. Yes, Reggie Bush was special and the defensive line put a ton of pressure on Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and did a good job tying up Adrian Peterson, but Detroit cost itself too many points off of its own errors. Suh’s penalty cost the Lions a touchdown because Matthew Stafford was intercepted on the following play. A poor hold from rookie Sam Martin cost Detroit a field goal. A hold by Brandon Pettigrew on a fourth-and-1 call also killed a drive and Detroit had to settle for a David Akers field goal. Do those types of things again and it’ll cost Detroit a game.

The defensive line could be really good: For all the discussion above about Suh’s questionable play, he and the rest of the defensive line were extremely effective and showed their depth. The Lions rotated eight defensive linemen and although Suh (87 percent) and Nick Fairley (75 percent) took the majority of snaps at defensive tackle, there was enough of a break to keep them fresh. Reps were almost equal at defensive end, with starters Willie Young and Jason Jones each taking 29 of 55 snaps and Israel Idonije and Ziggy Ansah taking 26 each. If Detroit has success this season, it will be because of this position group. As a group, they combined for three sacks and five of six quarterback hurries and also helped contain Peterson.

Blocking was strong: Detroit’s offensive line had three new starters Sunday -- left tackle Riley Reiff, right guard Larry Warford and right tackle Jason Fox -- but looked like a competent, veteran group that has been playing together for a long time. Add to that Fox played only 15 snaps because of a groin injury and was replaced by Corey Hilliard, and it is impressive Stafford was sacked only once and hit four times. Three of those hits and the sack came from Jared Allen. Otherwise, Minnesota’s defense was well blocked almost the entire game.
DETROIT -- Detroit’s defensive leaders gathered their teammates around Thursday after practice and had an impromptu meeting.

In the 10-15 minutes they spoke, the leaders stressed forcing turnovers and set a number for how many they’ll need to get every game.

Three turnovers was the goal. On Sunday against Minnesota, the Lions forced four. And those turnovers were mostly caused by pressure from the deepest and most talented overall unit on this Detroit team -- the defensive line.

Fairley
Suh
Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder’s second interception was caused by a pressure by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh’s neighbor on the defensive line, Nick Fairley, also recovered a fumble and had 1.5 sacks.

Overall, the line was credited with six quarterback hurries of Ponder, which was exactly what they planned to do all along.

“That’s something we want to work on,” Suh said. “That’s something that we pride ourselves on, something we always want to accomplish when we have four-man rushes.

“Coach puts it right on our back when we do that and we want to capitalize every single time we get that opportunity.”

Beyond the pressuring of Ponder, Detroit did a good job on Minnesota star running back Adrian Peterson. During the week, Suh had said how important containing Peterson would be to any chance for a Detroit win.

To keep Peterson neutralized, they would have to bottle pressure up the middle of the offensive line, leaning heavily on Suh and Fairley. Often, that is exactly what Detroit did.

Yet after one carry, it didn’t look good. Peterson hauled 78 yards for a touchdown and the concept of the Detroit’s front four -- the strength of this Lions’ team -- looked to be pretty dire.

He still scored three touchdowns -- two rushing and one receiving -- but he did not completely take over a game like he has been capable of doing in the past. After that first burst, Peterson was held to 15 yards rushing on 17 carries.

“That’s good,” Fairley said. "Going against him, and really any back in the NFL, if you can hold a back under 20 yards rushing after a big rush, that’s good.”

But better because it came against the best running back in the NFL?

“Oh, yeah,” Fairley said. “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
DETROIT -- Calvin Johnson answered the same questions after the first game of the 2010 season, and when it happened to him again Sunday, when another touchdown was taken away in a season opener for the Lions receiver, he once again thought he was in.

Johnson had a touchdown nullified by the complete-the-process rule in the 2010 opener, turning a potential Detroit win into a loss. On Sunday, the results of the lost touchdown were not quite as dire as the Lions beat Minnesota 34-24.

Johnson
“Yeah, they got me again,” Johnson said. "I’m going to have like four different pictures in there.”

Johnson thought he had scored and said he felt he caught the ball, had his feet touch down and then dove into the end zone. Officials disagreed, reviewing the play and saying he didn’t complete the process of the catch.

After the game, referee John Parry said whether or not Johnson had already crossed into the end zone did not matter in this case and that he saw the ball move without Johnson having control.

“A player that is going to the ground on his own, which Calvin was on that play, must possess and maintain the possession of the football throughout the entire act of the catch,” Parry said. “The catch did not end in that scenario. When the ball hit the end zone, the ball moved. It rotated. So he didn’t maintain possession of the football.”

It was one of many wacky things which happened in the first half for the Lions. Johnson also just missed on another touchdown when his second foot barely touched down out of bounds. Sam Martin bobbled a snap, costing the Lions a field goal. A DeAndre Levy interception return for a touchdown was brought back by a Ndamukong Suh low block penalty. Louis Delmas received a taunting penalty. Joique Bell almost had a touchdown wiped out because the ball popped loose as he dived over the pile, although he crossed the goal line first.

Brandon Pettigrew had a ball cleanly stripped. And on the Vikings’ first offensive play, Adrian Peterson scored a 78-yard touchdown.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz, though, liked the way his team responded in the second half when it scored touchdowns on its first two possessions.

“We had setbacks that we put on ourselves,” Johnson said. “That’s all it was.”

The most noticeable of all, though, was Johnson’s inability to complete the process. Again.

“Typical. It would happen to him,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He had a great game. If you keep those two catches, the guy comes away with two touchdowns and another 50 yards.

“The guy, he’s the best in the game.”
Detroit opens its season Sunday against Minnesota, a division rival and a team the Lions have beaten only three times at Ford Field.

Will it be four? Here are four keys to making that happen:

1. How the new-look offensive line performs. The Lions cleared out three of last year’s starters, opening up the left tackle spot for second-year pro Riley Reiff and the right side of the line for tackle Jason Fox and rookie right guard Larry Warford. The right side of the line will have to learn on the fly, but Warford says he feels comfortable between Fox and center Dominic Raiola, who has been the stalwart of the line. How Reiff handles All-Pro Jared Allen will be a matchup to watch early on. If he is unable to at least neutralize Allen on occasion -- with or without help from left guard Rob Sims -- it could lead to ...

2. Matthew Stafford’s accuracy. It’s been an issue in the preseason as he’s completed less than 50 percent of his passes. Granted, he played almost the entire preseason without his large safety blanket, Calvin Johnson, or his newest checkdown weapon, Reggie Bush, but it is still a little concerning. If Reiff can do at least a decent job on Allen, Stafford will have time to make reads instead of having to rush throws.

3. Containing Adrian Peterson ... at least a little bit. Listen, Peterson is going to gain yards. He’s going to have some plays that defy the scope of what a player can do running with a football. At least once a game, he does something extraordinary. The goal for the Lions, particularly the front seven, is to limit that. If they can keep him somewhat contained on first down, it puts more pressure on Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder and a receiving corps without a true star. Force Ponder into making fast decisions with the strength of the Lions, the defensive line, and there could be a couple of turnovers to be had. That said ...

4. Keep an eye on tight end Kyle Rudolph. The 6-foot-6, 259-pound tight end had somewhat of a breakout season in 2012, gaining 493 yards and catching nine touchdowns in the regular season. It culminated in his first Pro Bowl appearance, where he was named MVP. He has had some success against the Lions, catching seven passes for 64 yards and a touchdown on Nov. 11. From the time he left Notre Dame, he always appeared to be on the verge of being a matchup nightmare. With Percy Harvin, the Vikings’ former electric wide receiver, now in Seattle, someone has to make up his receptions. Look for Rudolph, who has really good hands and speed for a tight end.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The first time Willie Young faced Minnesota in his rookie season, the defensive lineman lined up opposite the offensive tackle. The ball was snapped.

But before he could even make a move and touch the offensive lineman, his entire focus changed. It was too late.

Adrian Peterson, the top running back in the NFL -- the player Detroit’s front seven will be doing everything it can Sunday to at least contain, if not stop -- already had the ball and would make anything Young was about to do useless.

“A lot of other backs, it’s almost like there’s a slight bit of hesitation when those running backs get the ball,” Young said. “In this case, this scenario, as soon as [Peterson] gets it, there are instances where before I engage with the offensive tackle, he’s already got the ball and I’m already in pursuit.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesLions players marveled at Adrian Peterson's ability to leave defenders behind before they even know it.
“And I didn’t even touch the tackle yet.”

What he is saying is not any different than what others have said about Peterson in the past. He is that difficult to stop. He’s the top running back in the league, a guy who gained more than 2,000 yards last season, for a reason.

It is that speed and ability, Detroit linebacker Rocky McIntosh said, that makes Peterson different from other backs. From the very first step he takes on any carry, Peterson believes he can score. From anywhere. In that single step.

It leaves opponents with a mix of determination, fear and excitement. Determination because shutting down Peterson could make a name for yourself. Fear because of what he could do. Excitement because if you can tackle him or stop him, you can say you hit a surefire Hall of Famer.

Everyone has a different opinion, too, about what makes Peterson as tough as he is. Some, like Young, point to his speed. Others see what he does with his eyes.

“The vision he has,” Detroit rookie cornerback Darius Slay said. “He has this vision where he can bounce it inside between the tackles and he can outrun you on the edge. He has great speed, great size.

“Ain’t too many people that’s bred that way. He’s got the whole package of the complete running back.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Detroit hasn’t fared too badly against Peterson in the past.

In 11 career games against Detroit, Peterson has averaged 105.9 yards a game and scored nine touchdowns. It may seem like a lot of yards, but consider this -- he has actually averaged more yards against both Chicago (108.5) and Green Bay (120.2). So, relatively speaking, 105.9 yards is decent.

Yet Peterson is still one of the few players in the NFL who can destroy any defense at any time.

“They’ve got that kingpin, 28, back there,” Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. “And he makes me not sleep very well at night.”

The Lions added size on the defensive line this offseason, drafting 6-foot-5, 271-pound defensive end Ziggy Ansah in the first round of April’s NFL draft and signing 6-5, 276-pound Jason Jones and 6-6, 275-pound Israel Idonije as defensive ends in the offseason to go with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

So there is some size there to pressure the Minnesota offensive line and attempt to get in the backfield to thwart Peterson before he starts getting comfortable.

Detroit’s containment strategy when it comes to Peterson is to attack him early. If he starts off with a few big runs, he has already found his confidence and at least one hole in a game plan, so it would likely be a long day for the opponent.

This, of course, is extremely difficult to accomplish. Yet for any team to beat Minnesota, it almost has to happen.

“Literally,” McIntosh said. “The game is on you.”

The Lions seem to know that. Because with Adrian Peterson, everyone knows to expect an elite level of play every week. Whether it's a game-breaking play or the quest for another 2,000-yard season, anything is possible for Peterson.

The thing is -- sometimes, every once in a while -- he can give even more than that. It’s why even in a room full of elite athletes, Peterson can still produce awe. It’s something you can see from the start.

“It’s obvious,” Young said. “He’s the top running back in the NFL.”

Double Coverage: Vikings at Lions

September, 5, 2013
9/05/13
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Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz AP Photo Neither Leslie Frazier nor Jim Schwartz enters the season with much long-term job security.
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.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier spoke with the Detroit media Wednesday morning. A quick, bullet-point, wrap-up of what Frazier touched on.
  • Frazier thinks the recovery time of Adrian Peterson from his ACL injury “puts a lot of pressure on other players to be back and be back in top form in eight months.” As to whether or not that is realistic or fair for other players to expect to do that in the future, Frazier wasn’t too sure about that.
  • Frazier said there was “a chance” defensive tackle Kevin Williams could return this week. He injured his knee on a block in the preseason finale against San Francisco.
  • There’s the hope in Minnesota that rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson could eventually fill the role vacated by former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin. Frazier’s thoughts there: “He’s working as hard as he can to keep improving and keep trying to get better. Now it’ll be a challenge for him on Sunday because what we saw in the preseason, the speed of the game is going to pick up a little bit and the defensive schemes are going to be far different than what they were in the preseason. There’s going to be an adjustment, as there is going to be for most first-year wide receivers but over time he’ll just continue to get better and better.”
  • Frazier remembered Detroit defensive end Israel Idonije “always gave us fits” when he was playing with the Bears. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit increased its sack total from a season ago.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The 2,000-yard marker for running backs and wide receivers is a lofty one, often discussed but rarely, if ever, reached.

Yet last season Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson hit the mark with 2,097 yards rushing, and Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson came close with 1,964 yards receiving.

Peterson
Peterson
Johnson
Now, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier thinks both players could hit the mark this season.

“It’s a realistic number,” Frazier said Wednesday during a conference call with Detroit reporters. “There’s so many factors that go into a guy achieving those kinds of goals and numbers that he and Adrian achieved a year ago.

“There’s a lot of factors involved, but they are talented enough and more than capable of getting it done.”

There’s another similarity here, too. Neither Peterson nor Johnson played much this preseason, both playing one game.

“In Adrian’s case and looking at our team and the way we’re set up and how we’re built, I just didn’t see the advantage of putting him at risk in the preseason,” Frazier said. “I know he needs some work and there are some things we have to get done from a timing standpoint.

“I have to weigh bringing our offense together versus putting him at risk, and I erred on the side of the way he was working in practice.”

On Sunday, both are expected to play major roles for their teams. And as the season starts, Frazier has learned not to doubt anything Peterson can do.

“In Adrian’s case I’ve learned, and I think all of us who have followed him, you don’t ever put anything out of his reach,” Frazier said. “Two-thousand yards, when it comes to Adrian Peterson, it’s realistic. But I don’t think in Adrian’s case that’s the ultimate goal.

“The ultimate goal is to bring a world championship to Minnesota.”

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