Want to beat the Lions? You had better stop this guy: Calvin Johnson.
By BRIAN HALL FS North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said the "sky is not falling" after back-to-back losses. Defensive end Jared Allen said this week's game against the Detroit Lions is "huge. ...I'd be lying to you if I said it was just another game."
Neither, though, wants to downplay the importance of Sunday's home game against Detroit (4-4), just the second game of the season Minnesota plays within the NFC North. The Vikings (5-4) have spoken all week about controlling their own destiny with five of the final seven games this season coming within the division.
Minnesota's situation only seems worse than it is because of three losses in four games. As Allen said, the "playoff picture is a real picture." Yes, the Vikings do control their own destiny in a make-or-break second half of the season, but it starts with Sunday against Detroit, which was won back-to-back games.
Here are five things to watch Sunday as Minnesota tries to change the course of its season against the Lions:
1. Which Christian Ponder shows up at the Metrodome?
Frazier and quarterback Christian Ponder insist Ponder's confidence hasn't taken a hit during the past four weeks. He looks hesitant and doesn't seem like the same confident leader which led the Vikings to a big win over the San Francisco 49ers earlier this season. The passing offense is missing its timing, from Ponder, to the receivers, to the offensive line. Ponder has gone from a poised second-year starter the first month of the season to a shaky sophomore that is now being questioned as Minnesota's future at the position.
Ponder knows he might hear boos at home this week if the struggles continue. He knows he might hear the calls for backup Joe Webb. He said those things don't, and won't, bother him. But he needs to be more assertive after passing for less than 100 yards in two of the past three games. He needs to stay strong in the pocket, flush out only when truly pressured and deliver the ball on time and on target. It won't be easy against Detroit's ninth-ranked passing attack. Ponder has to go above saying he's confident to showing it on the field and becoming the head-strong leader of the Vikings' offense.
2. Life without Percy?
League-leading receiver Percy Harvin is extremely doubtful for Sunday's game. Frazier said he would have to make a big recovery in time to play Sunday. Harvin's 62 catches are more than double the next highest receiver on the team, tight end Kyle Rudolph (27 catches). Several players will have to step up and fill Harvin's spot and give Ponder the options to show his improvement.
Rudolph will be a big part of that, and after having just two total catches in the past three games, Minnesota is determined to get its big second-year tight end the ball and Rudolph said he's focused on his improvement and beating his defender. Receiver Jerome Simpson, who has just eight catches this year, is reportedly improving from his back/leg injury and could be regaining the explosiveness he showed this summer. The Vikings need Simpson, and if he is truly better, it would be a big benefit to Ponder and the offense. Minnesota also gets tight end John Carlson back after he missed two games with a concussion and rookie receiver Jarius Wright will be active for the first time in his career, possibly filling some of Harvin's role.
3. Can Minnesota's defense get back to its trademark?
Frazier said the Vikings' run defense doesn't even resemble the unit that was once one of the team's defining characteristics. Minnesota has allowed an average of 165.75 rushing yards per game over the past four weeks, with an opposing player topping 100 yards each game. The first three games, the Vikings couldn't contain speedy, shifty runners like Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, Arizona running back LaRod Stephens-Howling and Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin. Last week, it was Seattle's powerful running back, Marshawn Lynch.
This week, Minnesota faces a Detroit team that has put more of an emphasis on running the ball with second-year back Mikel Leshoure leading the way. Leshoure is more in the mold of Lynch, a bigger, more physical back, and will challenge the Vikings, who have missed way too many tackles over the past four weeks. The Lions also have backup and third-down back Joique Bell, who has become a good compliment to Leshoure. Both backs ran for over 70 yards last week and combined for four rushing touchdowns. Rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff, selected in the first round, has added a different dimension for Detroit, coming in as a sixth offensive lineman on running plays. Minnesota will need to be stout at the line of scrimmage, stay in its gaps and finish off tackles when it has the chance.
Calvin Johnson, the Lions' all-pro receiver, hasn't had his typically outstanding season. He still leads the team with 48 catches for 767 yards, but he's only scored one touchdown after tallying 16 last year. He also told reporters this week he has been dealing with a nerve issue since taking a couple of big hits in the first meeting with Minnesota this year. Johnson told reporters he had suffered a concussion after a hit by Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, but coach Jim Schwartz said that wasn't the case. Greenway was fined for the hit.
Johnson has missed practice time over the past few weeks, but hasn't missed a game. He missed practice Wednesday and Thursday this week, and was limited in Friday's practice. Johnson is still imposing and a difficult receiver to cover. He was held to five catches for 54 yards in the earlier meeting, partly because of a big hit by Minnesota safety Harrison Smith, which knocked an apparent touchdown out of Johnson's hand and because the Vikings had cornerback Chris Cook healthy. Cook, Minnesota's biggest and perhaps best cover corner, is out with a broken arm. A.J. Jefferson has similar size to Cook and will likely draw the assignment of matching up with Johnson.
5. Good feelings for a couple of weeks?
Minnesota has its bye the following week before an extremely tough season-ending schedule. A win would go a long way to restoring some of the positivity and good feelings the Vikings felt earlier this season. A loss would add to the tailspin, perhaps making it more difficult to pull out of during the second half. Minnesota could use a win, along with strong play, to regain the confidence it showed while winning three straight games earlier this season and establishing itself as one of the bigger surprises of the league. And those good feelings would linger through two weeks of the bye. A loss leads to more self-doubt with two weeks to think about it.
Following the bye, the Vikings have four road games in the final six weeks. They play at Chicago (7-1) and Green Bay (6-3) the first two weeks out of the bye before returning home for another divisional game against the Bears. After trips to St. Louis and Houston, Minnesota wraps up the regular season with a home game against the Packers. The Vikings need as many wins as they can get, hence the importance of Sunday.