Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
I’ve now watched the triumphant opening performance three times. Here are some thoughts that I probably tweeted or touched on in some other venues that I think need further exploration.
1. I have been a frequent critic of Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Heck, I even called for his head last season. But he dialed up a masterpiece against Minnesota. Staying in the base 4-3 defensive personnel alignment when the Vikings went to three wideout sets all but dared Christian Ponder to throw. That was the game plan–do not let Adrian Peterson beat them by himself.
I broke down in great detail how the Lions defense corralled Peterson here. I cannot overstress how well Willie Young played against Matt Kalil. He more than made up for the limited availability of Ziggy Ansah, who played almost exclusively as a pass rusher. If Young can bring that same level of play against Cardinals LT Levi Brown, who isn’t close to as talented as Kalil, the Lions defense is poised to have an even more successful day in the desert.
2. Darius Slay wasn’t as awful as many would have you believe. Yes, he got embarrassed on Peterson’s first TD run. Some critics have piled on that Slay was also culpable for Peterson’s second TD, but there aren’t five players in the league that could have stopped that play. I’m not saying his day wasn’t a rough one; he got beaten in coverage several times by the eminently pededstrian Jerome Simpson. I do think, however, that he deserves some slack for seldom having safety help as he is accustomed to while making his NFL debut. It was not all negative.
3. Much as Gunther Cunningham had a good day as Defensive Coordinator, so too did Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan. The Lions did an excellent job mixing up formations and dictating matchups by doing so. Linehan clearly stressed to Matt Stafford that if he saw the safeties deep or a linebacker cheating outside, go to the run between the tackles. When Minnesota showed a heavier presence in the box, Stafford consistently made the correct read in the passing game.
Just as the Lions focused on not letting Peterson beat them, the Vikings seemed obsessed with not letting Calvin Johnson have a big day. I was proud of Stafford for not forcing the ball to Megatron, and Nate Burleson and Patrick Edwards both did well to pick up some of the slack. Edwards only caught three balls but he did a pretty strong job of getting separation off the line. By no means was he perfect, but I saw more versatility and strength from Edwards in this game than I did in the preseason.
4. For all the talk about Philadelphia’s frenetic pace, they wound up with 83 offensive snaps. Guess how many the Lions had? If you guessed 83, give yourself a high five!
If you want to get technical about it, the final three snaps for Detroit were kneel downs, so they really only attempted 80 offensive snaps. That number drops them from 3rd to 7th in total offensive snaps, tied with Houston. Detroit’s +27 snap differential ranks second to New England’s absurd +35 against Buffalo for the first week. That is a recipe for winning football.
5. Know your enemy time. The Vikings got very little positive out of premier acquisition Greg Jennings. His run blocking was downright lousy, and he really only had one play that showed any viable skill, the pass where he beat stiff-necked Chris Houston. I was surprised they didn’t use speedy rookie Cordarrelle Patterson more to try and lift the lid on the Lions defense, something I bet we see more of when these teams meet again.
Their highly drafted rookie corner also had a poor debut, as Xavier Rhodes was the only corner that Calvin Johnson victimized for catches and he also overran a couple of Reggie Bush runs. Both teams trotted out highly drafted rookie punters, and neither Sam Martin nor Jeff Locke had very good days.
The overriding takeaway about the Vikings is that Christian Ponder is really holding the team back. He has done nothing to disprove my pre-draft evaluation of him: he is a reactive thrower that doesn’t always trust his own arm. As Brady Quinn or Mark Sanchez can attest, that’s a lethal brew of quarterbacking swill. Put Stafford on the Vikings and there is no doubt in my mind the Vikings are the best team in the NFC North. Put Ponder in Detroit and I’m not sure the Lions top 3 wins.