Daniel House addresses five concerns before the Vikings take on the Lions this Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit.
What areas need to be perfect this Sunday for the Vikings to win versus Detroit?
It's very simple and starts in the secondary of the Vikings defense. Containing Calvin Johnson is the top priority and with an inexperienced group of cornerbacks, the need is maximized. Chris Cook will be provided the duty to handled Megatron's services. He has been successful with this task in the past, but without veteran slot cornerback Antoine Winfield to lead this group, I have major concerns. Winfield had the ability to single handedly cause defenses to throw in other directions. In the preseason, Josh Robinson struggled in slot coverage and was a huge liability in the third preseason game against the 49ers. I anticipate he moves to the nickel role and Rhodes enters the starting rotation. With the inexperienced cornerbacks on this roster, they must show early and often that they are ready to contribute, or this team will struggle in a "pass-happy" NFL.
Christian Ponder has caused Vikings fans to scratch their heads since he entered then league in 2011. He was plagued immediately when Donovan McNabb was awarded the starting job, causing Ponder to lose a year of growth. In his first full season as a starter in 2012, Ponder's mediocre play still managed to lead the Vikings to the playoffs. Over the final four games the Vikings won to conclude the 2012 season, Ponder showed more consistency, but struggled with pocket presence. This preseason we witnessed similar play, but with limited scheming and exotic blitzes, it wasn't an accurate assessment. The first four games of this season will dictate Ponder's career in this league. If the team struggles entering the bye week, I firmly believe Ponder will be replaced. In week one his focus needs to involve staying in the pocket, completing passes, and making good decisions. The Lions secondary will be similar to years past, which means with #28 in the backfield and the added receivers in the offensive scheme, Ponder has zero excuses not to succeed.
Defensive Line Pressure
As discussed earlier, the secondary will need to mature, which means pressure among the defensive line will dictate the success of this team. Jared Allen finished with 12 sacks during the 2012 campaign, but battled injuries that plagued his season. This year he must record at least 15 sacks in order for the Vikings to compete for a divisional title. Everson Griffen has worked hard during the offseason and needs to build upon an encouraging 2012 season as a third-down pass rusher. With all three of the key defensive lineman including Allen, Griffen, and Brian Robison in contract seasons, they will have more motivation than in years past. If this team can rush Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford into poor decisions, the secondary will have a shorter coverage window, creating opportunities for turnovers.
Will the Vikings develop a more balanced offense and schematic plan early this season? With the additions of Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings to the offense, look for a more even attack this year. I don't expect Adrian Peterson to carry the ball 348 times like he did last year. He may be as successful, but won't require as much use. If the Lions attempt to stack the box with eight players, Christian Ponder needs to prove he can execute. With the weapons he was awarded this offseason, he needs to prove himself. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has indicated there will be special packages for Cordarrelle Patterson this season, but the expectation is he will overtake Jerome Simpson as the #2 wide receiver on the depth chart at some point this season. With the added weapons to this side of the ball, the Vikings need to take advantage early in the season before it is too late.
Special Teams Fluidity
With Jeff Locke added to the mix of the special teams unit, he needs to establish himself as a punter who can kick for length. In the preseason he was brilliant at pinning teams inside the 20-yard line, but he was unsuccessful in kicking for distance. He averaged about 49 yards on punts in the preseason and Locke needs to drop the Lions in their own territory to win on Sunday. If the Lions are awarded great field position, it doesn't bode we'll for the Vikings to win this week. Another area to monitor will be inside the field goal unit. With unproven continuity between kicker Blair Walsh, long-snapper Cullen Loeffler, and Locke, they need to show they have fluidity among the logistics of the field goal team. The Vikings can't miss field goals against the Lions, especially in a road divisional contest that is important to the future of the 2013 Minnesota Vikings.