Lions pose different challenges for Vikings
By Judd Zulgad
Cornerback Cedric Griffin admits members of the Vikings’ defense "kind of knew" what Atlanta was planning to do on offense in the season opener. That bit of advance scouting helped them hold the Falcons to a field goal in a 24-3 victory.
The Vikings again will have a good idea of what’s in store for them Sunday when they play at Detroit. The question this time will be can they stop it?
Unlike a Falcons offense that was led by subpar quarterback Joey Harrington and an average group of receivers, the Lions’ aerial attack could be one of the best in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz, quarterback Jon Kitna and a strong receiving corps are sure to test a pass defense that tied for the worst in the NFL in 2006.
"I’ve been looking forward (to this) since our season ended because we were ranked 32nd and everyone was talking bad about us," Griffin said. "But we knew we were better than that. . . . . We’re definitely confident and ready for the challenge from any offense. Not just Detroit."
The Lions, though, will be a good start.
Martz, the architect of the St. Louis Rams’ "Greatest Show on Turf" offense, is now in charge of a unit that has a very capable quarterback and a receiving corps that includes first-round picks Calvin Johnson (2007) and Roy Williams (2004). Mike Furrey, the second-leading receiver in the NFL last season with 98 catches, and Shaun McDonald, a free agent who played for Martz in St. Louis, are also at Kitna’s disposal.
The Vikings struggled last season against the no-huddle, spread offense and there is little doubt Martz will show this look. The Lions used all four wideouts at the same time on occasion in their 36-21 victory last Sunday in Oakland; McDonald, Furrey, Johnson and Williams combined to catch 19 of the 27 passes that Kitna completed, and all but Furrey had a touchdown reception.
"You are really defensing the scheme, and Mike does a great job with the scheme," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "We are going to see a good bit of four wide receivers on the field. You’ve got a chance to see five wide receivers. They are going to spread you all over. It’s not so much ‘Where’s Waldo?’ It’s how you line up to the formations that they are giving you."
While Furrey and McDonald usually are used in the slot and Johnson and Williams line up outside, the four are interchangeable and can create matchup problems. Johnson (6-5, 239 pounds) and Williams (6-3, 211) are big, speedy targets; Furrey (6-0, 195) and McDonald (5-10, 183) are quick and athletic.
The Vikings’ nickel defense, which puts rookie cornerback Marcus McCauley on the field in place of linebacker Ben Leber, promises to get plenty of work Sunday, although the Lions certainly can run the ball with newcomer Tatum Bell. In those passing situations, McCauley plays left corner and veteran Antoine Winfield slides into the slot.
This could mean the 6-1 McCauley will find himself frequently matched up against Johnson, the second overall pick in the draft. Griffin admitted he expects he will be covering his former University of Texas teammate Williams for much of the afternoon.
"I told (McCauley) when he first came in here that he was going to play a lot, and he was going to face another team’s No. 1 receiver a lot," Winfield said. "In this league they look for mismatches. So I’m sure they see that Calvin Johnson, put him on Marcus. But I have all the confidence in the world that Marcus will step up and make some plays."
Said McCauley: "You can’t make a name for yourself unless guys go after you. I think Calvin is hoping they go to him, too. That’s why we’re here."
Griffin and his teammates in the defensive backfield agree that the Vikings’ success, or lack of it, Sunday will begin at the line of scrimmage — and extend well beyond just getting pressure on Kitna.