Detroit Lions: 10 thoughts on Thanksgiving game against Minnesota Vikings

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 19: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions looks for a receiver aginst the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on November 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Lions defeated the Bears 27-24. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 19: Matthew Stafford #9 of the Detroit Lions looks for a receiver aginst the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on November 19, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Lions defeated the Bears 27-24. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Lions play their first must-win game of the year against the scorching Minnesota Vikings. Do the Lions have the firepower to make a statement?

Quite simply, the Detroit Lions play the biggest game of the year on Thursday. The Minnesota Vikings come to town on Thanksgiving knowing they have a chance to virtually clinch the division.

Both teams are playing well, with the Lions on a three-game winning streak and the Vikings winning six straight since their loss to the Detroit Lions in week four. Let’s break it down.

1. Matthew Stafford must play at an elite level

In the last four games, Matthew Stafford is playing the best football of the season. While averaging 333 yards, he also has a 7-1 TD/INT ratio and completing 67.4% of his passes. Stafford is protecting the football and pushing it down the field, targeting Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones for chunk plays.

The Vikings are excellent defending the pass, currently sitting 9th in passing DVOA. They have a ferocious pass rush, getting six sacks against Detroit in week 4 and are 13th in sack percentage. The Vikings are not a blitzing team, relying on their secondary and front four to generate pressure and create havoc. This way they can defend longer and get to the quarterback more quickly.

On Thursday, Stafford must rely on his decision making and arm talent to carry him. He will face pressure throughout the game. The offensive line has been better with Taylor Decker back, but still far from where it needs to be. Stafford will need to keep plays alive by scrambling and evading the Vikings front four. The Lions cannot afford turnovers and need to make plays down the field. With a national stage, this game is perfect for Matthew Stafford to prove his status as a top NFL quarterback.

2. Defend the play action

In week 4, the Lions did an excellent job preventing big pass plays and keeping Case Keenum in the pocket. However, the Vikings have only gotten better over the last few weeks. Keenum continues to improve and Adam Theilen is the real deal on the outside.

The Vikings run is inconsistent, but they will still use the play action to freeze the safeties and look for single coverage on the outside. With his ability to maneuver outside the pocket, the Lions must contain him on the edge. The Vikings like using the run early, then getting Keenum in rhythm. It will be interesting to see how the Lions start the game and if they play for the run early. It will then be on the Vikings to adjust.

3. Can Jarrad Davis get out of his funk?

To start the season, Jarrad Davis gave Detroit a playmaking linebacker they have missed since DeAndre Levy‘s injuries. The last two weeks, Davis is struggling to find his groove. He looks lost in the passing game and routinely is blocked out of running plays. All rookies his walls and that seems to be the case here. It’s a short week and with all the play action Minnesota runs, it will be paramount for Davis to hold position and line everyone up correctly.

4. Lions must protect against the deep ball

This was mentioned in point #2 but bears repeating. The Vikings love to attack down the field and go after the outside cornerbacks. I do not expect Minnesota to go after Darius Slay, but they will go after Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden. Teryl Austin does not play much soft coverage, so I would expect some back shoulder throws too.

One thing the Lions need to be aware of his Keenum has a gunslinger mentality. He will try and fit balls into tight windows if that is what the play calls for. He’s not a guy who will go through his progressions. This might give Detroit a chance to jump on a couple routes and make a big play.

5. Offensive player to watch: Ameer Abdullah

In week 4, Ameer Abdullah had his best game as a Detroit Lions with 94 yards and a touchdown. The Vikings have a stingy run defense, holding opponents to 3.3 yards per carry (third in the NFL). Yet the Lions were successful, opening holes on the backside and Abdullah using his agility to make guys miss in the backfield.

The lack of consistency has prevented the Lions from being a balanced offense, but I am seeing positive signs with Taylor Decker back. The inside run game seems to be improving, but Detroit is getting destroyed trying to get on the outside. The Lions need to stay with inside zones and attack the Vikings up the middle. Minnesota is too fast and their defensive ends too good at contain.

6. Defensive player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson

A’Shawn Robinson does his job well, but lacks big playmaking ability. He is a hoss in the middle and draws double teams, but he’s a gap player. This means he is expected to hold his gap instead of penetrating, letting the linebackers clean up the run game.

Expect more of the same, but he needs to step up. Last week, he was pushed around too often and lost his battle. The Vikings are finding their running game after the injury to Dalvin Cook. Making Case Keenum one dimensional gives Detroit less to worry about. I expect Ezekiel Ansah to miss his third straight game, which means more heavy doses of the Lions seeing the run. A’Shawn Robinson getting into the backfield and help slow down the Vikings run game will be a huge benefit to the Lions.

7. Can Eric Ebron build on last week?

Don’t look now, but Eric Ebron is heating up and finding his place in the offense. He now has had 6 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown in the last two weeks. I find it interesting that he is having success outside the hash marks and taking advantage of smaller defensive backs. The more weapons Matthew Stafford, the better the offense will be.

The Vikings were victimized by the Lions tight ends in week 4 for 7 catches and 82 years. I would expect Jim Bob Cooter to add some play action rollouts, leading to crossing routes for the tight ends. You might also see some one-on-one matchups on the outside, with slants and hitches.

8. Who guards who in the secondary?

The Vikings are deep at wide receiver and have a nasty 1-2 punch with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. In week 4 they had a combined 10 catches for 157 yards and their chemistry with Case Keenum has grown the last few weeks. Thielen is especially dangerous, averaging 123 yards the last three games on 19 receptions. He is a complete wide receiver and really good near the sidelines.

In week 4, the Lions put Darius Slay mostly on Stefon Diggs and Slay was very good on Diggs, only allowing two catches. I think that changes on Thursday, with Teryl Austin moving Slay on Theilen and sending help to whichever side Diggs is on. Either way, I am highly concerned about the other wideout away from Darius Slay. Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden are not inspiring confidence at the moment.

9. To slow down the run game, use Miles Killebrew more

I am a big proponent of Miles Killebrew over Tavon Wilson and I feel this game they should use Killebrew more. Wilson is struggling inside the box and Killebrew is more athletic. To me, I would give Killebrew the start and let him play more in the box. With the lack of athleticism at defensive end, the Lions need more to help stop the run game and Killebrew brings that.

10. This game will decide the Detroit Lions’ ceiling for 2017

Winning Thursday against the Minnesota Vikings does not ensure the Lions will win the NFC North and get a home playoff game. A loss, however, does ensure the Vikings win the NFC North, giving themselves a three-game lead with five games to go. It’s the first must-win game of the year for the Lions.

Against the Vikings, you cannot afford a slow start like the last two weeks. The Vikings are too good and will not squander a big lead. Matthew Stafford is the better quarterback and you always like having that advantage. The Lions play great on Thanksgiving under Jim Caldwell (they are 3-0) and have been prepared under him for this game. It’s a national stage and everyone will watch to see if the Lions are legitimate. I like how the Lions are playing on offense despite the inconsistencies on defense that are giving Detroit fits.

Next: What to watch for in week 12

If the Lions win, they hold the tiebreaker and only go behind one game. They also have the easier schedule and should be the favorite in every game after Minnesota. The Lions know the importance of this game and Stafford has been very successful against the Vikings. The question will if the defense can slow down their run game. If Detroit protects the ball and stops the Vikings run game, they should pull off the victory.