LIONS // VIKINGS OVERVIEW
The NFC North is wide open, with only one game separating the first place Bears (4-3) and the last place Lions (3-4). The Vikings sit somewhere in between, at 4-3-1, making this an important game for each squad.
This game provides us with an interesting setup for a number of reasons. Firstly, Minnesota has allowed the second fewest opponent plays per game in the NFL, and the Lions have allowed the third fewest — which will lead to at least one of these teams finishing below their typical volume. Secondly, Minnesota is one of the pass-heaviest teams in football, ranking third in pass play rate — but teams have all but avoided the pass against Detroit, as only three teams have faced a lower pass play rate on the year. Thirdly, the Vikings rank fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per carry, but the Lions have become one of the league’s more run-heavy teams, with only “outlier game scripts” (like the Lions falling behind quickly to the Seahawks last week) leading to this unit turning to a pass-heavy approach.
These elements blend to create plenty of variance, as the Vikings may skew more pass-heavy than other teams have against the Lions (or: they may not), while the Lions may skew more pass-heavy against the Vikings’ stout run defense than they would in other matchups (again: they may not) — and along the way, play volume on one side or the other (or possibly even on both sides) will take a slight hit against what has been the norm throughout the season.
LIONS PASS OFFENSE
Uncertainty is further enhanced with the departure of Golden Tate, as the obvious setup calls for T.J. Jones to step into the slot receiver snaps in this offense, but there are whispers floating around that Brandon Powell will actually take over Tate’s role. Powell was referred to by Tate earlier in the year as, essentially, a ‘better version of his young self,’ and he was active for the first time last week while Jones was a healthy scratch for the first time. For now, we’ll assume Jones is the slot receiver moving forward — and if we get clarity as the week moves along, I’ll add an update to the bottom of this writeup.
With Tate seeing recent target counts of 8 // 8 // 7 // 6 // 12, we should also see a solidifying effect on the volume of Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay. Jones has followed his 2017 pattern of bounce-around target counts, with four games this year of four to six targets, and with three games of eight to 10 looks. Jones is likeliest to draw Xavier Rhodes, though it would also make sense for Golladay to see a dose of Rhodes as well. Last week was the first time all season Jones has topped four catches in a game, but as noted weekly in this space: he does have one of the bigger red zone roles in football (10 targets inside the 20; six targets inside the 10), which provides him with upside to go with his low floor.
Golladay has seen his targets plunge recently, with 4 // 9 // 2 // 1 looks in his last four games. We can’t pin too many of Tate’s departed targets to these two, as Tate’s role (aDOT of 5.8, as a premier catch-and-YAC guy) was totally different from what these two do. Golladay is the likeliest bet to see some added looks over the middle, however, boosting his likelihood of an increased workload.
Ultimately, we may find that none of this matters in Week 9, and that this week simply serves as a great opportunity to get a feel for how the Lions will manage their wide receiver group moving forward. Outside of the reputation-wrecking game the Vikings endured against the Rams earlier this year (in which all three of Cooks, Woods, and Kupp went for 100+ yards), this team has not allowed a single wide receiver to top 81 yards — with that mark coming last week against Michael Thomas. The game against the Rams was due primarily to communication breakdowns on the back end — something that is a consistent issue against the heavy movement and misdirection of the Rams, and is far less of a concern against a team like the Lions.
The area where Minnesota continues to get trucked is against the tight end, as they have allowed notable lines of 5-90-0 to George Kittle, 6-95-0 to Jimmy Graham, 10-110-1 to Zach Ertz, 5-69-0 to Ricky Seals-Jones, and 4-42-1 to Chris Herndon. Disappointingly, Luke Willson is the primary tight end on the Lions, and he has yet to top four targets or 21 receiving yards in a game. Michael Roberts scored two touchdowns on three targets in Week 7, but he has only five targets all year.
LIONS RUN OFFENSE
The Vikings have allowed only one running back to top 63 rushing yards against them this year. That running back was Todd Gurley — who ran for 83 yards on 17 carries. This is an extremely difficult spot for Kerryon Johnson, who played 48 out of 59 snaps last week in a negative game script setup, but who will continue to share a good 30% to 35% of the running back workload with LeGarrette Blount for as long as this game stays close.
If Theo Riddick misses again, Kerryon will soak up work on passing downs against a Minnesota defense that has been merely average against pass-catching backs. There is a chance that Kerryon could see a couple added targets with Tate no longer available on underneath routes — perhaps bumping his target floor from three to four or five.
If Riddick returns, he will step back into his usual third down and “obvious passing situation” role, and will see a small boost in locked-in workload with Tate no longer with the team.
Ultimately, of course, Gurley and Alvin Kamara are the only running backs who have posted noteworthy box scores against the Vikings this season, providing an idea of where to set expectations on the Lions’ backfield.
VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
The Lions rank eighth in the NFL in lowest YAC/R rate allowed, but otherwise they have been unimposing against the pass — allowing an average catch rate, and entering this week tied with Pittsburgh for the deepest aDOT allowed. Only three teams are allowing more yards per pass attempt than the Lions — but much like the Raiders (who have faced the second fewest pass attempts in the NFL, as their run defense is even worse than their pass defense), teams are avoiding the pass against Detroit and attacking on the ground. No team in the NFL has faced fewer pass attempts than the Lions.
The last time the Vikings faced a similar setup was against the Cardinals — and in that game, Kirk Cousins threw only 34 pass attempts, while Latavius Murray ran the ball 24 times. There are a couple additional factors to consider in that game, however. Firstly, the Vikings had a lead for almost all of that game. Secondly, the Cardinals not only have a beatable run defense, but they also have one of the tougher pass defenses in the league. By contrast: the Lions are beatable both on the ground and through the air. We should enter this game assuming the Vikings will lean more toward the run than normal, but it’s not as if their passing volume will dry up entirely — and there is at least some chance they remain pass-heavy throughout.
Only three wide receivers this year have seen double-digit targets against the Lions. Those three were Quincy Enunwa (6-63-1 on 10 targets), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (7-68-1 on 10 targets), and Davante Adams (9-140-1 on 12 targets). Adam Thielen should have no trouble dominating once again as long as the looks are there. Last week was the first game this season in which Thielen fell shy of double-digit looks. He still managed to post 100+ yards for the eighth time in eight tries. As long as Cousins throws the ball 30+ times (which should be the case), Thielen will have a great shot at topping 100 yards once again.
Stefon Diggs will see a lot more of Darius Slay, while running routes primarily on the outside, though it should be noted that Slay is having a down year with 22 receptions allowed on 32 targets (68.8%), and with four touchdowns allowed to only one interception — good for a QB rating allowed of 117.4. Between the matchup and the potential for a more run-leaning approach from Minnesota, Diggs may land on the lower end of his target range, but he’ll still carry monster upside in tourneys on his looks.
As always, these two receivers dominate looks in the Vikings’ passing attack, with Laquon Treadwell running into three or four receptions per game, and with Kyle Rudolph picking up four to five catches per game. Detroit is not a scary matchup for tight ends, so Rudolph’s general range (around four for 40) remains intact. He has eight targets inside the 20 and a strong five looks inside the 10, giving him a bit of touchdown upside in his touchdown-or-bust role.
VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
Dalvin Cook appears set to miss yet another game (if he returns, it will be in a limited role before the Vikings go on bye), which will leave the backfield work to Latavius Murray in a premium spot. No team in the NFL is allowing more yards per carry to running backs than the Lions (5.53), and even with new addition Damon Harrison drawing top marks from PFF in Week 8, the Lions allowed Chris Carson to go for 105 yards, with Mike Davis adding 33 yards of his own.
Murray has topped 70 rushing yards only once this year (155 yards against Arizona), and he has topped 15 carries only once (also against Arizona). There is also a chance that the addition of Snacks Harrison to the Lions’ defensive front will push the Vikings to lean pass-heavy, as they already prefer to do. But if Latavius sees 20 touches in this one, he’ll have a clear shot at a big game. Of course, it should be noted that Cousins has 17 pass attempts (and five touchdown passes) inside the 10-yard-line this season, while Murray has been given only three carries inside the 10 (and only one carry inside the five).
With the Vikings doing such a great job against the run and limiting wide receiver upside so thoroughly this year, I will almost certainly leave the Lions alone — though I do like Kerryon in tourneys from a “bet on talent” standpoint, and both of Marvin Jones and Golladay are always in the large-field tourney conversation for their big-play and touchdown upside.
It is likeliest that T.J. Jones fills in for Tate in the slot, and he is a candidate to be overhyped this week, as Tate’s role generally calls for around seven or eight targets, with a low aDOT and low upside outside of Tate’s unique YAC ability. With that said: Jones (or Powell, if he takes over this role) should post a strong point-per-dollar game, if you’re into that sort of thing. I am tackling this week’s slate in chronological order (according to how the games are listed on the site), so I have not yet researched the more exciting games on the slate (it’s a strange week, with a few clear standout spots, and with “some to like, little to love” seemingly everywhere else), but I am hoping there is better value available than this, and that the masses overreact to this shiny new toy. T.J. has been in the league four years, and he has topped 50 yards twice and scored only two touchdowns. Something like a 4-45-0 line would be his median expectation, with a touchdown being a low-likelihood event. If I take a shot on any Lions receiver in tourneys, it will likely be Golladay for me, as he is the guy best-suited to take advantage of what the Vikings present on defense. I could also see taking a large-field tourney shot on Luke Willson, given how consistently the Vikings have been hammered by tight ends. (Obviously: rostering Willson would call for going in with low expectations while hoping for things to work out for the best.)
On the Vikings’ side, I like Thielen quite a bit, as the addition of Snacks Harrison should at least push the Vikings toward the air enough for Thielen to get his double-digit looks (which should be enough for him to top 100 yards yet again), and I see Diggs as an interesting guy to take a shot on in tourneys. As always, I like the idea of playing both of these guys together, along with Cousins, in the hopes of capturing nearly all of the passing points on this offense at once.
I also like Latavius, though I don’t love him the way I expected to. His range is fairly broad this week, as a hundred yard, multi-touchdown game is not out of the question, but it’s also not out of the question that he goes for something like 15 carries and 75 yards, with no touchdowns and only a couple receptions.
SATURDAY EVENING UPDATE // Full “Updates” List
Stefon Diggs is trending toward missing this game. There isn’t much room for Thielen’s role to grow, and it seems unlikely that Laquon Treadwell or Aldrick Robinson see a huge bump in schemed usage, so realistically this should lead to a couple extra targets for Kyle Rudolph and a couple extra carries for Latavius Murray. Essentially: each of these three guys becomes a bit safer if Diggs misses. Ceiling remains about the same.