VIKINGS // LIONS OVERVIEW
After their commanding Week 15 win at home against the Dolphins, the Vikings continue to control their own destiny in the NFC playoffs — with games against the Lions and the Bears standing between this team and a return to the postseason. The trade- and injury-wrecked Lions, meanwhile, are sitting on a 5-9 record in the first lost season of Matt Patricia’s tenure at the helm. The Lions’ defense has managed to show gradual (though non-notable) improvement throughout the year, but this offense has gone into the tank of late, with this team now ranked a disappointing 25th in points per game. When these teams met in Minnesota in Week 9, the Vikings won 24-9. The only teams to top 17 points against the Vikings since Week 5 have been the high-powered offenses of the Saints (30 points), the Bears (25), the Patriots (24), and the Seahawks (21). Minnesota has been installed as healthy 6.0 point favorites midway through the week, in a game with an Over/Under of 42.5.
VIKINGS RUN OFFENSE
Last week, the Vikings — who entered their game with the second highest pass play rate in the NFL — threw the ball on only 36.51% of their plays, riding both Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray to an easy win against an overmatched Dolphins run defense. While the Vikings’ run-heavy ways were aided by a matchup against a bottom five run defense in a game with a huge lead, they were committed to the run from the start, and they stayed committed throughout the game, even as the Dolphins tightened up the score in the third quarter. In his first game calling plays for this team, Kevin Stefanski simplified the team’s concepts and relied on their star power to cruise to an easy win. Impressively, Stefanski opened the game running Cook between the tackles as the Dolphins focused on taking away the perimeter runs on which Cook is so lethal — and as the Dolphins adjusted on defense, Stefanski did the same on offense, allowing Cook to run wild around the edge.
The matchup this week will be more difficult for Cook and company against a Lions run defense that has been one of the better units in the league since acquiring Snacks Harrison from the Giants. The only backfields to top 100 yards against the Lions since the trade have been the Rams (Gurley went 23-132-2), the Seahawks (Chris Carson and Mike Davis combined for 138 yards, though it took them 35 carries to get there), and the Vikings (with Cook ripping off a 70-yard run en route to a 10-89-0 line, and with Latavius adding a 10-31-1 line of his own). Consider this to be a below-average matchup, but also recognize that Cook is simply better than most players on the field, giving him plenty of room to hit on his likely 20+ touches. He’s a modest-floor, high-ceiling bet this week.
Somewhat capping Cook’s touch ceiling is a team that trusts Latavius when game script allows them to go truly run-heavy, with the Vikings’ big back racking up 15 carries of his own last week. If this game gets out of hand, Latavius will have an outside shot at mattering again in this spot.
VIKINGS PASS OFFENSE
Volume on the Vikings’ passing attack unsurprisingly took a nosedive last week, with Kirk Cousins throwing only 21 passes — a far cry from the 40+ passes he had uncorked in seven of the Vikings’ first 13 games. This week sets up for the Vikings to lean on the pass more than they had to last week, but we should also keep in mind that the Lions have allowed the fewest opponent plays per game in the league, and the Vikings are making a clear and obvious effort to build their new offense around a run-first approach. We should go into this game expecting around 33 to 36 pass attempts for Cousins, with anything over that mark considered a bonus.
This creates an interesting setup for rostering Minnesota pass catchers, as pricing on Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs has risen throughout the year to account for this team’s identity as one of the pass-heaviest offenses in the NFL. With Thielen seeing an aDOT of only 9.2, volume is especially important for him to reach his price-considered ceiling (unless you want to bet on a broken play or a multi-touchdown game), making him overpriced on paper. Diggs has an even lower aDOT (9.0), though as noted throughout the year, this aDOT is somewhat misleading, as the Vikings mix and match short-area looks and downfield looks for Diggs, giving him an outside shot at upside even on weeks in which volume suffers. From a purely matchup-based perspective, there is little cause for concern, as the Lions are allowing the fourth most yards per pass attempt in the league — though with the Lions facing the fourth fewest wide receiver targets this year, and with volume a slim concern for this passing attack as a whole, these guys are better viewed as “ceiling only” options, rather than being viewed as floor/ceiling plays.
This passing attack thins out quickly behind Diggs and Thielen, with Aldrick Robinson seeing two targets last week but playing only 15 snaps, and with Laquon Treadwell seeing one target on 22 snaps. The Vikings leaned on two tight end sets last week to help them further emphasize the run game, creating more “Thielen and Diggs only” formations than this team has run throughout the season. Everyone on this team behind Cook, Thielen, and Diggs (including Kyle Rudolph) should be viewed as an afterthought in this offense at the moment, with touchdown-hunting the name of the game if trying to find a player to roster.
LIONS RUN OFFENSE
Minnesota has been one of the tougher teams to run on this year, ranking ninth in yards allowed per carry and allowing the fifth fewest touchdowns on the ground to enemy backs. The Vikings have been below-average against pass-catching backs this season, but the Lions make it difficult to harvest fantasy goodness from their backfield, with LeGarrette Blount (11 out of 58 snaps last week), Zach Zenner (26 out of 58 snaps last week), and Theo Riddick (25 out of 58 snaps last week) all seeing work. Blount — who ranks dead last in the NFL in yards per carry among qualified backs (with an embarrassing 2.8 yards per carry on the season) — continued to waste this offense’s time last week with nine yards on seven carries, while Zenner ran circles around him with a 10-45-1 line (one week after going 12-54-1). Sadly, Blount does not appear to be going away any time soon, leaving Zenner as a bet-on-efficiency play in a below-average matchup. Riddick contributed eight carries and two receptions of his own — with this run-leaning backfield taking away valuable reps from this passing attack, and with the spread-out nature of these carries making it difficult to bet on any Detroit backfield members with authority.
LIONS PASS OFFENSE
The Vikings rank a middling 12th in yards allowed per pass attempt this year, but the good news ends there for opponents, as this team has allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league while holding wide receivers to the fourth fewest catches and the third fewest yards. The Lions have turned into an ultra-conservative offense that aims to win games through the run game, short passes, and defense, with Matthew Stafford failing to top 245 passing yards in six of his last seven games, with a disappointing two touchdown passes across his last four games combined. Stafford has recent pass attempt totals of 33 // 23 // 29. This once-powerful offense has been absolutely wasted this year.
If looking for signs of life on this attack, your best bet is Kenny Golladay, who lit a similarly difficult matchup against the Bills on fire last week for a 7-146-0 line on only eight targets, with Stafford — suddenly and without warning — taking some downfield shots to Golladay and allowing him to win tight, contested catches. Golladay should be trailed by Xavier Rhodes this week, but the matchup is less of a concern than the nature of Golladay’s usage lately, with timid play-calling limiting his upside most weeks. Consider him a low-floor, solid-ceiling play in a difficult draw.
Upside has been invisible in this passing attack behind Golladay, but if Bruce Ellington returns to the field this week, he should step back into the short-area role that yielded recent lines of 6-52-0 // 6-28-0 // 7-35-0 // 4-17-0. If Ellington misses, the Lions will go back to what they did last week: mixing in plenty of six-lineman and two-tight-end sets to support the run, while rotating snaps (and providing limited volume) to T.J. Jones, Andy Jones, and Brandon Powell. These guys are nothing more than low-upside dart throws in this offense — with “hoping for outlier production” being the only real justification for taking a shot in this spot.
Cook’s price has (unsurprisingly) climbed fairly quickly this week, and the matchup on the road against the Lions is tougher than what he had last week at home against the Dolphins — making him a strong bet-on-talent play for upside, but with the floor less obviously secure than it was last week. Away from Cook, I’ll have a difficult time betting on this Vikings offense until they show that they can still support strong volume for pass catchers — but if you want to take that leap yourself, there is certainly still room for Thielen and Diggs to smash if things go right. These two are tourney-only plays right now, but they are obviously still part of that conversation.
The Lions — as has been the case ever since Kerryon Johnson and Marvin Jones went down — will be difficult to bet on this week, especially in a tough matchup against the Vikings. Your best bet for production is Golladay, though the floor in this offense is low. Behind Golladay, it’s simply hoping to guess right on a touchdown or a broken play in a spread-the-wealth offense that rarely generates upside looks.