Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers discuss the Lions' loss, Golden Tate's touchdown that wasn't, and the upcoming game at Minnesota. Detroit News
Allen Park — Quarterbacks are going to have some rough days, it comes with the territory, but you’d struggle to find a game where Matthew Stafford suffered more sustained abuse than he did during a 2015 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Stafford was pummeled by the Vikings defense that afternoon, to the tune of 13 quarterback hits and seven sacks. After the game, he required extensive bandaging, plus X-rays for his chest and ribs.
Don’t be fooled by the Vikings’ low sack total this season. They still have the personnel to wreak havoc, led by two-time Pro Bowler Everson Griffin rushing off the edge and athletic roving linebacker Anthony Barr a constant threat to come on a blitz.
“They’ve got one of the best front sevens in the NFL,” Lions guard T.J. Lang said. “They do a great job of attacking the run, they do a great job pass rushing, and third down, they’ve got a pretty extensive blitz package they use to confuse a lot of guys.”
But the man who pulls all the strings is coach Mike Zimmer, who has cultivated a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in football.
Zimmer loves to make opponents play a guessing game at the line of scrimmage with deceptive looks, and when they guess wrong, the quarterback suffers. Deciphering that puzzle falls on the shoulders of Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who must construct a game plan designed to identify and neutralize whatever Zimmer cooks up.
“Yeah, a really good challenge,” Cooter said. “It’s a tough opponent defensively, and it’s fun for us to kind of figure what the best way to go is to attack it.”
It might be fun for Cooter, but he’s not the one taking the hits if things go wrong. There’s no doubt Stafford remembers the beating the Vikings gave him a couple years back, but he doesn’t go into each matchup with the division rival expecting an abnormal amount of pressure in the pocket.
“No, I don’t think you think of it that way,” Stafford said. “I think you do everything you can to prepare for some of their pressures as a quarterback. You try to pick and choose your spots where you’re going to hold onto the ball, try to get it out, just like every game.”
The third cog in the process is the center, charged with getting the line on the same page before each snap. It’s up in the air who will start against the Vikings this Sunday, given Travis Swanson is questionable with an ankle injury that sidelined him last Sunday against the Falcons.
That day Stafford took a beating against the Vikings, it was Swanson snapping the ball, making just his third start. That inexperience was certainly a factor in the team’s struggles.
Experience is important when trying to limit the Vikings’ pass rush, and Swanson has gained plenty of that the past two seasons. Also important is communication, something that can be tricky in front of a Minnesota crowd, which has no problem generating decibels aimed at disrupting opposing offenses.
“Obviously, they’ve got a new stadium, but played in it last year and got a good feel for it,” Swanson said. “It’s loud, with how they built it. I think that was pretty well known going into that game. (Communication) is the biggest thing to identifying things and getting on the same page.”
Stafford has been sacked six times through three games, but has faced more pressure than most quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus said he’s been sacked, hit or hurried on 39.5 percent of his dropbacks.
When the Lions keep Stafford upright against the Vikings, they’ve had a lot of success. If six meetings since Zimmer has been at the helm, the Lions are 4-2, including a season sweep last year. The team has put in extensive work on its plan and feels as prepared as they can be.
“We spent a lot of time this week going through the different scenarios, different looks we might get to try to prepare ourselves the best,” Lang said. “The one thing I know about this team, playing them a lot in the past, is you’ve got to expect the unexpected.”