Lions vs. Vikings preview: Keep heat off Stafford
James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Sunday’s Lions-Vikings game at U.S. Bank Stadium (1 p.m. FOX/760 WJR).
VIKINGS TO WATCH
Stefon Diggs, WR: The third-year pro has enjoyed a breakout start to the season. Diggs has already tied a career high with a league-leading four touchdown receptions, ranks third in receiving yards (293) and is averaging 17.2 yards per catch. It doesn’t seem to matter who throws him the ball because he has posted a two-touchdown outing with both Sam Bradford and Case Keenum under center.
Dalvin Cook, RB: The rookie has been the total package so far. Cook ranks second in the league in rushing yards (288), has caught 10 passes out of the backfield and is averaging 123.3 yards from scrimmage per game (96 rushing, 27.3 receiving). As an every-down back, his pass protection skills have also been a huge asset.
Everson Griffen, DE: The two-time Pro Bowler has arguably been the most disruptive force and best pass-rusher on Minnesota’s vaunted defensive line. Griffen has recorded a sack in all three games this season and is tied for the fourth-most in the league with four. He’ll give Lions left tackle Greg Robinson everything he can handle and more, much like Giants’ Olivier Vernon did in Week 2.
■ On your mark: With the Bears rebuilding, the NFC North will likely come down to either the Vikings or Lions contending with the Packers for the division title. For that reason, this opener could go a long way in shaping divisional race, just like it has the past two seasons. Minnesota won the two meetings in 2015 en route to the division title and Detroit prevailed both times last season on its way to the playoffs.
■ Air patrol: The Vikings don’t just rely on a dominant defense anymore. They rank second in the league in total offense (400.3 yards), second in passing (285.3 yards) and aren’t afraid to take shots down the field. For Detroit’s defense, it starts with containing RB Dalvin Cook and limiting the number of one-on-one matchups in the secondary against WRs Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the league’s top receiving tandem.
■ Breaking through: Minnesota’s run defense has held opponents to 62.7 yards per game (third in NFL), three yards per carry (fourth) and hasn’t allowed a run longer than 11 yards, the best mark in the league. RB Ameer Abdullah will need to break off a couple of explosive plays to keep the Vikings on their toes and force them to cover the entire field.
■ Hold the line: Two weeks after facing one of the league’s best secondaries in the league, Matthew Stafford and Co. will go up against one of the top defensive lines. DT Linval Joseph clogs the middle as an elite run-stuffer, while Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter create havoc on the edges. The O-line can ill afford to have any lapses against this punishing front and must limit the hits on Stafford.
FACTS AND FIGURES
■ The Lions’ defense has recorded seven interceptions through the first three games, the most to start a season since 1971.
■ Detroit has three returned touchdowns (two interceptions, one punt) through the first three weeks for the fifth time in team history and the first time since 1992.
■ Golden Tate surpassed the 300-reception plateau with the Lions in 51 games, the fastest of any player in team history. He broke Calvin Johnson’s previous mark of 66 games.
■ Per Elias Sports Bureau, Matt Prater is the first kicker in NFL history to make four field goals from 55 yards or more in a single season and the second with at least 10 career makes, along with Oakland’s Sebastian Janikowski.
■ The Vikings rank second in the league in third-down conversions (21-for-42, 50 percent) and second in third-down defense (8-for-30, 27 percent).
■ Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (third, 370), Adam Thielen (seventh, 299) and Stefon Diggs (eighth, 291) all rank in the top 10 for most yards from scrimmage. No other team has more than one player in the top 10.
■ The Vikings have 882 yards passing through the first three games, the third-most in franchise history since 1970.