With nothing to play for in the traditional sense, protecting the future of the franchise becomes even more important in the final two games of the Lions’ season.
For Sunday’s home finale against Minnesota, that means the offense doing whatever it takes to avoid a repeat of the Nov. 4 debacle in Minneapolis where franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked 10 times and hit a total of 17 times in a 24-9 loss.
It’s a sore thumb of a week for an otherwise improved area of the Lions’ offense, which has allowed 37 sacks this season, tied for 16th-fewest in the league, but would be in the top third if not for the Minnesota house of horrors after Halloween.
“We know how good these guys are. They got good players all over the field, and they’re playing at a really high level right now,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said Tuesday of the Vikings’ defense. “Obviously last time I did not do a good enough job of putting our guys in a good position to sort of play these guys.”
At stake is not just the health of a hobbled Stafford (back) going into the offseason, but it’s another chance for Cooter to prove his worth to the organization and first-year coach Matt Patricia, who held over the coordinator from Jim Caldwell’s staff.
Or, perhaps more likely, as he auditions for his next role in the NFL.
“In the NFL, throwing the football is a little bit of a race,” Cooter said, noting the rush comes every Sunday and defenses are trying to get to the quarterback before receivers get open.
“We try to play that game each week, we try to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the defense we’re playing — our offensive guys, maybe who’s up, who’s down. Different situations, maybe different sort of alignments and looks we’re giving offensively and how we mesh that whole thing to have some success.”
The Lions (5-9) have a chance to play spoiler against the Vikings (7-6-1), who collected nine sacks in a 41-17 win Sunday against Miami.
“They’ve got a great front and we know that from playing them last time,” Patricia said. “They’ve got guys up there that can really disrupt the game.”
Defensive end Danielle Hunter is tied for second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks, equaling perennial Pro Bowlers J.J. Watt of Houston and Denver’s Von Miller, and trailing only Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams (16.5)
“They can really roll through them and (coach Mike Zimmer) does a great job of dialing up the pressures,” Patricia said.
For all that went wrong on Nov. 4, the Lions nearly shut down wide receiver Adam Thielen that day, as his 22 receiving yards represented the first time he was held under 100 this season.
Nevin Lawson did most of the work to contain Thielen, who could’ve broken former Lions star Calvin Johnson’s streak of eight straight 100-yard games on that afternoon. Lawson bemoaned a late first0half touchdown he gave up to Thielen, however.
Does that mean the Lions have to shake up the defense the second time around, or keep things similar?
“The key word there is balance,” defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni said. “You can’t go out there and do exactly what you did, but at the same time if you did things that were effective, you don’t want to abandon those things either. There’s got to be some adjustments and tweaks to what we do, but there’s a very, very fine line.”
Including that game, Thielen has only broke 100 yards once in the last six games, with a season-low 19 yards Sunday against Miami.
Thielen has fallen to eighth in the league in receiving yards and second in receptions after leading the NFL in those categories entering the game with Detroit.
Ford Field finale
The Lions will close Ford Field for the season Sunday with a chance to finish .500 in downtown Detroit.
A win would make the Lions 4-4, a sixth straight season at .500 or better in front of the home fans.
The Lions have won at least four games at home nine times in the 16 seasons since Ford Field opened in 2002, only finishing .500 or better overall in four of those seasons.
Since 2002, Detroit is 62-73 at Ford Field (.459), while going 37-98 (.274) away from home in the regular season.
“They’re doing a great deal for us, and we’re trying to do everything we can to give it back,” Patricia said of the fans. “I think everything feels really intimate inside the building, I think you feel really close to the action. We can feel that, we can feel the energy because everybody is really tight. It’s just a great advantage for us in that situation.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.