2012 NFC North Preview (cont.)
What the Lions do best: Create passing game mismatches.
Calvin Johnson, aka "Megatron," is Matthew Stafford's dream target and every defensive back's nightmare. He is a vertical threat who has the speed to outrun most defenders and the strength to outfight them for the ball. At 6-foot-5, he is a big target who can get high for jump balls, which makes him a big-time target in the red zone. Last season, he had 96 receptions for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns (only New England tight end Rob Gronkowski caught more TD passes), and he snatched game-winning passes against Dallas and Oakland.
What the Lions need to improve: Their cornerback play.
Inconsistency in the secondary hurt the Lions down the stretch last season. Part of that was due to the loss of free safety Louis Delmas, who missed the final five games with a knee injury. But even with Delmas on the field, the Lions need to be much better at cornerback. Chris Houston is the one dependable starter at corner; he had a team-leading five interceptions last season. Right now, the competition for the other starting corner spot is a two-man race between former Colt Jacob Lacey and rookie Bill Bentley, a third-round pick from Louisiana-Lafayette. One thing Bentley has going for him is speed: He ran a 4.37 40 at the Combine. Whoever loses the battle likely will be the nickel corner.
Which Lion needs to step up: One of the running backs.
A Detroit back hasn't rushed for 1,000 yards since 2004, when Kevin Jones carried for 1,133 yards, and they haven't had a consistently dominant runner this century. Their top three backs last year -- Jahvid Best, Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris -- rushed for 390, 356 and 316 yards respectively. Durability and availability have been big problems. Best, a first-round pick in 2010, suffered a series of concussions early last season and has not been cleared to return to the field. Smith tore his ACL in '09 and had a thumb injury in '10. Mikel Leshoure, a second-round pick last season, missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon and only recently has started practicing (he will also miss the first two games of the season to suspension). Stafford and the passing game can't go it alone on offense. They're going to need some ground support.
Predicted finish: 9-7.
After 11 consecutive seasons of frustration, including that ignominious 0-16 record just four years ago, Detroit finally gave its fans something to crow about last season, when the Lions ended their long playoff drought. General manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz have done what their predecessors could not: make the Lions relevant again. Returning to the postseason again in 2012 will be challenging, however. In addition to two games against both the Packers and the Bears, the Lions will face Houston and Atlanta at home, and San Francisco and Philadelphia on the road.
What the Vikings do best: Rush the passer.
The Vikings had 50 sacks last season, tying the Eagles for the most in the league. Right end Jared Allen set a team record with 22 sacks, just missing the NFL single-season mark of 22.5 set by Michael Strahan in 2001. Allen, who also has made a niche as a run stopper, wasn't the only Vikings lineman quarterbacks saw invading their pockets last year. Left end Brian Robison (eight sacks) and tackle Kevin Williams (five) also made their presence felt. The Vikings don't blitz a lot, feeling that they can bring the pressure with just four pass rushers.
What the Vikings need to improve: Their secondary.
What was a mediocre group coming into the season was weakened even more when veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield was forced to miss 11 games because of injuries. But that was no excuse for the Vikings giving up 4,019 passing yards and a league-high 34 TD passes. The personnel has turned over in the secondary. Chris Cook is expected to start opposite Winfield at cornerback and second-round rookie Harrison Smith could replace Jamarca Sanford at strong safety -- possibly as soon as the season opener.
Which Viking needs to step up: Christian Ponder, quarterback.
Brett Favre 2.0 didn't work out as expected. Bringing in a declining Donovan McNabb last year was a big mistake. Now the Vikings have handed the reins of their offense to Ponder, a first-round pick last year. The Ponder era actually began last season, when he started the final 10 games in the wake of the McNabb mess. The former Florida State star played relatively well, although he admitted his performance (four turnovers) in a December loss to Detroit rattled his confidence. During the offseason, Ponder worked to improve his pass drops and his decision-making, and he looked more poised in training camp.
Predicted finish: 6-10.
It's hard to imagine that the Vikings would take a step backward after last year's debacle, but they might be only marginally better in 2012. Ponder hasn't played a full season's schedule, rookie Matt Kalil will be the starter at left tackle and there's youth and inexperience at other positions. This is a rebuilding team. One thing for Minnesota fans to look forward to is a new stadium, which will be ready by 2016. Hopefully it won't take that long for the Vikings to become playoff contenders again.
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