Two teams moving in opposite directions will meet in an NFC North matchup at Mall of America Field on Sunday when the struggling Minnesota Vikings play host to the resurgent Detroit Lions.
The Vikings have hit the skids thanks in large part to the deficiencies of their second-year quarterback Christian Ponder. In this pass happy era of NFL football Ponder has been egregiously bad for about a month now, failing to throw for even 100 yards on three different occasions.
He hit rock bottom in Seattle last Sunday during Minnesota's 30-20 setback to the Seahawks, throwing for just 63 yards, the second time in three weeks the moribund Vikings' passing game has offered little production despite a a rushing game which generated 243 yards, 182 of them from the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson.
"We are struggling in a lot of areas right now," said Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier. "We were not able to capitalize on Adrian's day and that's difficult to swallow. We need to have more balance."
Balance wasn't a problem for Detroit in Jacksonville last weekend when the Lions used a stifling defense combined with a career day from running back Mikel Leshoure en route to a 31-14 win over the Jaguars.
Leshoure found the end zone three times in the second quarter and finished the contest with 70 yards on 16 carries while the Detroit defense limited Jacksonville to just one first down in the first half and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Matthew Stafford went 22-for-33 with 285 yards, Calvin Johnson had seven catches for 129 yards while Joique Bell added 13 carries for 73 yards and a score for the Lions, who have won their past two games to get back to .500 on the season.
"The most important thing is that we won the game," said Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. "Any time you can come away with a road game is huge for a team. I thought we executed really well and we adjusted to what they were doing. I'm really proud of the offensive line and our running game today."
Minnesota has dominated the Lions for most of this series, compiling a gaudy 67-33-2 mark against them, including a 20-13 win in the Motor City back on Sept. 30 when Percy Harvin returned a kickoff for 105 yards and a touchdown and Marcus Sherels added a 77-yard punt return score.
Ponder, however, was just 16-of-26 for 111 yards in that one.
"We have struggled in the passing game," Frazier added. "We've struggled for a couple of games here now. We know that in order for us to achieve our goals as a team, we've got to create some balance on offense and take advantage of our ability to run the football as well as we can."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ponder's early returns were promising in 2012 as Minnesota got off to an impressive 4-1 start, but the wheels have come off over the last month.
It was the Washington Redskins who exposed Ponder on Oct. 14 with the overload blitz. Harassed and hurried, the Florida State product has looked like a rookie again ever since, failing to recognize things pre-snap and undergoing a complete breakdown in mechanics.
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave began losing confidence in Ponder and the second-year starter has thrown all eight of his interceptions in the last five games. Overall, the Vikings have 12 turnovers in those five contests and almost all of them are directly related to Ponder, who has been making extremely poor decisions, particularly when he's out of the pocket trying to extend plays. Ponder is athletic, but those aforementioned mechanics fall apart when he's on the move, causing his ball to sail.
"I think, for me, it's going back to technique, working on my footwork and working on my reads and everything," Ponder said. "One thing I need to continue is to keep stepping up in the pocket and not flushing left or right, but keep moving forward."
The problem is Ponder has been saying that for weeks now. He recognizes the issues but sliding in the pocket or stepping up while displaying at least passable fundamentals is an innate ability which can't be taught. When the bullets start flying, Ponder regresses to what's natural to him, and his default settings are just not conducive to solid quarterback play at the NFL level.
Ponder apologists point to a lack of separation from Minnesota's pedestrian wide receiver group, but the "All-22" coaches film tells a different story. Time and time again, the opposition is sticking eight or even nine in the box to stop Peterson and Ponder has been unable or unwilling to take advantage of play-action. He simply doesn't have the confidence to grip it and rip it.
To his credit, Ponder refused to follow the Vikings' talking points designed to protect him.
"We've got good receivers, we've got good blocking up front. I've just got to do a better job to get the ball in their hands," Ponder said. "This team isn't one-dimensional. This offense isn't one-dimensional. We've shown that the past couple games, but we can throw the ball. We're going to figure it out and we're going to win in the air."
Things will be even tougher for Ponder this week since Harvin is in jeopardy of missing Sunday's game after severely spraining his ankle in Seattle.
Harvin hurt himself on a rushing attempt late in the third quarter but finished the contest although he was clearly hobbling throughout. The standout playmaker entered the Vikings' facility on crutches on Monday and told reporters the ankle was sprained in three different places. An MRI taken Monday confirmed a significant sprain, though Harvin did not sustain any fractures.
"I'm in a lot of pain," Harvin said. "There's a lot of swelling as of right now. My whole ankle, all the way around is swollen. So we've got a lot to work to do. It's a longshot (to play Sunday). But I'm not ruling myself out."
For the Lions, Stafford figures to eat up a Minnesota secondary without injured cornerback Chris Cook, especially if he gets any production from Leshoure in the backfield.
Leshoure ran for just 26 yards on 13 carries the first time these two teams met bit the Vikings defense has allowed a 100-yard rushing effort in four of their five games since.
"Defensively, our run defense doesn't resemble the type of run defense we're capable of playing," Frazier said. "We have to go back to the drawing board and come up with some ways to defend the run better than we're doing."
Any semblance of a running game should open up play action for the strong- armed Stafford.
Just as Ponder has fallen apart in recent weeks Stafford has heated up, reaching 10,000 career passing yards during a win over the Jags last Sunday. Stafford reached the mark in just 37 games, the second fastest in history to Kurt Warner, who did it in 36.
That trend figures to continue in this one.
"I think that whether it's the first game of the year or the ninth game of the year, whatever it is, when you're playing a division opponent it becomes more important because a win for you also puts a loss on them," Schwartz said. "The way (the Vikings) started the season, they put themselves in the picture. We can't worry about that. We need to worry about just this game."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 28, Vikings 13