In Week 14 of last year, the Vikings defense held the Lions to -4 rushing yards in a game. Of course, the Lions only ran the ball ten times, opting, like pretty much every other team, to attack the Purple through the air. They’re likely to continue that pass first strategy on Sunday, considering they’ve added Calvin Johnson to a potent air attack.
Luckily for the Vikings, they’ve improved their pass defense, specifically their pass rush. They turned in a -52.9% DVOA against the pass in Week 1, the 7th best VOA total. This was a vast improvement over their below average DVOA of 3.7% in 2006. Not all that surprising, given their six sacks and two interceptions. [Note: The 2007 numbers have not been adjusted for opponent, while the 2006 numbers have.]
The Lions’ air attack was also improved in Week 1, with a 17.3% VOA, 9th best in the league. That was much better than the -.02% DVOA in 2006. Aside from getting to play a porous pass defense, there were a few other reasons for the improvement. The Lions’ negative pass play percentage dropped from 12.9% to 10.52%. They also gave up half as many sacks as their 2006 average, only giving up two to the Raiders. While that doesn’t sound great, it’s much better than the 3.94 per game they averaged last year. The Raiders anemic pass rush probably had a lot to do with it, as the Lions only addition on the line was Edwin Mulitalo at left guard. Mulitalo started four games for the Ravens in 2006 before losing his job in Week 5. He’s not exactly a Steve Hutchinson like addition, to say the least.
The Lions offense also benefited from what seems to be a much improved rushing game, with Tatum Bell going for 87 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. In fact, they had the NFL’s best rushing VOA at 38.6%. Of course, there was nowhere for them to go but up, as they finished with an NFL worst -24.7% DVOA when rushing the ball, but going from worst to first is still surprising. Also, their 5.14 yards per carry was the sixth best in Week 1. The Raiders weren’t that bad against the run last year either, allowing the 11th least YPC (3.96) and a -1.6% DVOA against the run, the 16th best total.
Statistics with small sample sizes can do funny things. In this case, they show a Lions offense that’s amongst the best in the NFL at running the ball while still featuring a potent air attack. The thing is, the Vikings defense is still quite capable of stopping the run, as they clamped down on a Falcons team that was the best in the league last year at running the ball. And the Purple also discovered a pass rush, something they’ll continue to display against a Lions offensive line that gives up sacks like they’re good things. Look for the defense to spend a lot of time in the backfield with Jon Kitna on Sunday. If the Vikings create fewer than two turnovers, I’ll be shocked.
[All stats in this post are from Football Outsiders and Cold, Hard Football Facts]