Despite their team not finding its first win until Dec. 5 last season, the Detroit Lions fans and media have started to believe they have something going.
It’s been ages since Detroit had any real reason to be optimistic about the Lions, who were stuck in the basement of the NFC North for most of the past two decades. A few seasons of success like in 2014 and 2016 and some remarkable individual players like Calvin Johnson or Ndamukong Suh have all resulted in zero playoff wins and not much else for the past 20 years.
Even when the Minnesota Vikings find a new way to dash fans’ hopes, most Minnesota faithful have found comfort in saying, “Hey, at least we aren’t Lions fans.”
But is that still the case?
Last week I wrote a piece highlighting some of the major matchups in Minnesota’s first four weeks of the schedule, and some commenters found it odd that I skipped Detroit in Week 3. I’ll be honest, when looking at the blockbuster matchups in the first section of the schedule, the home game against the Lions seemed like an afterthought.
And that’s some dangerous hubris on my part, considering the Lions took the Vikings down to the wire in Week 5 last season, leading to some weird tension between Kirk and Mike Zimmer, and then handed Minnesota an embarrassing loss in Week 13.
Minnesota takes on the Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 3, and they visit Detroit for a rematch in Week 14. Dan Campbell’s kneecap biters proved to be a handful in 2021, but what should be made of them in 2022?
Can an exciting draft class build on the late-season momentum?
The Lions did not win many games in Year 1 of the Dan Campbell regime, but they played hard in most of them. The Lions had nine games decided by one score or less last season, which is not bad for a three-win team. They showed plenty of toughness late in the season and began to find some burgeoning stars on their roster in players like rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Detroit stayed relatively subdued in free agency, having identified a few building blocks to construct the roster around. Their biggest signing was former Jacksonville Jaguars receiver D.J. Chark, a player with excellent speed and good size who Detroit is hoping can solve some of their issues in the red zone.
Red-zone efficiency was a desperate need. Detroit ranked 31st in the league in red-zone touchdown efficiency with a desolate 46.67%. Settling for 28-yard field goals was basically their offensive identity last year.
Vikings fans are all too familiar with the other premier receiver Detroit picked up this offseason. After Kwesi Adofo-Mensah traded back from pick No. 12 to pick No. 32 for a song, the Lions selected Alabama field stretcher Jameson Williams. While he may begin the season on the sidelines as he recovers from a torn ACL in the National Championship game, Williams projects to be a menacing burner on the outside. That is, assuming Detroit can develop a deep passing attack to get him the ball.
But don’t let those offensive struggles overshadow the fact that the 2021 Lions were PFF’s worst defense in the league. Detroit was desperate for difference-makers on defense.
They found quite a few on draft weekend. The Lions started with premier pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson, who many pundits had tabbed as the No. 1 player in this draft. The Michigan product stays to play for the hometown team and could make an immediate impact this season. Hutchinson is a “bite your kneecaps” kind of player if ever there was one, and he plays with the toughness and tenacity of a Dan Campbell fever dream.
The Lions also found potential impact defenders in Kentucky edge Josh Paschal and Illinois safety Kerby Joseph. Both are intriguing prospects with physical upside who could find roles in the Detroit defense early in their careers.
Overall, the Lions draft has been anointed a major success by the draft-grading community. These grades aren’t worth much more than the average fan’s gut feeling, but there is bona fide reason that Detroit should feel optimistic here.
Is any of this enough to make Jared Goff successful?
A decent offensive line. Some shiny new receivers. A star tight end returning from injury and a defense that might have the Lions playing with a lead every once in a blue moon. Is this enough to revitalize Jared Goff’s career?
Goff’s disappointing first year with the Lions led some to speculate that they could draft a quarterback. But if you didn’t believe all the lip service in defense of Goff, the results on draft weekend should convince you. The Lions have made it abundantly clear they are all in on Jared Goff in 2022.
That may be more of a result of a lack of quality options in this draft class than a glowing endorsement on the former No. 1-overall pick, but the Lions are showing they are willing to be patient at the quarterback position regardless. They clearly see Goff as an adequate solution for at least one more season. Still, they may reevaluate next year with what they hope will be a more fruitful quarterback market to choose from.
Regarding 2022, though, Vikings fans should feel pretty confident. Goff has had bright spots in his NFL career, but it took having the Los Angeles Rams’ explosive offense and Sean McVay’s elite play-calling around him to bring that out. Even with Detroit’s additions this off-season, I don’t think their talent comes anywhere close to the 2018 Rams. And Goff’s been average at best and below mediocre at worst whenever his surrounding talent couldn’t carry the day.
An early-season trap game and a late-season road test
Sandwiched between two marquee matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints, Minnesota faces off against the Lions at home in Week 3. The Detroit game has the makings of a secure victory — or a potential trap game.
Minnesota is going to need to keep their eyes on the prize against their division rivals and not let the physical contest against Philly or their upcoming game against the Saints in London distract them from the feisty Lions. Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw will get an early look at a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in Aidan Hutchinson. Keeping Cousins upright and confident will likely be the key to this game.
Luckily, we will likely have some extra time before we can judge whether Adofo-Mensah made a mistake by gift-wrapping Jameson Williams to his division rivals. Williams will be recovering from his torn ACL to start the season and is unlikely to be anywhere near 100% by Week 3. Lions GM Brad Holmes has been optimistic about Williams playing in Year 1 but has been honest about how he’s unlikely to contribute right away.
Still, Minnesota could see Williams in the Week 14 rematch. Many of the other young pieces Detroit is counting on to contribute could be much more developed by then. The Vikings’ secondary will have had time to find their stride by that point in the season, and they’ll need to keep a lid on the Alabama speedster, or fans will be calling for Kwesi’s head in his first year.
By all measures, Detroit is an improving football team that seems to be well-coached and built by a quality front office. While they likely still have a long way to go, we should treat them as more than an afterthought.
However, their immediate success will be tethered to Jared Goff. The seventh-year quarterback has shown that he’s capable of playing in a Super Bowl or going 3-13-1, depending on the talent around him. And even with an improved roster around the QB, Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth shouldn’t be losing sleep just yet over Detroit’s passing attack.
Minnesota should be favored to win both matchups. And if this team is going to improve in Kevin O’Connell’s first year, matchups like these are must-win games. We’ll see if Minnesota can develop the right attitude to seize that opportunity.