In this week’s edition of “Behind Enemy Lines,” we reached out once again to Josh Katzenstein, who covers the Lions for the Detroit News. the Wayzata native and University of Minnesota alumnus answered five questions about the second, and final, matchup between the Vikings and Lions this season at Ford Field on Sunday.
1. The Lions defense has maintained its top-two status in the NFL since the last time they faced the Vikings. What’s been the biggest reason for consistency this late in the season?
JK: As it was against the Vikings, the Lions’ defensive line has been the catalyst for the group’s success this year, and the line’s ability to shut down the run forces nearly every offense to be one-dimensional. Ndamukong Suh deserves most of the credit for the domination up front. Suh’s stats are solid for a defensive tackle — 5 1/2 sacks, 34 tackles, 12 for loss — but he creates so many opportunities for other players because offenses have no choice but to double team him. If they don’t, Suh can single-handedly ruin a play. The defense also has consistent contributions from the second and third levels, too, as linebacker DeAndre Levy and free safety Glover Quin are in the midst of Pro-Bowl-level seasons. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin also deserves plenty of credit as his ability to disguise blitzes and coverages makes things difficult for opponents.
2. How has defense end Ezekiel Ansah looked since recording a career-high 2.5 sacks against left tackle Matt Kalil?
JK: Ansah’s performance against the Vikings started what’s been a really strong past two months. Before the win in Minnesota, Ansah had just one sack and two tackles for loss the first five games. Including the Vikings game, he’s had 6 1/2 sacks and six tackles for loss in the past eight games. Ansah has taken advantage of many one-on-one opportunities and seems to improve every week because he’s still learning the game. He also flashes his athletic ability a few times per game by making plays downfield. On Sunday, his performance against Kalil should be a big determinant of how successful the pass rush can be.
3. Where has quarterback Matthew Stafford improved and regressed the most this season?
JK: This is a tough question because Stafford hasn’t really improved or regressed this season. He still struggles progressing through his reads and makes some errant throws each game, but he can create plenty of plays with his strong arm. His biggest improvement has been protecting the ball as he has just 10 interceptions after throwing 19 last year. The area in which he’s regressed the most is waiting too long for plays to develop, which has led to a career-high in sacks. The problem is the Lions don’t know exactly what they’ll get from Stafford week to week. He’s been excellent the past two games, completing better than 75 percent of passes against the Buccaneers and Bears. But before that, the Lions went two straight games without a touchdown. How he plays against a solid Vikings defense should provide a better idea of whether the last two games were an anomaly or legitimate.
4. Who will the Lions use at running back and what will the rotation look like?
Joique Bell has been the Lions’ best between-the-tackles running back all year, and he should continue to be the workhorse even with Reggie Bush back. Bell is coming off his best two games of the season with 91 yards against Chicago and 83 yards against Tampa Bay, and the Lions should continue to feature him as a runner. Bush will have opportunities as a receiver and will get some handoffs, too, but the Lions would be wise to give Theo Riddick opportunities. Riddick torched the Vikings for 75 receiving yards and is averaging 10.1 yards per reception compared to Bush’s 5.9. But Riddick didn’t play a snap last week, so the Lions will likely give Bush the first opportunity behind Bell.
5. What do the Lions need to do to win this game?
JK: The Lions defense should be able to limit the Vikings offense because it will eliminate the run game early, forcing Teddy Bridgewater to carry the team. And he doesn’t have the weapons to beat what’s been a solid Lions secondary for most of the year. The key for the Lions will be on offense, specifically up front. If the line can free Bell and give Stafford enough time to find Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, the Lions should win. Johnson’s return has given the offense a lift, and as long as the Lions win the turnover battle, they should keep pace in the playoff race.
By all accounts, former Wisconsin assistant Paul Chryst is on the verge of returning to the school as the head football coach, quickly filling a vacancy that opened earlier this week when two-year coach Gary Andersen bolted for Oregon State.
But before Barry Alvarez makes a hasty decision, we wanted to suggest one other candidate: Us.
We were browsing the official application for the Wisconsin head coaching job, and it sounds as though we could be — as Alvarez calls it — a good fit.
Here are some of the highlights:
Bachelor’s degree required. Boom! University of Minnesota, Class of 1999, five great years. Keeping it in the Big Ten.
Minimum of 5 years of successful collegiate football coaching experience preferred. Division I head coaching experience is also preferred.Division I head coaching experience is also preferred. Preferred, yes, but not required. That’s fair, and that doesn’t take us out of the running. It seems as though Alvarez and Wisconsin know that it’s not fair to exclude newbies. How can you become a college football coach if you’ve never had experience … but how can you get experience if you’ve never been a college football coach? Chicken and egg.
Other qualifications include the ability to work cooperatively with diverse groups and administrators, faculty, staff and students. If the Star Tribune newsroom hasn’t prepared us for this, it hasn’t prepared us for anything.
The successful applicant must be able to develop and implement innovative approaches and solutions; work well independently and in teams; and be flexible in accepting new responsibilities. We’re not sure if Alvarez read yesterday’s guest post, but this blog has been around for eight years now. Innovative? You bet. Do we work independently? Sure! Do we collaborate? Of course! New responsibilities? Always adding something new! And that’s just a fraction of what we do at work.
Conditions of Appointment:
This is a Limited appointment. Salary will be assigned within the appropriate range, commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience. An excellent benefits packageis also included. Anticipated start date on or after December 17, 2014.
We’re totally flexible here, and we can assure you that the staff we would assemble — mostly RandBall commenters, lets be honest — won’t grouse about salaries. A full 60 percent would probably work for beer and chicken wings. One guy for sure would work solely for Replacements bootlegs. We have a vacation planned during national signing day, but we’d be willing to fly in for the news conference if necessary.
In any event, we hope Alvarez will give it some thought before rushing into anything with Chryst. He’s a fine candidate, but we’re not sure what he brings to the table that we don’t.
Kyle Rudolph has been back in the lineup for four weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery in late September. It’s obvious — and understandable — that he hasn’t been the same guy we saw back in training camp, when the slimmed-down fourth-year tight end seemed primed for a big year.
Rudolph returned in Week 11 and was held without a catch as he played limited snaps. His usage is back to where it was pre-injury, but he has just seven catches for 66 yards and a touchdown since.
Offensive coordinator Norv Turner said today that Rudolph hasn’t regained the explosiveness and the quickness — “the things we got so excited about going into training camp,” as he put it — from this summer and Turner doesn’t think Rudolph will be able to get it back until 2015.
“I don’t think he’ll be all the way back until we get into camp next year,” he said. “When you have that type of procedure, I think it takes a while to recover. He’s working hard at it and he’s a competitive guy. But he doesn’t have the same quickness or burst that he had when we broke camp. And to me, when you have that procedure, it takes a while to get it. He’s still playing at less than 100 percent.”
Which begs the question: If Rudolph is still limited, why don’t the Vikings use Chase Ford more?
Rudolph, of course, is the long-term answer at the position. But Ford was starting to come on strong with 11 catches for 127 yard and a touchdown in the two games before Rudolph made his return.
“We’d like to,” Turner said. “He’s a good receiver and he did some good things. I don’t know, we’ve got some things where he’s going to be involved, hopefully we can get to him. We’ve had things each week where he’s involved and sometimes you’re able to get to him and sometimes you aren’t.”
Left tackle Matt Kalil is preparing to face the Lions for a second time this season. The first time, to put it politely, did not go so well for Kalil. But he feels he has been playing better of late.
“It’s been going well,” Kalil said. “Obviously it’s been a battle for me but I’m a competitor and I’m going to fight through any adversity that I face. I think for the most part, the second half of the season I thought I’ve been playing a little bit better. Obviously, there are little plays you give up here and there, and they’re going to be blown out of proportion. I’m under the microscope.”
Was one of the plays that has been blown out of proportion, Matt Kalil, the sack that Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson recorded that resulted in safety? On that play, the Jets ran a stunt and Richardson came free to smother rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the two-pointer.
“They just ran a good game. They got us on a good one,” Kalil replied. “It’s not like we got beat straight up. They ran a defensive-line stunt. We just didn’t connect on it and switch it off the right way. They’re a top-five defense. They’re not bad at what they do.”
To be fair to Kalil, that was the first sack he had allowed in three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. But Kalil hasn’t had to deal with a top-flight edge rusher like the one he’ll face again Sunday.
Ansah racked up two and a half sacks back in Week 6, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his troubles. It was arguably Kalil’s poorest performance of the season.
So what does Kalil do with all the unpleasant game tape from that Lions win? He says he focuses more on the bad positions he put himself in, and less so the things that Ansah did to exploit them.
“Usually if I set the right way and my technique is pretty solid for that play, I should be fine,” he said.
But Kalil does know he must figure out how to handle Ansah, who has only played organized football for a few years, because he’s going to see him twice a year as long as he is with the Vikings.
“He’s a really big guy, obviously,” Kalil said. “He’s got really long arms. He kind of reminds me of Aldon Smith from San Francisco. They’re pretty similar. And [Ansah is] still pretty raw. He’s got a lot of potential, so I’ll be playing against him for a while. … I definitely got my hands full.”
Cordarrelle Patterson has gone two games without a catch, and after playing just three offensive snaps in the Week 13 win over the Panthers, the wide receiver got just one Sunday against the Jets.
But Patterson says his bond with coach Mike Zimmer has strengthened the past two weeks.
“Me and Coach Zimmer, we had a little heart-to-heart talk this morning,” Patterson said today. “He kept it real with me and I told him how I feel, so just talking to him, I believe in everything he says. I stand behind him and Coach Turner. I respect everything they’re doing. Getting that talk out of the way, it makes have a little less pressure on me. It makes me feel good to go in there and talk to him.”
Patterson said both Zimmer and he initiated the conversation, but wouldn’t say what was said.
“That’s nothing that any of y’all should know,” Patterson said. “Whatever me and Coach Zimmer talk about, that stays between us. That’s how I feel like it should be and that’s how it’s going to be.”
The verbal volleyball that Patterson and Zimmer have played over the past couple of weeks has been interesting. It started after the Panthers game, when Patterson expressed confusion about his limited role on offense. That prompted both Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner to tell us that Patterson missed a pair of practices due to a funeral, leading to a reduced role that game.
Turner then confirmed last week that Charles Johnson had officially overtaken Patterson as the starter at the split-end position, and Johnson had another strong receiving game against the Jets.
Zimmer, meanwhile, has publicly pumped up Patterson whenever asked about the second-year wide receiver — and he gets asked about him seemingly every day. Yesterday was no exception.
“I want this guy to be a great player. I really do. I want him to be a great player,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know when it’ll happen and I’m hoping like crazy it does because I want him to be a great player.”
It is unclear if Zimmer relayed that positive message to Patterson this morning. But whatever Zimmer said seemed to put Patterson, who has just 30 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown this season, in pretty good spirits for a guy who has played just four offensive snaps the past two weeks.
“I feel like our chemistry throughout the past couple of weeks, it’s just been gaining each week and every day,” Patterson said. “Just trying to talk to him, tell him how I feel. He always tells me to just keep it straight up with him, and that’s what I’ll do. And I know he is going to keep it real with me.”