With a 3-4 record, the Detroit Lions are still in the thick of the NFC North race, just a game out of first place. But they will go into Sunday’s pivotal road game against the Minnesota Vikings (4-3-1) without their top receiver.
The Lions traded Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday, but head coach Matt Patricia said that does not signal that the Lions are giving up on the here and now.
“I think the biggest point is for me to make sure everybody understands this also shows a lot of confidence in the people that are in that room,” Patricia said. “There’s great players in that room, and there’s a lot of them, and there’s a lot of guys that have opportunity to make plays and go out there and play at a high level. And we’re all good with that from that standpoint.”
Tate led the Lions in receptions in each of his four seasons in Detroit, and with 44 catches in seven games this year, he was on pace for a career-high in the category.
But the Lions opted to part with Tate, who becomes a free agent after the season.
“I was surprised about that,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said of the Tate trade. “He was their main guy on third downs. He was great, yards after the catch. One of the best, probably the No. 1 with the YAC yards. Yeah, I was pretty surprised by that. It was one of those situations where you were like, ‘Oh, let me check my phone.'”
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford still has Marvin Jones Jr. to throw to, but Tate’s place will be taken by TJ Jones and Brandon Powell, who have combined for three catches this season.
The Lions might have to rely more on rookie running back Kerryon Johnson, who leads the team in rushing with 466 yards and an impressive average of 6.1 yards per carry. He had a season-high 158 rushing yards in a 32-21 victory over the Dolphins two weeks ago, but had just 22 rushing yards on eight carries last week in a 28-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Yards will be hard to come by against the Vikings, who rank fifth in the NFL in rushing defense and allow just 3.7 yards per rushing attempt.
New Orleans Saints running backs Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara combined for 108 rushing yards against the Vikings last week, in the Saints’ 30-20 victory, but two Minnesota turnovers were a bigger factor in that outcome.
One of those turnovers was an interception thrown by quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has thrown 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.
The other Vikings turnover against New Orleans was committed by wide receiver Adam Thielen, one of the league’s best wide receivers. He is second in the NFL in receiving yards per game (115.6) and tied Calvin Johnson’s NFL record with his eighth straight 100-yard receiving game last week.
It probably will be up to Lions cornerback Darius Slay to cover Thielen, and Slay knows the Lions need to force more turnovers.
The Lions have just two interceptions and forced just six total turnovers. Only one team, the San Francisco 49ers, has forced fewer turnovers than that.
“Rough out there, isn’t it?” Slay said. “It’s rough. I don’t know, man. We got to put it together, find a way. We just got to contribute more, we got to find a way to get the ball back to the offense. The more time we got the ball in our hands, the better we got a chance to win it.”
Cousins does not want to add to the Lions’ takeaway total. He has thrown just four interceptions this season, and he knows how important Sunday’s game is with all four division teams packed tightly.
“It’s a good division,” Cousins said. “I think anybody can win it. I think it’s filled with good quarterback play. It’s filled with good defenses with pass rushers. It’s the way I envisioned the NFC North being. I think the margin for error is very small in most all divisions and I think our division is no different. I’m sure it could come down to the last couple weeks of the season.”
The Vikings’ next three games are against division foes, and that stretch may determine their fate.
“Big division game this week,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Excited to get back out there and continue to improve, try to get better. I feel good about this team. We just have to do a little bit better job finishing.”
The Lions have two key injury issues.
Defensive Ziggy Ansah has missed six straight games with a shoulder injury, and he is questionable to return this weekend.
Running Back Dalvin Cook has played just three games this season because of a hamstring injury, but he practiced on a limited basis this week and might be ready to return against the Lions.
The Lions have won three of the last four games against the Vikings, with one memorable meeting coming at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, when Stafford drove the Lions 35 yards in 23 seconds without a timeout for the game-tying 58-yard field goal, then found Tate for the game-winning touchdown pass on the first drive of overtime.
Cousins knows a loss Sunday would make things difficult for the Vikings, who had hopes of reaching the Super Bowl after acquiring Cousins in free agency.
“I just want to beat the Lions and get back on track,” Cousins said. “And we do feel that with eight games and a lot of divisional opponents that we can put ourselves in a very good position to not be disappointed at the end of this regular season.”