For 3 painfully long weeks the entire National Football League and every fan therein suffered through what was quickly becoming a culture of bad officiating. The now infamous “replacement refs” came from all walks of professional officiating. The best examples were from Division III college circuits; games that are decidedly slower than even Division I, much less the NFL. The worst examples came from the high school level and, at the absolute worst, the NFL was using one referee that was identified by the commissioner of the Lingerie Football League, who said he had fired for “incompetence”. Then there was the guy who was outed as a New Orleans Saints fan and thus removed from officiating a Saints game. It makes you wonder if either of those end zone refs from last Monday’s debacle in Seattle were actually Seahawk fans.
This story has dominated the first 3 weeks of the season to the point where no one has talked much about Jamaal Charles, who leads the league in rushing yards with 323 (and he splits carries with Peyton Hillis). You haven’t heard much about Clay Matthews already having 6 sacks through his first 3 games. Nope, it’s been all about the refs; but now the refs are back. Now, we get to see the refs get back to doing what they do. To that point, this game between division rivals looks to be a focal point for the referees to re-establish their control of the game.
These are the 3 players to watch in this underrated divisional rivalry.
HB MIKEL LESHOURE
Lions fans finally got to see Mikel Leshoure in action last Sunday after over a year of delay. The potential franchise back (emphasis on potential) tore his Achilles tendon in August of last year and missed his entire rookie season. Following two marijuana-related thefts last Spring he was suspended for the first two games of this season. His debut against the Tennessee Titans in week 3 was pretty impressive for a guy who has seen very little actual work on the field in over a year.
Leshoure rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries against the Titans and was clearly Detroit’s featured back. He was steady the entire game and contributed a touchdown of his own in the 41-44 loss. The Vikings have a great run defense and Leshoure will be tested every time he touches the ball. If he can repeat his consistent performance against the Titans at home against Minnesota then the Lions will have a much better shot at winning this game (of which most expect them to win anyway).
If he can’t get it going then head coach Jim Schwartz will have no choice but to platoon Kevin Smith with Joique Bell. In such an event Matthew Stafford, or whoever replaces him due to injury, will have serious trouble which could allow Minnesota QB Christian Ponder to take advantage.
QB CHRISTIAN PONDER
Minnesota’s 1st round pick and would-be franchise quarterback certainly had a rocky rookie campaign. He wasn’t tabbed to start until midseason and finished the year injured and with a stat line of 13 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 54.3% completion percentage, and a fantastically-mediocre 70.4 QB rating. But that was then, and this is now.
Ponder isn’t a rookie anymore and he is beginning to play like the Vikings hoped he would when they made him the 4th quarterback taken in the 2011 draft. He appears to be getting better and better every week, having already passed for 713 yards and throwing zero picks. That’s an average of 237.7 passing yards per game with a 104.9 QB rating. Toss in the fact that he’s going up against a Lions defense that has surrendered an average of 276.3 passing yards per game and an upset could very well be in the making. If Leshoure falters then the pressure will be put squarely on the quarterback, be it a brittle Matthew Stafford or his would-be replacement Shaun Hill.
Having beaten the mighty-but-breakable San Francisco 49ers last Sunday, Ponder might very well continue his steady rise, and if he does then Detroit will have to neutralize his effectiveness by exploiting his inexperience. That responsibility will fall on Detroit’s defensive line; one of the best units in the league.
DT NDAMUKONG SUH
The referees are going to love officiating this Lions crew after three weeks of virtually unchecked anarchy. Ndamukong Suh leads a defense that has made a name of itself over the last few years as a brutally suppressive task force. Suh doesn’t just hit you, he grabs you so that you can’t move and then he takes you down. He looks to hurt his opponent just as much as any fierce guardian of the last 30 years.
From Dick Butkus to Bruce Smith to Ray Lewis… Ndamukong Suh is a force to be reckoned with. And, at times, he can lose his grip on that force and shove a scrambling Jay Cutler to the ground with immense force. Other times he will do something completely out of line and stomp on an offensive lineman’s helmet as he lies on the ground. He can lose it and get ejected, and he can lose his focus sometimes and therefore lose his edge.
But if Suh, along with DT Nick Fairley, can stuff the middle (and there is no reason to think that they can’t going up against a Minnesota offensive line that is allowing over 3 sacks per game) then Christian Ponder can and will be neutralized. The biggest problem with the Minnesota Vikings is that their best player is their halfback, but just like the St. Louis Rams, this doesn’t result in much success because the quarterback struggles for most of the game. In these types of situations the one-dimensional offense will lose every time, and you can bet that Ndamukong Suh is licking his chops at the prospect of stunting Christian Ponder’s steady rise in the NFC North.
Contrary to popular belief, this game could be a contender for Game Of The Week.