For the last ten years and change, the Vikings have almost always been able to prepare to face the same two quarterbacks four times per season.
In Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers has started 21 of 23 games against the Vikings since 2008, missing starts in 2013 and 2017 due to injury.
A less publicized rivalry is the one between the Vikings and Lions, who meet in Detroit this Sunday. Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, has started 16 straight games against the Vikings since being hurt for both meetings in 2010.
When separating Stafford's performances against the Vikings into pre-Mike Zimmer and since Zimmer was hired, an interesting trend emerges: despite Stafford's statistics getting noticeably worse since 2014, his record against the Vikings has improved.
Stafford began his career 3-5 against the Vikings, but has split the ten games since Zimmer took over, and that's only because the Vikings have won three straight. He has mostly functioned as a game manager in those five wins, averaging under 200 passing yards per game.
This year, however, Stafford has been aggressive in throwing the ball down the field and will present a serious challenge for the Vikings secondary. He leads the NFL with 8.1 air yards per completion, which is a major change from the last few years; his 4.7 air yards per completion last season was fourth-worst in the league.
"I think Stafford's playing outstanding," Zimmer said. "Maybe the best I've ever seen him."
Part of that can be attributed to new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was with the Vikings from 2006 to 2010 and the Seahawks from 2011 through 2017. Bevell has come in and re-shaped the Lions offense, implementing more play-action and re-focusing on the running game while taking more shots deep down the field.
Although he's off to a slow start to this season, running back Kerryon Johnson had an outstanding rookie year and must be accounted for by defenses. Even with Johnson's numbers not being great thus far, the Lions haven't strayed from their commitment to running the football.
"(Their offense is) a lot different than it was last year," said Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards. "It seems like they have had a lot of success because there’s balance. They’ve been able to run the ball now and the play actions off of it. I think that’s been a big plus for (Stafford)."
On each of their first two drives against the Packers last Monday, the Lions took – and hit – a deep shot down the field. Both plays involved some form of a run-fake.
A big reason why the Lions have been able to throw the ball deeper downfield is that they have the weapons to do so. Kenny Golladay had a breakout year in 2018, and has continued to improve in his third season. Marvin Jones is a veteran deep threat who has seen his average yards per target go up this year. Marvin Hall, shown in the second clip above, is another speedy weapon.
Newcomers TJ Hockenson – a 6'5" rookie tight end – and Danny Amendola both had huge games in the season-opening tie against the Cardinals.
With better weapons than he has had since perhaps the days of Calvin Johnson, Stafford has become much more aggressive this year. He's throwing 23.7 percent of his passes into tight windows, third-most in the NFL, partially because of the ability of guys like Golladay and Jones to make contested catches.
"They’re exceptional outside to the receivers," Edwards said. "Guys are competing up at the top, making big plays for him down the field."
The Lions' success in the passing game all comes back to the improved play of Stafford. He's averaging a career-best 8 yards per attempt, and has thrown 9 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions so far.
“He’s sharp with the ball," Zimmer said. "He’s getting the ball out, he’s throwing into tight windows. All the things that good quarterbacks do. He’s throwing the deep ball well, he’s throwing the intermediate ball well. He just looks good to me.”
Throughout his career, Stafford has been known for toughness – he has started 133 consecutive games, third-most among active QBs – and his ability to lead game-winning drives. Both Zimmer and Edwards praised Stafford's competitiveness and expressed concern about his scrambling ability.
"Even when he gets hit, he comes back the next play and he’s going," Zimmer said.
Edwards also noted that Bevell's offense incorporates plenty of passes to running backs. Johnson has 9 catches for 126 yards, an average of 14 yards per catch.
"Whether it’s throwing it down the field or throwing it to the outlet of the running backs, the screen game that they run with it, they have a lot of outlets for (Stafford) and he’s doing a good job of reading what the defense is giving him and getting the ball out," Edwards said.
Applying pressure on Stafford could be a difference-maker. The Vikings sacked him 10 times in one of their victories last season, and it takes time for deep routes to develop downfield.
If Zimmer and the Vikings can find a way to replicate their past success against Stafford, they should be able to leave Ford Field with a victory. Aided by a new offensive system and surrounded by playmakers, the 2019 version of Stafford won't make it easy.