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Lions Hoping To Protect Stafford From His Fiercest Abusers - But It Won't Be Easy

By: Will Burchfield

The last time Matthew Stafford faced the Minnesota Vikings, he was pounded so hard he needed X-rays after the game. The time before that, too.

"Yeah, I had a couple tough shots last year when we played them," Stafford recalled. "But that's NFL football."

The Vikings will be after Stafford again on Sunday, when the Lions travel to Minnesota for a crucial NFC North clash. He's hoping improved play on the offensive line can help limit the Vikings' vaunted pass rush.

"That's what they're known for, it's what they're really good at. The last two times we played these guys we were a little different schematically than we are now. We'll be able to take a look at them this week, study them hard and work to try and find solutions that will fit us," Stafford said.

In the Lions' most recent game against the Vikings, a 28-19 loss in Week 7 of 2015, Stafford absorbed seven sacks and 13 hits. Midway through the game, the training staff had to wrap up the quarterback's battered left hand. Stafford played through the pain, as he always does, but it was an assault he won't soon forget.

Or maybe not.

"Just trying to win games. I don't remember, obviously it's more fun when you get hit less, but it's part of football," he said. "Those kinds of games are going to happen."

True – but they've happened against Minnesota with alarming frequency for Stafford. He's been sacked by the Vikings 39 times in 12 career games, far more than by any other opponent. But he won't prepare any differently based on the past.

"You're trying to go into every week and play a clean game, and get out of it without being knocked around too much. But every game plays out differently and you've got to step up and make the plays that need to be made," Stafford said.

The division-leading Vikings enter Sunday's game allowing the fewest points per game (14.9) and second-fewest yards per game (297.1) in the NFL. They are holding opposing quarterbacks to a 68.1 passer rating and have racked up 20 sacks through seven games.

For Stafford, those numbers might sound familiar.

"I think every time I've played them last, two, three years really, they've been a top-flight defense. Not only because they have really good players, but they have a really good scheme and guys that are smart and communicate, and fit in that scheme."

The Vikings have four players – Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison – with at least three sacks or more. Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter knows Minnesota's pass rush will be a tough one to stop.

"There's a disguise element to it. Sometimes things all look the same before the ball is snapped and then any number of defenders can blitz, can rush, can drop. It's really complex from that standpoint. They basically have every possible variation of who can blitz which makes it difficult on offense. It's a little more comfortable when you feel really good about who they're blitzing or what they're blitzing or when they're blitzing," Cooter said.

Continuity on Minnesota's roster, particularly on defense, has allowed the Vikings to master a complex defensive system.

"You don't see very often where you have that number of guys that have played together for the length of time that they've played. Guys have been around a while and they understand the scheme," said Jim Caldwell. "They create some problems for you.

"It's a pretty confusing package that they have and that's why they keep teams to very, very low scoring totals."

To Stafford's credit, he's put up solid career numbers against the Vikings, with an 18:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 90.6 passer rating. In his last five games versus Minnesota, during which he's been sacked 17 times, Stafford has thrown seven touchdowns to just one interception.

Vikings' safety Harrison Smith suggested part of the reason Minnesota has sacked Stafford so many times is because he's not afraid to get hit.

"I think that is a testament to Stafford's toughness," Smith said. "You never see him tap out of those games in the past and he's always standing in there delivering the ball. That's one thing that's always impressed us."

Stafford, of course, would prefer to avoid another beating – and another trip to the X-ray room. Cooter is confident the Lions' improved offensive line, buoyed by emerging left tackle Taylor Decker, can help facilitate that.

"It's a different scheme, we're doing different things," Cooter said. "Those guys got a phenomenal pass rush and a really complex blitz scheme, but we feel better about what we're doing schematically and we feel better about our guys up front."

"We'll see if our answers work." Caldwell said. "That's going to be key. Rather than talk about it, you better be able to do it."

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