It was more of the same for the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14’s loss at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions — everything except the end result. The NFC North leaders fell 34-23 to the suddenly resurgent divisional foe, as the Lions are winners of five of their past six. Kevin O’Connell‘s offense continues to get minimal production from its running game, recording an embarrassing season-low 22 yards on 17 carries. The Vikings have failed to reach 75 rushing yards in four of their past six games.
Could Sunday’s anemic performance on the ground be attributed to the Vikings’ offense being down two starters up front in left tackle Christian Darrisaw and center Garrett Bradbury? Possibly, but the past six weeks won’t allow for that excuse to be sufficient. To make matters worse, the Lions have one of the worst rushing defenses in all of football. Detroit is currently ranked 29th in allowing just five yards per carry.
Despite the recurring woes, Minnesota has proven capable of overcoming a nonexistent running game this season. Since we’re on the topic of losing the battle up front offensively, the pass protection wasn’t great either. Austin Schlottmann filled in for Bradbury at center and allowed a team-worst five pressures and an 11.1% pressure rate. And even though he’s performed well over the past few games, Ed Ingram reverted to his early-season struggles on Sunday. The rookie out of LSU surrendered four pressures, a sack, and an 8.9% pressure rate.
Similar to Minnesota’s ability to make do without its running game, Kirk Cousins has proven capable of maintaining high-level production while dealing with consistent pressure — and Sunday was no different. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins was under pressure on 36.4% of his dropbacks.
His production in those circumstances was as follows:
- 11 of 13
- 217 yards
- 118.8 passer rating
While it’s easy to point to the shortcomings up front in the run and pass game, that wasn’t why the Vikings fell to a divisional opponent for the first time this year.
Where do we begin with Donatell’s defense? If there’s one thing I’m fairly certain of, it’s that Minnesota’s defensive coordinator has a fan in KFAN’s Dan “Common Man” Cole. There aren’t too many people who support being historically good or biblically bad in sports (sports sports your whole life is sports) more than Common — and Donatell’s unit is quickly approaching the latter. And what better time for Common to shower Donatell with appreciation after the performance Minnesota’s defense put forth against his beloved Motor City Kitties?
All kidding aside, I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the Vikings allowed 400-plus yards for the fifth consecutive game — a first in franchise history. In what’s seemingly become a weekly occurrence this season, an opposing quarterback had one of — if not his best — day against the Vikings’ defense. Jared Goff shredded Minnesota to the tune of 330 yards, three touchdowns, and a 120.7 passer rating.
Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson didn’t stop there. Detroit ran the ball down Minnesota’s throat all day, totaling 134 yards and a score on 30 carries. Sunday marked the fifth time over the past six games where an opponent ran for 120-plus yards against the Vikings. Not to sound like a broken record, but the Vikings have proven capable of finding ways to pull out wins when the defense is giving up astronomical amounts of yardage — whether it be on the ground or through the air.
However, Minnesota’s struggles on third down did them in. On the surface, it doesn’t appear to be too bad. After all, holding an opponent to 7 of 15 on third down all day isn’t exactly an automatic check mark in the loss column. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s how the Lions converted their third downs.
If there’s one thing you can give Minnesota’s defense credit for on Sunday, it’s that they consistently forced the Lions into obvious passing situations on third-and-long. And with Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, and D.J. Wonnum able to pin their ears back and unapologetically get after the quarterback, this is precisely where the Vikings want to be on the defensive end.
Detroit was faced with nine different occurrences where they had seven-plus yards to gain to move the sticks on third down against the Vikings on Sunday. The Lions converted six first downs in those situations — and their final unsuccessful conversion came on a third-and-9 where Jamaal Williams simply carried the rock with one minute remaining on the clock and the Vikings out of timeouts. In reality, the Lions converted 75% of their third-and-seven-plusses against Minnesota’s defense.
This proved to be more costly than any of the other woes the Vikings had in Detroit.
Following a 42-yard gain on a fake punt during Detroit’s opening drive of the second half, the Lions were faced with a third-and-12 from Minnesota’s 19-yard line. Instead of forcing the Lions to bring their field goal unit onto the field with a stop, the Vikings gave up a 14-yard completion to Kalif Raymond. The Lions punched it in on the very next play to go up 21-7 after Josh Reynolds came down with the five-yard reception from Goff.
The Vikings’ offense responded on their next drive with a score of their own, bringing the score to 21-13 with just over two minutes to go in the third quarter. (I’ll let someone else nitpick O’Connell’s decision to go for two on this drive). After Goff drove Detroit’s offense down to Minnesota’s 27-yard line, the Lions were faced with yet another obvious passing situation on third-and-8 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. And, yet again, Minnesota’s defense couldn’t get off the field after Justin Jackson went for 12 yards on a reception. Two plays later, Jackson ran it in from 15 yards out, bringing the score to 28-13.
After the Lions forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal on its next time-preserving drive, they found themselves in a familiar position with a 12-point deficit with just over 10 minutes remaining. And the defense was staring at a three-and-out with the Lions facing a third-and-9 from their own 26-yard line. All year the Vikings have been getting these exact type of stops to help ignite their fourth-quarter comebacks. But instead, Goff found D.J. Chark for 11 yards to move the chains and keep Minnesota’s offense on the sidelines.
The Lions proceeded to drain six minutes off the clock. The drive would eventually result in a field goal, putting the Lions up 31-16 with a little over four minutes remaining.
Three-straight drives in the second half where the Vikings’ defense had the Lions exactly where they wanted in third-and-long resulted in 17 points for Detroit. If the defense can find a way to get a stop on each of those three critical situations, that literally takes 11 points off the scoreboard for the Lions.
The Vikings have won a handful of games this year with this exact recipe of being situational masters. It’s tough to get too upset over Minnesota’s defense failing to answer the call this time around after they’ve done it so often over the first few months of the season.
But those three situations are a reminder of what the bare minimum expectations are for this defense. It’s more than okay to be a bottom-feeder in yardage allowed — just as long as you can find a way to get stops in critical moments and get O’Connell’s offense back on the field.