The Minnesota Vikings have a losing record in Mike Zimmer’s tenure against one of their three NFC North rivals — and no, it’s not the Green Bay Packers.
The Detroit Lions have been a trickier challenge for Zimmer since 2014, beating the Vikings three out of four times on their home field and winning five out of eight total. Zimmer has a 4-4-1 record against the Packers.
If there’s a generalization to make about Detroit, it’s that they’ve never had a credible run game, but that might be changing this season. Meanwhile, their rush defense — at least by the overall numbers — has struggled, though the Vikings would have you believe differently.
Let’s look at some of the key characters that will influence Detroit’s rushing offense and defense at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.
From Jahvid Best to Mikel Leshoure to Ameer Abdullah, the Lions have taken a number of running backs highly in recent drafts who’ve failed to turn into the franchise’s first star back since Barry Sanders. Second-round pick Kerryon Johnson’s first seven games have been enough to excite Lions faithful into believing they’ve finally found the man.
Johnson is third in football with 6.1 yards per carry, trailing only Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb. In Week 3, he became the first Detroit rusher with 100 or more yards in a game since 2013 — a 70-game drought — and he backed it up with a 158-yard performance in Week 7.
“He’s come in, he really has good vision,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Can catch, ability to run inside and outside, ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.”
Johnson, out of Auburn, has 21 catches for 158 yards, gaining a career-high 69 receiving yards in last Sunday’s loss against Seattle. As a runner, he ranks ninth in the league in yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus, providing a unique blend of power and elusiveness.
Head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive end Everson Griffen both emphasized the Lions’ preference to get Johnson in space on the outside. As you can see below, Johnson had the most consistent success in his 158-yard performance when he got outside the tackles. “Our job is to just line with the guy in front of you,” said Griffen, “and if have outside containment you got outside containment. Don’t think too much more about it and just do your job.’’
It’s possible the Lions have a player on the offensive line who the Vikings coveted in the draft in Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow, who was taken 20th overall. But they’re also getting help from former Packers guard T.J. Lang, who signed a three-year deal in Detroit before the 2017 season.
“He looks healthy again,” Zimmer said of Lang, who dealt with hip, back, foot and concussion issues last year and battled another concussion in October.
Lang ranks 12th amongst guards in offensive rating, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think he looks like he’s getting back to his form,” said Edwards. “He really has been good in there. Solid getting movement on the run. He’s been doing a good job in protection. Really across the board, you look at their offensive line from their tackles to their guards. They really do a great job of understanding what they are trying to get accomplished.”
Detroit’s rushing offense, which finished dead last a year ago, is up to 16th in the league. They feature two first-round picks with Ragnow and Taylor Decker on the left side and veterans at the other three spots.
“They’re actually doing good,” said Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. “[They’ve made] a few key changes here and there, but something we’ve got to make adjustments to.”
Damon Harrison, the newest member of the Lions defensive line, had quite a debut last Sunday as he made a season-high seven tackles and recorded his first sack of the season against the Seahawks.
The Lions gave up a fifth-round pick to bring in Harrison, the 29-year-old defensive tackle, to shore up a run-stopping unit that had been susceptible to big plays. Detroit has allowed 22 run plays of 10 yards or more and tied for a league-high four plays over 40 yards.
Harrison could be a solution to plugging those holes.
“He is a heck of a player,” said Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. “Obviously, being in Philadelphia the last two years and him in New York, he is a load there in the middle to move. For as big as he is, he is a darn good athlete. We are going to have to do a good job of trying to move him and getting to the second level.”
At 355 pounds, Harrison is the second heaviest player in the league behind New England’s Trent Brown, one of just four players listed over 350 pounds. He has the third-highest run-stop percentage of interior defenders, per Pro Football Focus.
Zimmer thinks the numbers are deceiving on the Lions rush defense, which is second-last in the league with 144.6 yards per game allowed.
“They’re very stout and physical,” said Zimmer. “They’ve given up some runs, but there’s a lot of no-gainers in there, too. They’re very physical in there, and we’re going to have to stick with it, going to have to keep pounding and keep fighting, stay on blocks because these guys are big, physical players, linebackers are getting downhill.”
The Vikings have improved in the run game of late but still rank 29th leaguewide. The last time they faced a low-ranking rush defense, though, they gashed the Arizona Cardinals for nearly 200 yards.
Dalvin Cook (hamstring) may return from over a month layoff to take on the team against whom he tore his ACL in 2017. In Harrison, he’ll have another obstacle in his way.