If last week proved anything for Minnesota Vikings fans, it’s that the Minnesota faithful can’t have anything nice. Not in the past, not now, not ever (although hopefully, I’m wrong about that last one). For the sixth time this season, the Vikings lost because they got punched in the mouth and couldn’t get back up.
Obviously, it is much more nuanced than that. But the margin between wins and losses has been razor-thin for Minnesota this year. Instead of stumbling on the right side of fate, they’ve once again fallen behind the 8-ball in the NFC.
With the addition of another wild card team a year ago, though, the Vikings haven’t fallen too far back in the playoff pecking order. Tack on a game against the winless Detroit Lions, and things are looking bright in the Twin Cities. At least that’s what you’d hope. But it certainly isn’t that straightforward.
The truth of the matter is, the Lions aren’t nearly as bad as their record indicates. Much like the Vikings, Detroit has been on the precipice of winning, only to have games torn from under them at the last second. That includes giving up three game-winning field goals, including Justin Tucker’s NFL record-breaking 66-yard kick.
It’s another disappointing season if you’re a Lions fan, but they’ve had plenty to build on, including one of the best young offensive lines in football and an outstanding sophomore campaign from D’Andre Swift. They also have a capable backup in Jamaal Williams. Anthony Lynn, who led the top rushing offense in 2016 with the Buffalo Bills, has pioneered a devotion to the run as Detroit’s offensive coordinator.
The returns haven’t always been consistent, but Lynn’s scheme helped the Lions run for 229 yards on the ground three weeks ago and 168 yards against the Cleveland Browns’ top-10 rush defense two weeks ago.
“They’ve been running the ball very well the last three or four weeks,” said Vikings’ defensive coordinator Andre Patterson on Wednesday. “[The Vikings] know how tough a physical game was when we played them the first time, and it’s going to be that way this time.”
Minnesota’s defensive line will have to step up after sputtering last week. The Vikings allowed the San Francisco 49ers to rush for 208 yards, which allowed San Francisco to go on a seven-minute drive that should have iced the game if not for a missed field goal.
It was a problem last week, and it’s been a problem all season long. The Vikings have the third-worst rush defense in the entire NFL, allowing 134.4 rushing yards per game. Minnesota’s deficiencies in run defense not only help teams like San Francisco, who have had a dominant run attack ever since Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach, but also a team like Detroit. The Lions run a Shanahan-lite run scheme.
On paper, the Lions are a far inferior team. This season, Jared Goff has been the textbook definition of mediocre, and the young defense has been porous. But when you let a team like Detroit establish the run, it changes the entire game.
Success in the trenches is a barometer for the overall momentum of a football game. As we’ve seen this season, it can be the difference. Not only does it give teams confidence, but it keeps the opposing offense off the field.
Regardless of Mike Zimmer’s history in this league, the Vikings aren’t a good defensive team. They’ve got enough guys to keep Minnesota in games and make some big plays, but it’s certainly not the foundation of this team.
All the Vikings’ weapons on offense make Minnesota a dangerous football team to play, which means the ball must be in their hands to win.
It should be noted that Detroit will be without Swift this weekend, but Williams is amongst the most capable backup running backs in the league. Detroit is a young team with a lot of holes in its game. Offensively, though, the Lions can run the ball.
That’s the recipe for success if you’re Detroit. Goff isn’t going to beat anyone, and neither is an inexperienced receiving core. But this is a team that has nothing to lose, and running the ball could be the key to success.
Detroit has always been a trap game for successful Vikings teams, but that was in large part due to the play of Matthew Stafford. This year the story is different, but the impending threat remains the same.
“If we don’t play well on Sunday, they will beat us,” said Patterson. “That’s just the reality of the situation in the National Football League.”