How Can the Vikings' Defense Tame the Lions' Rushing Attack?

Photo Credit: Junfu Han - Detroit Free Press via USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the Minnesota Vikings’ pass defense has been porous, but the run defense has been equally disappointing. In Week 1, the Green Bay Packers ran it down the Vikings’ throats until a lopsided score forced them into catch-up mode. On Monday night, the Philadelphia Eagles got whatever they wanted pretty much all game long. Now the Detroit Lions come to town boasting one of the league’s top rushing attacks. Minnesota’s front seven will have their work cut out if they want to tame this beast.

Let’s start with the bad news: D’Andre Swift enters the Week 3 matchup averaging 10 yards per carry. Here’s the good news: So far this season, the Vikings only allow half of that at 5.3 yards per carry! No, wait, that’s just more bad news.

Only four other defenses have a worse yards-per-carry average, and the Vikings’ run defense ranks 24th overall. Suffice it to say, that’s a little disappointing, considering the significant financial investment the team has up front in players like Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, and Dalvin Tomlinson. The Vikings are also 29th in rushing-first-downs allowed. It’s hard to put your offense back on the field when opposing teams are running it all over the yard.

That could be a big problem against Detroit’s third-ranked rushing attack. In a divisional game on the road, you can bet they’ll want to grind the clock and keep Justin Jefferson off the field. The Lions average 3.8 yards per rush before contact, first in the NFL. That’s more than 11 teams’ plain yards-per-rush average this year. If the Vikings’ front gets bullied that hard, Detroit will have no trouble putting Jefferson on the sidelines all night.

So what can the Vikings do to neutralize the run game and keep Swift in check? It starts with the defensive line. They’ll need to step it up since Minnesota has made a clear statement they are committed to keeping an extra defensive back on the field, playing a whopping 86% of sets in nickel this year. Though stopping the pass with an extra cornerback hasn’t exactly gone to plan this year either, the Vikings have made it obvious it’s their M.O.

If the scheme doesn’t change, it will be up to the personnel to make up the difference.

Smith isn’t typically known for his run-stopping abilities. But the Vikings will rely on him and Hunter to make plays in the backfield or to at least turn things back inside.

Harrison Phillips and Tomlinson also need to be more aggressive, and gap discipline will be essential to keeping the Lions in check. The idea of the Vic Fangio-type defense is to have linemen responsible for a primary gap and then a secondary one next to them if needed. The theory is that, since linemen can shift to another gap quickly, there should be at least two defenders crashing in on every gap a runner might try to exploit.

Considering the Vikings have mostly run nickel sets this year, the defensive line must maintain those responsibilities. While the Vikings don’t have an Aaron Donald on their team to execute this system perfectly, they have more than enough talent to be up to the task.

So what is to blame for the pitiful run defense, system or execution? Maybe both, but with the capital the Vikings have invested in big names up front, 2022 should’ve started stronger. The Lions are a unique team meeting Minnesota at a crossroads. Coming off a terrible loss, the defense has a lot to prove.

In most years, the Lions would be a welcome sight. But in 2022, with Detroit sporting one of the top offenses in the league, this is far from a cakewalk. The Vikings are only second to the Lions this season in rushing touchdowns allowed; with a healthy Swift, that total might jump even higher. Hopefully, Ed Donatell makes some adjustments, and hopefully, the defensive line shows…anything.

The Vikings could still be working out the kinks in a new system, but things won’t get any easier on Sunday. The secondary is a big concern, but the front seven, considered the defense’s strength, has struggled in its own right. The defense needs to get back on track after a pathetic loss where nothing seemed to go according to plan. Stopping Swift and Detroit’s rushing attack will be paramount — and offer a chance to prove they are much improved from 2021. Until then, there are plenty of reasons for skepticism.

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