It was an early December afternoon. The Minnesota Vikings were trying to keep themselves in playoff contention by holding off the winless Detroit Lions. A slow start made this game closer than it should have been, but one more trip to the end zone would provide a much-needed victory.
Strangely enough, the Vikings weren’t playing like a desperate team. The Lions marched down the field against a three-man rush and had a chance to win the game on the final play. Jared Goff dropped back and saw Cameron Dantzler playing several yards off the goal line. He found Amon-Ra St. Brown for the game-winning touchdown, and Dan Campbell had his first win as an NFL head coach.
That touchdown had a profound effect on the Vikings’ future. Mike Zimmer’s time in Minnesota was coming to a close, and the final month of the season felt like a delay of the inevitable. As important as it was for the Vikings, it may have had a more significant effect on the Lions, who found a new superstar in St. Brown.
That game-winning touchdown may have seemed like a fluke at the time, but it was a precursor of things to come. St. Brown entered the matchup with 39 catches for 352 yards and no touchdowns through his first 11 career games. But he finished the afternoon with 10 catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. He was also facing a defense that may have tuned Zimmer out due to his abrasive style.
But that matchup served as a breakout party for St. Brown, and he has turned into one of the NFL’s most exciting receivers.
Over the final six games of his rookie season, St. Brown collected 51 catches for 560 yards and five touchdowns. If we extrapolate those numbers over a 17-game season, St. Brown would have had 144 catches for 1,586 yards and 14 touchdowns. For comparison, Justin Jefferson had 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Just like the touchdown, it would have been easy to dismiss his hot streak as a fluke. There was no chance that St. Brown was in the same stratosphere as Jefferson, even when you consider their games are entirely different. But you could argue they have the same effect on their offense.
St. Brown has been the NFL’s breakout star over the first two weeks, racking up 17 catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns. That includes a massive Week 2, where he made nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-27 win over the Washington Commanders. Some would consider this his breakout performance, but Vikings fans already knew what they were dealing with.
That creates a significant problem entering Sunday’s game with the Lions. The Vikings’ defense hasn’t been brutal over their first two games, but they’ve had issues limiting big passing plays.
In Week 1, Patrick Peterson was torched by Christian Watson for a 75-yard touchdown before Watson issued a reprieve with a drop that Troy Williamson would be proud of. Last week in Philadelphia, Quez Watkins hauled in a 53-yard touchdown due to a miscommunication between Camryn Bynum and Dantzler.
In addition to the big plays, the Vikings have played incredibly soft coverage. According to ESPN’s Kevin Siefert, Jalen Hurts had an average separation of 4.2 yards per attempt last week. While it wasn’t a straight prevent defense, it allowed the Eagles’ offense to keep the chains moving and rack up over 300 yards in the first half.
That’s not a good sign for the Vikings’ chances of stopping St. Brown. His average depth of target is 6.0 yards through two weeks, which ranks 89th among 96 receivers with at least 20% of the league lead in snaps. With their tendency to allow receptions underneath, it should enable St. Brown to make the same type of receptions as the Eagles’ receivers, moving the chains and dictating the pace of the game.
But St. Brown’s success will also depend on how the Lions deploy him. Two-thirds of St. Brown’s targets have come in the slot this season, which likely dictates a matchup with Chandon Sullivan. So far, the former Packers cornerback has struggled, allowing nine catches on 10 slot targets. He could be another area where Detroit could attack.
So how can the Vikings prevent another big game? By getting to the quarterback. Goff ranks sixth among qualifying quarterbacks with a 93.2 passer rating under pressure in the first two games. But that’s an anomaly compared to how he’s performed over his career. In 2021, Goff ranked 18th with a 69.2 rating under pressure. In 2020, he ranked 30th among qualifying quarterbacks with a 50.0 rating. If the Vikings can get to Goff, they should be able to force some erratic throws.
The Vikings have done an excellent job at getting to the quarterback, ranking fourth in the NFL with seven sacks, but they haven’t generated consistent pressure, which should be the key to disrupting Goff. In Week 1, the Vikings generated pressure on just 28.9% of Aaron Rodgers‘ dropbacks – the ninth-lowest rate among qualifying passers. Things didn’t get much better in Week 2, where they pressured Hurts on 23.7 % of his dropbacks.
Detroit has allowed a 31.6% pressure rate in their first two games, and Goff has bucked the trend so far. If the Vikings can get to Goff, regression is possible, which could help the Vikings stop St. Brown.
Still, St. Brown’s breakout is a product of that late-season game in December. With a strong skillset, he could be a thorn in the Vikings’ side if they don’t play a tighter zone and generate pressure on Goff.
That makes another upset possible on a Sunday afternoon that could be a turning point in the Vikings’ season.