The 7-6-1 Minnesota Vikings travel to Detroit to take on the reeling 5-9 Lions, who have lost six of their past eight games and looking forward to the offseason. But the last thing the Vikings can do is overlook this NFC North Division opponent, as they need a win to help set themselves up for the postseason. The Lions are out of the playoffs, but they will still give it their all on Sunday.
“They’re really well-coached. They have a lot of, not only great players, but good people on the team,” Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, who made the Pro Bowl this week, said. “They’re not going to quit. They are going to keep fighting—you see it every week from them. They have been in a lot of games late in the fourth quarter. They have been playing pretty well. They’re going to give it their best effort. They don’t want to lose at home, especially, so we’re going to get a team that’s going to give a full effort all game.”
Thielen summed it up for the Lions. His quarterback Kirk Cousins agreed, saying that everyone in the NFL is playing to put something good on tape, because they are always playing for their jobs. But it is hard not to believe that if the Vikings get up big early, like they did last week against the Miami Dolphins, that just maybe the Lions will let up a bit emotionally.
One way to do that is to harass Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, just like the Vikings did the last time these two teams met (10 sacks) and like they did last weekend against Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill (nine sacks). Can they repeat the performance on the defensive line against Stafford, who is a little beaten up right now and has been used to seeing Vikings defensive linemen in his face?
“We were probably lucky in that game to get that many sacks,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “We had him flustered a couple of times. One time, he was scrambling out of there. I’m sure they are going to do a better job with keeping guys in.”
But the Vikings defense is playing well right now. They played lights out last week and have been coming on strong since the early part of the season. That’s why three defenders, safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter, were named to the Pro Bowl along with Thielen. The Vikings defense has really been a difference maker, of late, and they just as soon keep that going against a Lions team that has lost numerous players to injury—running back Kerryon Johnson was just placed on the IR and will be replaced by former Eagan product Zach Zenner
“I think he’s run the ball well,” Zimmer said of Zenner. “He’s physical, I’ve seen him make some really good cuts. He does a nice job in pass protection. They’re using him some in the receiving game, as well, so I would assume we’ll see more of him. We’ll see more of [Theo] Riddick, a little bit more of [LeGarrette] Blount.”
The Lions’ defensive side of the ball may present a little more challenge to the Vikings. With defensive-minded head coach Matt Patricia at the helm, the Lions are fairly decent against the run, which, for the Vikings offense, was reinvigorated last week by putting up 220 yards—a season high thanks to this week’s Offensive Player of the Week, running back Dalvin Cook (with a career-high 136 yards).
“I think they are playing a lot better,” Zimmer said of the Lions’ defense. “They are doing a much better job against the run. They’re physical inside. They cover the three-guards a lot, walk up [Devon] Kennard on the end of the line of scrimmage, so they’re playing a four-down front—but it’s really a three-four principles with what they’re doing. The two safeties get involved. They’re good players. I think the two linebackers plug our guys pretty much. Have some physicality to them. They’re not giving them very many big runs. They’re giving up some short. But they’ve done a nice job with that.”
They also have Pro Bowler Darius Slay in the defensive backfield, who, along with his secondary-mates, combined to end Thielen’s record-tying streak of eight-consecutive games with 100 yards receiving (he caught four passes for 22 yards in the first matchup). Thielen has surpassed the century mark just once since that game, and he figures to see more of the same defense come Sunday.
“I would assume some of the similar things, but they will have a game plan for something different, as well,” Thielen said of Lions’ defense. “We’re going to adjust on the fly. We’re going to keep trying to do the things we’re really good at then let everything else kind of play itself out. Again, you just have to adjust on the fly.”
Adjusting on the fly—that seems to be the Vikings modus operandi this season. Last week, the most recent adjustment was switching to a new offensive coordinator in Kevin Stefanski. The early results were good, as the Vikings jumped out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead against Miami and then finished the game by scoring 41 points—their first 40-point performance since 2015.
However, we need more data before becoming completely convinced this “new offense” is for real under the calming influence of Stefanski (an attribute we keep hearing from every player or coach who talks about him). Going against the Detroit defense will be a good test and a decent warmup for facing the stingy Chicago Bears defense the following weekend at home. (Score a bunch of points then and the Vikings will be ready for the playoffs.)
But first things first—and the requirement is another complete-team victory over the Lions in Detroit. Shut them down and put up another decent offensive performance, and they may be rolling into the regular season finale with a lot of confidence. Says here, that is what will happen on Sunday.