The Vikings have figured out how to beat the Detroit Lions. This past weekend’s game laid out the defensive formula pretty much perfectly. It was more-or-less the same approach they used against the Lions when they beat them the first time. Four-man rush, drop linebackers into coverage, play some bump-and-run on the receivers. By playing this way you are basically daring the other team to try and run against you. But the Lions just flat out can’t run it against the Vikings’ defense. Mikel Leshoure has had some decent games for the Lions this year but he has done nothing in two games against Minnesota. And this is a run defense that has been gashed by other teams.
The formula resulted in the Lions producing only 368 net yards. One big key was the third down defense. The Vikes have struggled to get off the field on third down this year but against the Lions they were superb. Detroit was only 1-for-9 on third down. This is what happens when you can’t run on early downs and you keep getting into third-and-long situations. And when the other team is confident they don’t have to blitz and can drop their linebackers into position to keep everything in front of them. For whatever reason, the Lions were not willing to take deep shots early. Only later in the game did they start testing the Vikings’ bracket coverage against Calvin Johnson. And Johnson ended up with 207 yards because he simply physically over-matches the Vikings’ defensive backs. And Stafford was able to get a lot of time.
So you can see it was far from a perfect defensive game by the Vikings. Johnson beat them up once Detroit started feeding him. The Vikes had execution issues at times. The biggest culprit was Harrison Smith who made multiple glaring mistakes. He missed a tackle on Mikel Leshoure while trying to fill and he also stumbled while trying to jam Brandon Pettigrew on a play that went for a touchdown. And he was late helping on deep throws a couple of times. The Vikes also committed some dumb defensive penalties. Even with these mistakes, they were never really in a ton of danger against Detroit. They more-or-less controlled the game from start to finish.
Why was it such a successful effort by the Vikings? A number of reasons. First of all, they got on top early. This defense is at its best when it can play downhill but for that to happen they need to play with the lead. The Vikes went up 10-0 in the first and were up 13-3 at the half. During their recent run of bad games they haven’t been able to build such advantages. That’s allowed teams to run the ball against them and running exposes the Vikings’ weakness up the middle. Detroit didn’t expose that weakness.
Second thing, the Vikes controlled field position. Think back to the Tampa Bay game when the Vikes were constantly giving the Buccaneers short fields to work with, thanks to turnovers and bad punting. That didn’t happen against the Lions. Detroit had 7 first half possessions and on only one of those possessions did they start outside their own 20. The Vikes took care of the ball and they kicked and covered well. The defense was not put in bad positions.
Third thing, and this was most important of all: turnovers. The Vikings have just not gotten enough takeaways. This has been an issue for a couple of years. But against Detroit they had two big ones. Chad Greenway read Matthew Stafford for a pick on the drive right after the Vikings’ opening scoring drive. Detroit was already on its heels after the big play to Jarius Wright and the quick TD right after, and they were even more on their heels after the pick. That pick basically took all the momentum away from Detroit and they never got that momentum back. The second turnover, Jamarca Sanford’s forced fumble on Calvin Johnson, was just as big. Johnson was on a roll at that point in the game and there was still time for Detroit to mount a comeback. But when Sanford took it away, Detroit pretty much lost any hope of a late rally. Those were not just good solid defensive plays, they were impactful plays that happened at key moments in the game. Turnovers are always great but some are bigger than others because of when they happen in the flow of the game. The Vikings could not have picked two better moments to turn over Detroit.
So take all of this together and what do you have? The perfect formula for defensive success. The truth is, the Vikings just don’t have the personnel to be a dominating defense. They’re still short a nose tackle, a couple of linebackers and a safety. But they can be a good defense when their execution is solid. That includes offensive and special teams execution as well as defensive execution. The offense not going three-and-out helps a lot. So does good punting and kick coverage. And getting up early on the scoreboard takes a lot of pressure off the run defense and allows the team to go into downhill mode. But the true key to me is the turnovers. Get those takeaways and an okay defense becomes a very effective one. The takeaways don’t result from players going out of their way to make something happen. They come about because of good, disciplined execution. This game showed what can happen when the Vikings stay within their plan and do what they’re supposed to. Of course it helped that they were playing a team they know they can handle. Confidence plays into it. If the Vikes can play with that much self-assurance and discipline against everyone, and get the key turnovers, they will have a good defense even without stellar personnel at every position.
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