The 1-3 Vikings hosted the Lions looking for an easy win to right the ship over the beleaguered Lions. After all, the Lions entered the game 0-4 and down a few starters, and the Vikings had won the last seven straight meetings.
But in the event, the Vikings were forced to rally late to eek out a 19-17 victory on a 54 yard Greg Joseph field goal- a repeat of the Ravens’ last second victory over the Lions two weeks ago. But it was a win that felt like a loss. Why?
Vikings Offense Struggling to Overcome Mistakes, Finish Drives
The Vikings had five scoring drives against the Lions, and another missed field goal. Had three of those scoring drives been touchdowns, and two field goals, that may have led to a more expected, easy double-digit victory. But the Vikings struggled to overcome mistakes- penalties and sacks, drops (including a late fumble), and a hit-him-in-the-side-of-the-head-because-KJ Osborn-didn’t-look-for-the-ball-that-led-to-an-interception play.
These were the symptoms. But the cause was an offense not ready to play their best- and maybe expecting an easy game just like many fans. The sense of urgency Klint Kubiak talked about playing with earlier in the week wasn’t there. And that gave the Lions defense, which has been solid for limited periods this year, enough to be competitive- and an opportunity for a late game turnover that might have been decisive.
Bottom line, an offense that made fewer mistakes- including two dumb turnovers, and this would’ve been an easy double digit victory.
Defense Getting Better, But Run Defense Still Struggling
Prior to Alexander Mattison’s fumble deep in Vikings territory late in the game, the Vikings defense held the Lions to three field goals. And in what matters most - points allowed - the Vikings defense has held their last three opponents to 17 points or less. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask from the defense to win games in the NFL.
It may well be a product of playing teams that run the ball well- Detroit, Cleveland, Seattle, and Arizona are all in the top 13 in yards per rush- but the Vikings run defense is coming up short of expectations so far this season. They have yet to not allow 100+ rushing yards in a game this season, and are near the bottom of the league in yards per rush allowed.
That wasn’t the expectation with Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce anchoring the interior line. But it may be that Mike Zimmer and company are willing to live with allowing 100 yards on the ground, so long as they can limit more of the passing game. Scheme-wise, that may be reflected in more 2 deep safety shells, with fewer defenders in the box. But it’s also resulted from some poor tackling, pursuit and run misfits too. If the defense can clean up those issues, they can take the next step in reducing yards, as well as points, allowed.
How the Vikings Can Get Better
The first thing the Vikings can do to get better is to get their best players on the field. That means replacing Bashaud Breeland with Cameron Dantzler. Breeland hasn’t been good and Dantzler has. That should be decisive as soon as Dantzler clears the Covid protocol. Breeland has been the weakest link on defense through five games, and upgrading the other outside corner spot could have outsized effects on defensive productivity.
Secondly, the Vikings need to continue to work Darrisaw into the starting lineup. Judging by his performance against Detroit, that should be no later than after the bye-week, but possibly next week against Carolina if he’s fully up to speed with the playbook and everything else where he’s a clear upgrade over Rashod Hill- who has been the weakest link on offense. Improving the offensive line is the key to improving the offense, and Darrisaw could help in that regard.
Third, the Vikings need to reconsider how often tight ends not named Tyler Conklin see the field. Neither Chris Herndon or Ben Ellefson have been good- even as blockers. C.J. Ham can function as a tight end, and is better as both a blocker and pass catcher. 2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR sets maybe the best lineup the Vikings can put on the field, personnel-wise. Getting the best players on the field not only can improve performance, it can also cut down on the mistakes and penalties. And those are the things that have separated the 2-3 Vikings from the 5-0 or 4-1 Vikings.
Can the Vikings Get to Playing More Complete Games?
The reactions to a win like this can be completely different. We’ve seen how people react to Aaron Rodgers being left with 37 seconds to win a game earlier this season. Kirk did that against the Lions, but not so many tout his game winning drive prowess. We’ve seen the reaction to the Ravens beating the Lions on a last second field goal: good teams find a way to win even when having a bad game. We don’t come away from this Vikings game that way, because they haven’t proven themselves a good team at this point. They can be competitive with good teams, but haven’t been able to beat them - except the Seahawks.
Those reactions don’t matter as much as the internal reactions in the Vikings locker room- players and coaches alike. Sometimes a humbling experience, even though a win, can bring home the point that if we don’t play well, if we’re not focused with a sense of urgency, anyone can beat us. And that can help a team play more focused and with a sense of urgency. The need to challenge underperforming players can be important too. After the Bengals game, the offensive line was challenged to get rid of the penalties and improve their performance and they responded with a much better performance against the Cardinals.
But at this point this is a Vikings team still trying to figure out how to play a complete game on both sides of the ball, and still trying to work how all the pieces fit together best. They were able to rally to win a close game late, but they also made it a close game late with an inexcusable fumble.
Time is running out for this Vikings team to put it all together. They begin the most difficult and challenging stretch of their schedule next week at Carolina, and they really need to head into their bye week having stacked a couple wins and emerging from a disappointing start to the season a .500 team to have momentum going into their bye week. If that happens the bye week could come at an opportune time, allowing for some additional self-scouting, rest and adjustments before a very tough 4-game stretch against teams currently with only one loss- and a couple of them playing their best football in years.