The Vikings’ single-season sacks record list contains the names of some of the greatest defensive linemen in team history.
Jared Allen holds the record with 22 sacks in 2011. Chris Doleman is second with 21 in 1989, followed by Keith Millard (1989) and Alan Page (1976) tied for third with 18 and John Randle fifth with 15½ in 1997.
The Vikings have played nine games this season, including their all-around 24-9 victory over Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. Defensive end Danielle Hunter, who had a single-game, career-high 3½ sacks against the Lions to take over the NFL lead with 11½ sacks this season, is on pace for 20 sacks to join that elite group of Purple defenders.
Hunter also grabbed a fumble by Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and returned it 32 yards to put the game away in the fourth quarter. That was Hunter’s second career defensive touchdown.
After the game, coach Mike Zimmer was asked to describe how Hunter has developed into an outstanding defensive end since the Vikings selected him from LSU in the third round of the 2015 draft.
“He has gotten way better since he got here,” Zimmer said. “[Defensive line coach] Andre Patterson is a great coach. But this guy is a great kid, a great teammate, hard worker, wants to get better every single day and everybody is happy for him.”
In what ways has Hunter, who is close to breaking his career high of 12½ sacks from 2016, improved?
“Just about every way,” Zimmer said. “His rush angles, his hands, he works like crazy in the offseason with boxing and martial arts, but now he is playing more free.”
When asked if anyone is better than Hunter, Zimmer mentioned one of his teammates.
“He is pretty good and we’re glad we have him, but Griff [Everson Griffen] is pretty good,” he said. “When [opponents] can’t isolate on certain guys, it makes it better for everyone.”
There’s no doubt Griffen’s 1½ sacks against the Lions were a big positive for the coaching staff as he continues to get back into game shape after missing five games to focus on his mental health.
“I thought [Griffen] played pretty well,” Zimmer said. “He looked a lot more like himself [Sunday]. I have to watch the tape, but I thought he did well.”
Defensive tackle Tom Johnson’s 2½ sacks were the most he has posted in a game. Cornerback Mackenzie Alexander and defensive end Stephen Weatherly each added a sack while defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson contributed a half-sack.
The 10 total sacks were the most in a single game in Vikings history.
Zimmer said the sacks were a welcome sign but also had a lot to do with a healthier secondary with cornerback Xavier Rhodes back in the lineup.
“I thought we did a nice job in coverage. [Defensive backs coach] Jerry Gray did a nice job with the back end, along with [nickel and defensive back coach] Terence Newman, and I thought the linebackers were good in coverage,” he said. “It looked like we tackled well [Sunday]. But you know that allows the sacks to get there and we have some guys who can rush.”
Health gives balance
One reason the Vikings easily handled Detroit is because several injured starters returned.
“We still have some guys beat up, but it was nice to see [left tackle] Riley Reiff get back out there, [running back] Dalvin Cook got out there,” Zimmer said. “Defensively, I think we’re still missing [linebacker Anthony] Barr and [safety Andrew] Sendejo and it was nice to get Xavier [Rhodes] back.”
The Vikings also were missing wide receiver Stefon Diggs and guard Tom Compton.
Kirk Cousins had his fewest passing yards this season — he completed 18 of 22 passes for 164 yards with a great 2-yard touchdown pass to Adam Thielen in the second quarter, one drive after throwing an ill-advised pass to Thielen that was intercepted by Lions cornerback Darius Slay — but everyone else really chipped in.
“I thought [Cousins] was efficient for the most part,” Zimmer said. “The one interception I think he got fooled on, but you know, we took what they gave us.”
While Thielen had only 22 receiving yards after going eight consecutive games over 100, the running game had one of its better performances.
Cook returned from a hamstring injury, and his 70-yard run set up the Thielen score. Cook’s 109 total yards — 89 rushing and 20 receiving — were the most he has posted since Week 3 last season.
“It helps that we ran the ball decently,” Zimmer said of the team’s 128 yards on the ground, their second most this season. “Cook has that great speed and allows us to hit that home run. I thought [Latavius Murray] ran it hard — no big runs, but I thought he ran it hard.”
On special teams, Marcus Sherels had a 24-yard punt return, his longest this season, that helped set up a 39-yard Dan Bailey field goal to give the Vikings a 17-6 halftime lead.
“We have to continue to get better with special teams, and that was big getting that return,” Zimmer said.
Young guys improve
What did Zimmer think of the offensive line play, which allowed only one sack after giving up four in last week’s 30-20 loss to New Orleans?
“I thought they did a nice job, a really good job in protections a couple of times,” he said. “[The Lions] have some big, strong guys in there and I thought we did a nice job in the run. There was hardly any negative runs so that was a good thing.
“[Tackle Brian] O’Neill is getting better. He is doing good. [Guard Danny] Isidora has been filling in well. We had a lot of young guys play — you think about [linebacker Eric] Wilson and [wide receiver Chad] Beebe and [tight end Tyler] Conklin, [cornerback] Holton Hill — you know we’re getting a lot of play out of a lot of young guys.”
But you have to think the Vikings’ bye week couldn’t come at a better time.
The team will practice Tuesday and Wednesday before taking a break until the following Monday. This should give injured players such as Barr, Diggs, Sendejo and Compton a chance to get healthy.
“It is a good time for us,” Zimmer said. “We need to get healthy. We need to get away from each other for a little bit. They need to get away from me. I’m a little bit grouchy.”