DETROIT – Pat Shurmur walked across the Ford Field visitors’ locker room doing something we haven’t seen a Vikings offensive coordinator do following recent Lions games.
He was smiling.
“That was fun,” he said after a 30-23 victory that represents the most points scored against Detroit in eight meetings in the Mike Zimmer era.
Shurmur’s joy started with the Vikings’ first possession of Thursday’s game. When the Vikings converted three consecutive third downs on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, you knew they finally had the firepower offensively to keep Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford from winning another low-scoring battle with late-game heroics.
“If we’re on the field,” right guard Joe Berger said, “then Stafford’s not on the field. That’s the goal.”
Simple logic. But oh so hard to execute. The Vikings had lost three straight to Detroit while converting only five of their last 20 third downs.
The last third down they had in this building resulted in a Sam Bradford interception that handed the Lions a last-second field goal and a 16-13 Vikings loss on Thanksgiving Day a year ago.
“We did not play good situational football against the Lions the last three times we played them,” Shurmur said. “We were [2-for-10] on third downs here last year. And our red-zone play wasn’t good.”
This year, the Vikings converted six of 13 third downs and scored touchdowns in all three red-zone trips until taking a knee at the 5 to end the game.
“Converting the third downs early,” said Shurmur, “allowed us a chance to do some of the fun things we wanted to do.”
The Lions won the coin toss and elected to receive. Three snaps later, cornerback Xavier Rhodes made a nice tackle short of the first down on third-and-5. For once, it was Stafford going three-and-out.
Three snaps after that, it was third-and-6. Quarterback Case Keenum sidestepped a rusher and fired a 14-yard pass to Adam Thielen.
Three snaps later, the Vikings were looking at third-and-4. Shurmur called an empty backfield with running back Jerick McKinnon and tight end Kyle Rudolph to the right and three receivers to the left.
“I probably leaned on the empties a little more [Thursday],” Shurmur said. “That spreads everybody out and can create room for the quarterback to run if he needs to.”
The intent was to throw the ball. But …
“I didn’t see anybody open,” Keenum said. “I knew I could use my feet. If I didn’t have anybody open initially, I knew I could get it with my feet.”
Knowing exactly when to make that decision is critical because, as Keenum said, “stuff happens in a split second” in the NFL.
“Case does a great job with that,” Shurmur said. “That’s just good quarterback play.”
The next big play was third-and-6 from the Detroit 19. Keenum found Stefon Diggs for 7 yards. Three plays later, Keenum gave the Vikings a 6-0 lead with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph.
“Third downs are crucial,” Keenum said. “Especially early.”
Although the Lions made it a close game in the second half, the Vikings never lost the lead.
“One of my favorite drives of the game,” Shurmur said, “was that last drive we had where we scored.”
The Vikings were clinging to a four-point lead when they forced the Lions to punt with 6:30 left in the game. A running game that had opened the second half with four straight carries for 75 yards and a touchdown had gained zero yards on its next six carries.
Three plays later, Keenum threw a 7-yard pass to Diggs on third-and-7. Six plays later, a Kai Forbath 36-yard field goal capped a nine-play, 45-yard drive that made it a seven-point game with 3:47 left.
Rhodes’ interception four plays later helped clinch the game. But for a change, it was the Vikings offense that stood out in a win against Detroit.
“We finally scored some points on these guys,” Shurmur said with a smile.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL