Puzzle all you want about the Vikings’ 2-5 record against the Detroit Lions since 2014, over how two aggravating losses against the Lions were all that kept the Vikings from wresting a playoff berth from the tumult of their 2016 season, and then consider this:
It’s awfully hard to win games consistently when you average 15.3 points.
That’s been the Vikings’ scoring rate against the Lions in the Mike Zimmer era, dating to a 17-3 loss where Teddy Bridgewater was sacked eight times in an Oct. 12, 2014, meeting. The Vikings’ only two wins over the Lions came in 2015 and were also the only games where they’ve scored more than 17 points. Last year, they managed just 16 against Detroit before losing in overtime at U.S. Bank Stadium, and mustered only 13 three weeks later in a Thanksgiving Day loss.
Last month, a week after Case Keenum won NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Tampa Bay, the Vikings scored just one touchdown in a 14-7 loss at home.
That game still stands as the Vikings’ most recent defeat, and if they’re going to put themselves in command of the NFC North with a Thanksgiving Day win at Ford Field this year, they’ll have to solve a Lions defense that hasn’t given them much.
“We turned the ball over three times the last game [vs. Detroit] and we got in the red zone and haven’t converted,” Zimmer said. “One time I think we had a turnover down there, and we ended up going backwards in the red zone and had to punt the ball. Things like that.”
The Vikings have revved up their offense since that loss to the Lions, averaging 27 points a game in their six-game winning streak. They lost Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL against Detroit on Oct. 1; they posted a season-high 171 rushing yards against the Rams last Sunday.
An offense that has the fifth-most yards in the league, though, hasn’t been able to find big plays against the Lions.
They attempted just three passes of 20 yards or more in two games against Detroit last year, and didn’t complete any of them, according to Pro Football Focus. In October, Case Keenum connected on three of his five throws of 20-plus yards, exploiting holes in the Lions’ zone coverages for a few big gains to Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Those three completions went for 109 yards, but they nearly matched what Keenum produced (110 yards) in his other 25 attempts.
For the season, the Lions have allowed just 11 completions on 47 attempts of 20 yards or more, according to Pro Football Focus. Ben Roethlisberger strafed them for a 97-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster in Week 8, but in four of the Lions’ six wins, they haven’t given up a completion on a throw that traveled at least 20 yards.
“They’re sound, especially on the back end,” Keenum said. “ ‘GQ,’ [safety] Glover [Quin] does a great job of getting those guys lined up. You hardly ever see them bust any coverage, so a lot of the completions against them are versus tight coverage, which is tough.
“We’ve got to sustain drives; we’ve got to be better on third down. Those are points you try to make every week, but they’re going to be key in this game, as well.”
The Vikings offense has coalesced around Keenum since the last time they played the Lions, and the quarterback has used his mobility to create big plays outside the pocket.
He’s found some success while taking chances, to the point where Zimmer praised the quarterback’s intestinal fortitude by complimenting a different part of his anatomy Tuesday.
“He’s not afraid,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to pull the trigger, and he is going to play like that. That’s a good thing.”
As the Vikings saw last week, they don’t have to get all their big gains by throwing downfield. Thielen’s 65-yard touchdown came on a 4-yard pass to the receiver, who made an inside move on cornerback Dominique Hatfield and raced the final 61 yards for a score after a Rams blitz left them without a deep safety.
“We threw a little hitch route, they were in the right coverage, he made a guy miss and went 65,” Keenum said. “Things like that, you can’t force those things. You have to let those things come to you.”
Short of that, the Vikings know they could find themselves in another game where they’re forced to grind out drives. They’re 11-for-34 on third downs in their past three losses to the Lions; they know they need to be better.
“Every game this time of year is big,” Thielen said. “Last week, it did. This week feels the same way. We’ve got to prepare and be ready to play.”