Mike Zimmer emerged from sorting out the rubble of the Vikings' 52-33 Christmas Day loss at New Orleans and came away with the final tally — 17 missed tackles.
That is one statistic that could give meaning to Sunday's otherwise meaningless regular-season finale at Detroit.
How much fight is in the NFL's 27th-ranked defense? That's what Vikings coach wants to find out after his team gave up a franchise-worst 583 yards to the Saints and a record-tying six touchdowns to running back Alvin Kamara. The Vikings have lost three in a row and, for the first time since 2016, are eliminated from playoff contention entering Week 17.
Even so, Sunday's game at Ford Field will show Zimmer something.
"When you get your nose rubbed in it," he said Monday, "you've got to come back out and you've got to come back and fight. It's going to show the personality of these players that we have and what they have to do."
After Friday's loss, Zimmer called out the Vikings defense as the "worst one I've ever had," safety Harrison Smith said his teammates need to understand from where that's coming. Zimmer, a 64-year-old football coaching lifer, put more on himself Monday after postgame comments about Vikings defenders getting "manhandled."
"I have to probably be more clear on exactly what I want the guys to be," Zimmer said. "They can play way better than what they played, and I put that more so on me than on the players. That's my job and I need to get it done better."
Smith said he didn't take umbrage to the blunt assessment after the Vikings were socked for 463 rushing yards in the past two weeks. They haven't ranked this low defensively since Smith's second season in 2013, when they allowed the most points and second-most yardage in the league, causing the dismissal of coach Leslie Frazier.
"He's been around for a while," Smith said of Zimmer. "He's had a lot of success with defenses in this league, so, as a player, you've got to take that stuff to heart and fix it, no matter what the circumstances are. But this is not how we want to play defense on the Vikings."
With little reason for injured veterans such as linebacker Eric Kendricks and tight end Kyle Rudolph to return from significant injuries, young players likely will maintain big roles against the Lions. Linebackers Todd Davis (ribs) and Troy Dye (concussion) could return Sunday, giving coaches a final on-field evaluation before decisions directing the 2021 season are made.
Receiver Adam Thielen said he hopes younger teammates have learned not to overlook any NFL opponent. The Vikings followed three consecutive NFC North victories in November by losing to the Cowboys and getting taken to overtime by the one-win Jaguars. They struggled with bad teams after putting up fights against quality NFC opponents such as the Seahawks and Packers.
"The more experience you have, the more you understand that you've got to take advantage of every single week," Thielen said. "Because it goes by fast and all of a sudden, boom, you're not in the playoff picture. Again, looking back — frustrating."
Aside from pride and experience, the Vikings have 11 unrestricted free agents playing for next year's paychecks. They include safety Anthony Harris, linebacker Eric Wilson, defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, guard Dakota Dozier and running back Ameer Abdullah. Five more players are headed for restricted free agency, including defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo and receiver Chad Beebe.
Left tackle Riley Reiff also has $2 million in playing-time incentives, which he's on track to reach for playing at least 93.75% of the plays on offense; he has played all 1,002 snaps so far.
And everybody just wants to end on a better note.
"Every time you go out there and play, you're playing for something," Zimmer said. "But yeah, I do think that's important that we understand that wasn't the game that you want to be remembered with. Let's go out and let's try to remember something good."