If you align with the theory of sports momentum, the Vikings’ quick turnaround to Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit might not be such a bad thing.
The defense will look to carry over success from the stellar second half of the 30-24 victory against the Cardinals that halted a four-game losing streak. The Lions handed down one of those losses Nov. 6 when Matthew Stafford was hit only four times and Theo Riddick averaged 5 yards per carry in the Vikings’ 22-16 overtime loss.
“I’m sure they’ll do a lot of the same stuff, since they were so successful with it,” defensive end Brian Robison said, “especially in the last two minutes and in overtime. We have to be better than that.”
The Vikings were better than that Sunday, at least in the second half. Unlike against the Lions, the Vikings avoided all the missed tackles, third-down woes and pressure-free quarterback pockets.
Sunday’s first half was more of the uneven play this Vikings defense struggled with through three of their four consecutive losses. Quarterback Carson Palmer and a wounded Cardinals offense marched up and down the field for 263 yards and 17 points, despite Palmer’s interception returned for a touchdown by Xavier Rhodes. And by halftime, the Vikings had surrendered 100 rushing yards for the fourth time in five games.
Then that suffocating, sure-tackling defense, the one that led them to a 5-0 start, emerged. The Cardinals didn’t pick up another first down until the fourth quarter when the Vikings sacked Palmer three times for their first multi-sack game since Oct. 9.
“Coach [Mike] Zimmer went back to the basics of what we were doing in the first five games,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “Basically letting us have a four-man rush, getting our [defensive backs] in a situation where they can press guys, be aggressive. Also mixing in zone, take some things away that they like to do.”
Defenders had their say even as Johnson credited Zimmer’s play calls. He wanted to run more blitzes throughout the game, but was talked out of it because the Vikings’ four-man defensive line was making Palmer sweat.
“There were a lot of times I wanted to blitz and they kept telling me just do what you’re doing — we’re rushing the heck out of the quarterback,” Zimmer said. “So, I did.”
Zimmer didn’t press the issue, blitzing on only four of 43 pass plays, even though Palmer hadn’t been sacked in the first half. They’d been clawing at him, though. In all, Palmer was pressured at the highest rate of any quarterback in a single game this NFL season (63 percent), according to Pro Football Focus.
“Hopefully that’s something we can take with us, and we can kind of start a roll again,” Robison said.
What Zimmer had really done was listen to his own edict. Trying to apply the brakes on a four-game skid, he willed his defenders throughout the week to stop forcing plays.
“Our message this week was, ‘Make solid plays first and let the big plays come to you,’ ” Zimmer said. “They’re not always going to come, but you just have to do your job first and then the rest will happen.”
The Vikings now need to keep a revived pass rush, which levied 15 hits on Palmer, alive heading into Detroit. They only sacked Stafford once in the previous meeting this month and were plagued by missed tackle after missed tackle. Lions receiver Golden Tate broke free from two defenders, Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith, to score the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
And as the season presses on, the Vikings (6-4) can ill afford another letdown from their best side of the football as they wrestle with the Lions (6-4) for the top position in the NFC North.
“I think I’m not going to eat before the game,” Robison said. “So that way I start imagining Matthew Stafford or somebody has turkey legs.”