The Vikings built a 20-3 lead in the first half against the Jets on Sunday by staying grounded during two long touchdowns drives, helping to make up for quarterback Kirk Cousins' uncharacteristic inaccuracy that afternoon.
Running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison consistently churned out modest gains — nine of 12 first-half carries netted at least 4 yards — leading to manageable third downs. The playbook remained open for head coach Kevin O'Connell and the throws short for Cousins. When the running game hummed, the offense typically flowed.
"You're not having to hold the ball as long, protect as long," offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. "You can potentially run the ball on a shorter down and distance, and of course the play-action pass, screens, the things you do off the runs are that much better."
The Vikings' big lead — and the rushing efficiency — disappeared in the second half. Reigniting Cook during Sunday's rematch with the Lions at Ford Field could go a long way toward clinching the NFC North.
Cook could be primed for a big finish to the regular season. The Vikings' final five opponents populate the bottom of the run defense rankings, ranging from the 21st-ranked Colts to the 30th-ranked Packers in yards allowed per game. Detroit ranks 28th against the run, which is a bit of a mirage because the Lions haven't hasn't allowed a 100-yard runner since an October bye week.
The run game fared well in the last matchup with Detroit. Cook had 96 rushing yards and a touchdown before going down with a shoulder injury at the end of the third quarter. With a rushing score, Mattison helped the Vikings rally from a 24-14 deficit in the fourth quarter.
"We came out and established ourselves at the line of scrimmage," Cook said. "I thought the O-line did a great job — tight ends, too, of blocking and getting me into space and me just being decisive and hitting holes. ... Looking forward to picking up from that, going in there against a feisty team and physical team and winning the game."
O'Connell got the Vikings offense going again with a play action-heavy drive that put Lions defenders on their heels like during this 6-yard run below.
'A big player for us'
The Vikings offensive line and supporting cast blocked well in the first Lions matchup, which hasn't always been a guarantee with this group. It'd be a good time to return left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who is progressing through the concussion protocol. He and right tackle Brian O'Neill led a strong push up front against Detroit. Cook and Mattison averaged over 2 yards per carry before contact, according to Pro Football Focus; that's happened only three times this season.
O'Neill said he knows Cook only needs a tiny crease.
"We wanted to get Dalvin going a little bit more these last couple weeks and moving into later games in December," O'Neill said. "He's going to be a big player for us. I think people forget he's been our bell cow and the heart of our team for four or five years. He's still playing at an elite level."
O'Connell isn't going to lean on Cook quite like previous coaching staffs did. He has called the 10th-highest passing rate in early-down, game-neutral situations (when win probability is between 20%-80%), according to nflfastr.com play-by-play data. Near the goal line, only Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has more red-zone throws than Cousins.
After the Oct. 30 win against the Cardinals, O'Connell said he needs to "have trust that we can run it in and be physical." Their previous success against the Lions, and two rushing touchdowns against the Jets last week, should provide plenty of reminders.
After coaches rewatched the 123-yard rushing effort against Detroit during game preparation this week, Phillips credited the supporting cast of blockers, too.
"The line did a nice job getting some movement on the angles," Phillips said, "but really a lot of those backside plays where we gained significant chunks were Johnny Mundt cutting off on the back side and K.J. [Osborn] cutting off on the backside — defensive ends at times. Some dirty, dirty work there."
Mattison's 5-yard touchdown run against the Lions, the initial score of the fourth-quarter comeback, illustrated the backside blocking help and Mattison's ability to power through at the goal line.
An improved Lions defense
The Vikings can run on the Lions, but they'll need center Garrett Bradbury and guards Ezra Cleveland and Ed Ingram to play well.
The Lions defense has improved. Nose tackle Alim McNeill and edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick in this spring's draft, might be the most problematic matchups for the Vikings in establishing the run game. Sure-tackling Lions safety DeShon Elliott is often involved in the action as well.
A 28th-ranked run defense, allowing nearly 150 yards per game, is weighed down by the Bills' Josh Allen and Bears' Justin Fields getting loose against them. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has them tackling better; they have the third-fewest missed tackles in the run game over the past three weeks, per Pro Football Focus.
"We're better than we were when we played them the first time. Certainly our defense is better — it's a lot better," Lions head coach Dan Campbell told Detroit reporters. "We've come a long way, and that's a credit to AG and his staff and the players just continuing to work through it."
The Lions have recently had impressive defensive performances slowing zone-heavy rushing attacks (Giants, Packers) similar to what the Vikings run with Cook and Mattison. The Vikings also run duo power where key defensive linemen are doubled, as with what the Giants tried on a 1-yard Saquon Barkley run in Detroit's Nov. 20 win.
The Giants doubled McNeill and Hutchinson, but the Lions quickly took Barkley with corner Will Harris blitzing. Only five defenses blitz more than Detroit. The Vikings need strong pre-snap recognition of these extra defenders and to win one-on-one matchups like the Giants' right guard failed to in the clip below.
"We're doing some good things," Campbell said. "There's a lot of confidence right now."