DETROIT – If Kirk Cousins is one of those quarterbacks who buys presents for his offensive linemen, he better think of an extra special way to reward the Vikings defense for the way it played in the first 28½ minutes of Sunday’s 27-9 victory over the Lions at Ford Field.
“Things,” said coach Mike Zimmer, “didn’t start the way I had hoped.”
That might be the understatement of a season that has the 8-6-1 Vikings needing “only” to beat Chicago at home to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for only the second time this millennium.
On the Vikings’ first offensive snap, guard Tom Compton false-started. From his 2-yard line.
It would lead to the first of four straight three-and-outs. And even the first down came with a holding penalty on Stefon Diggs. At that point, Diggs had more holding penalties (one) than he and Adam Thielen had combined catches (zero).
“It was a tough start,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “But we know what we got in our defense. When they start playing at the level they’re playing at, we’ll be all right.”
A “tough start” is underselling just how bad the Vikings were offensively before scoring 27 unanswered points.
With 4 minutes, 5 seconds left in the first half, the Vikings had 4 yards and zero first downs.
Cousins was 1 of 3 for 2 yards. The net passing total was minus-11. Kyle Rudolph hadn’t grabbed any of his nine catches for 122 yards, two touchdowns and one instant game-changing Hail Mary score as time ran out in the first half.
“It was a good gut-check game,” Zimmer said. “There were times when we could have not won this game.”
The reason it wasn’t a gut-punch game is Detroit only led 9-0 as Cousins and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski sputtered along.
Detroit’s first five possessions included two punts and three field goals. The scoring drives went 28 yards in five plays, 21 yards in nine plays and 36 yards in eight plays.
“This game comes down to offensive line and defensive line,” nose tackle Linval Joseph said. “If we do our job up front, we’ll win. Today was a good performance and a test of not giving up. If we do our job, we stay in the game for as long as it takes.”
Eventually, the offense joined in and the Lions wilted to 5-10.
Cook ran for 73 yards and a 4.6 average. Cousins had three touchdowns and no turnovers. Rudolph had the best game of his career and Diggs scored, too.
All of that sure didn’t look likely when it was 3-0 as punter Matt Wile was ending another three-and-out with a 29-yarder to the Vikings’ 38-yard line to open the second quarter.
That had to be maddening, right safety Harrison Smith?
“You don’t want 29-yard punts, but as a defense, we were like, ‘All right. I guess we just have to play better then,’” he said. “That’s our mind-set. Things happen.”
Three snaps after Wile’s punt, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes both were flagged for illegal contact on third down. But five snaps after that, Waynes made an outstanding open-field, possibly touchdown-saving tackle when running back Theo Riddick reversed field and tried a spin move.
Asked where he was on that play, Smith laughed and said, “This is going to sound bad, but I was actually waiting on Trae to miss the tackle so I could make it.”
Waynes’ tackle set up a third-and-3 at the Vikings’ 12. On the next play nickel corner Mackensie Alexander was perfectly positioned to bat away a pass to Kenny Golladay in the end zone.
That was one of 12 failures by the Lions in 16 third-down chances. But it would be another seven minutes before the Vikings would register their initial first down.
“Once we got rolling,” said Cook, “we played complementary football.”
Fortunately for Cousins and the offense, the Vikings have a persistent defense with a strong enough back to carry a team for as long as it had to on Sunday.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org