Safety Harrison Smith offered a blunt assessment after the Vikings' 29-27 loss to the previously winless Lions on Sunday, which could be interpreted as a description of everything from their individual coverage to their collective approach as Lions quarterback Jared Goff marched 75 yards for a touchdown in 110 seconds.
"We were just too soft on them," Smith said.
The Vikings defense backed off after Goff beat them in the first half, torching single-high safeties for two touchdowns to tight ends down the seam, plus a couple play-action crossers for big gains. Coach Mike Zimmer kept more defenders in coverage, and his passive approach with limited personnel got them by... until they became too passive.
They'd grounded Goff in the second half. He couldn't find the open target while completing 3 of 10 passes for 31 yards and two turnovers before that final drive. Against a three/four-man rush specifically, Goff completed just 1 of 7 passes for eight yards and a pick. Perhaps that fed Zimmer's reluctance to blitz. He was so from the start. Goff didn't throw against a five-man pressure until 3:05 before halftime, when he completed a 27-yard pass over replacement linebacker Troy Dye. Zimmer said he was trying to fortify coverage throughout the game, including on the final drive.
"Just because I know the nature of Zim, I thought we might see a little more pressure earlier," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "Our first pressure we got was down there when we hit the 20 or around the 20, I guess, and that was close. That was close, so I thought we'd see a little bit more. But also, I'd say this, if I put myself in Zim's shoes, why would I be aggressive?"
1. The Vikings' coverage woes were evident even while grounding Goff in the second half. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler's fourth-quarter interception came while he was one of three Vikings defenders surrounding Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, to whom Goff forced the pass despite an apparent Minnesota coverage bust that left Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown running open on a crossing route.
Earlier in the third quarter, St. Brown (#14) gets open underneath safety Xavier Woods (#23) as the Vikings run an apparent quarters coverage with four deep defenders. Safeties align about 10 yards off the ball and, theoretically in the coverage's basic form, should be trying to take away the middle of the field. This was one of many play-action passes called against a patchwork Vikings linebacker corps.
Goff has a window to St. Brown (#14) over the middle, but he doesn't pull the trigger as nose tackle Michael Pierce (#58) causes interior pressure. The Vikings defensive line was remarkably better with Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson back, actually giving the defense a chance to hold the line of scrimmage.
Lions running back Jamaal Williams went for 11 yards while backup tackles James Lynch and Armon Watts were cleared out of the way. Coaches put Pierce and Tomlinson back in on this next play, when Pierce gets pressure. Goff tucks the ball and runs, missing an open man, something he didn't have to do on the final drive.
2. On the final drive, there was a very soft coverage before the game-losing soft coverage that gave Goff his longest completion — 13 yards — of the drive while also stopping the clock.
The pre-snap look isn't too passive. Corners align about five yards off Lions receivers. They tightly follow those three vertical routes, while linebackers Nick Vigil and Blake Lynch also float more than five yards behind the first-down marker. That leaves nobody underneath for Lions running back Godwin Igwebuike (#35). The Vikings have seven defenders, including two deep safeties, more than 12 yards downfield (against three routes) when the ball is thrown.
In a game without Patrick Peterson, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week and wasn't cleared to play, Vikings corners each missed critical tackles. Dantzler (#27) and Mackensie Alexander (#24) both missed Igwebuike on this play, allowing him to get out of bounds and stop the clock at 1:05 left from midfield.
3. Defensive backs had a rough afternoon. They were left chasing tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Brock Wright on first-half touchdowns. St. Brown went through the goal line unchallenged on the final play. With four seconds left, the Vikings align eight defenders near the goal line; five are in front.
As the play develops, safety Xavier Woods (#23) shuffles his feet backward with three vertical routes on his side. St. Brown (#14) bends his route outside like a fade, and Dantzler (#27) turns and runs backward. On the far sideline, safety Josh Metellus (#44) turns toward the other outside receiver running a post. Neither outside receiver is challenged at the goal line like the inside receivers are.
Dantzler is too far back to challenge St. Brown and he has no inside help. Goff releases a perfectly-timed and well-placed ball for the score. Woods was seemingly too deep and a second late reacting to the pass to offer that inside coverage.