The Vikings defense is starting to come together, but there remains an uncharacteristic flaw in coach Mike Zimmer's side of the ball that should be worrisome with the Panthers' Christian McCaffery, the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott and the Ravens' Lamar Jackson among the next three opponents.
Sunday's narrow victory over the Lions marked the 12th consecutive game the Vikings gave up at least 100 rushing yards, doubling the longest such streak in the Zimmer era. The issues are multiple: a reconfigured front has lacked cohesion and left gaps open, and coaches aren't adjusting game plans quickly enough on the sideline.
"There's a lot of similar scheming that we're getting right now," Zimmer said Monday, "that teams don't do [against previous opponents] going into the game. Then they come in there and give us some different types of runs, so it takes a little while to adjust to it."
Perhaps a little too long, according to linebacker Eric Kendricks, who said in-game adjustments fall on both coaches and a veteran defense that's seen "every run there is in football" through five games. They have flashed excellence — holding half of the Lions' 24 runs to 3 or fewer yards — but keep springing leaks while allowing 4.7 yards per carry (28th).
"We need to realize how they're trying to attack us initially," Kendricks said. "First quarter, preferably. Then go out there with a plan so we don't have to do those adjustments at halftime, and then play sound."
"It's a little bit on the coaches, but it's on the players as well. We're out there and seeing things. I'm a veteran. I've got to know, hey, if they're running to a certain somebody or motioning to get the tight end over to get a certain formation, we've got to all be cohesive on that."
1. The Vikings were seemingly late adjusting to the counters that led to some of Detroit's biggest runs, including gains of 9, 11, and 12 yards. Misdirection was really the only way the Lions offense could spring running backs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. They Vikings were consistently winning matchups up front. Defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter often made quick work of Lions tackles Penei Sewell and Matt Nelson.
Yet the Lions still found daylight on the perimeter with play designs for which the Vikings weren't prepared. Swift (#32) picks up 12 yards on this counter run in the first quarter, which left Kendricks chasing and Zimmer blaming himself for the coverage call. Notice below the deep "shell" coverage that has all four defensive backs playing off, leaving the front seven in a tough spot to handle a condensed Lions formation and running game by themselves.
As the play develops, Kendricks (#54) eyes an opening and shoots the gap. That split-second decision is his to make, according to Zimmer, even as he risks missing and opening a hole. But even as Kendricks attacks the wrong side of the counter run, which pivots away from him, the All-Pro linebacker could have caught it from behind if a cornerback was there to force contain and widen Swift to the sideline. There's not even a Vikings defender for the Lions' lead blocker, fullback Jason Cabinda (#45), to hit as he pulls around the left side.
"If [Kendricks] can make it, he can go, but they were just a little late reading it," Zimmer said. "Part of the problem was, if I would have been in a better coverage, we would have got that thing secured on the front side. And I think when Kendricks went through, he would have made it. But I was in bad coverage there."
Griffen (#97) and linebacker Nick Vigil (#59) are pinned inside, and there's no contain help from the secondary.
2. Lions coordinator Anthony Lynn took a page out of Kevin Stefanski's playbook with a specific counter play design that removes a defender from the box using decoy motion.
Cleveland gashed the Vikings a couple times, including this 8-yard run by Browns running back Nick Chubb in the Week 4 loss. Below, Browns receiver Rashard Higgins (#82) runs a jet motion to the right. It's a critical component of the play design.
Higgins' motion keeps safety Harrison Smith (#22) eyeing the flat and possible play-action pass, preventing Smith from assisting in run support right away.
Kendricks (#54) and Vigil (#59) hesitate briefly as they're forced to decipher which direction the ball is going. They're walled off by both Browns lead blockers. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (#90) is the first to touch Chubb despite being a backside defender.
3. The Lions dialed up the same play for a 9-yard run in Sunday's first quarter.
Once again, the decoy motion forces a Vikings defender to stay out of the box (and away from run support) as linebacker Anthony Barr (#55) follows into the flat. Kendricks and Vigil appear to read this well as they shuffle toward the counter side of the run.
But this goes down as a miss for Vigil, who, like Kendricks on the previous run, sees the running back — Williams (#30) — before the counter pivot and shoots the gap.
Vigil gets a hand on Williams. Kendricks is walled off by both pulling Lions blockers, while playside defensive end D.J. Wonnum is pinned inside by Sewell.
The Vikings later adjusted to these counters, stopping one for a 3-yard gain in the second half, by dropping a safety into the box. Zimmer called a lot of two-high safety coverages, seemingly wary of the Lions' play-action passing game. But that comes at the expense of extra run support.
4. In his first game in 13 months, Anthony Barr was admittedly "exhausted" by the end. You could see that as the Lions scored 10 points in the final few minutes. The former Pro Bowl linebacker looked a lot slower in the open field than he did in the first quarter.
On his 68th and final snap, Barr was driven backward by Lions left guard Jonah Jackson (#73) while Swift romped into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown.
Barr getting rolled backward was one key block for Swift. The second was a rather obvious hold by Sewell, thanks to the rookie's white long sleeves, on defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (#94).
"I saw a holding call on Dalvin," Kendricks said. "But, yeah, we've got to stop that though."
Those two blocks on Barr and Tomlinson sprung Swift for the score. Griffen (aligned toward the top of the screen) was also cut blocked by Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson, preventing Griffen from collapsing the back side. And nose tackle Armon Watts, making his second NFL start replacing the injured Michael Pierce, was knocked back a couple yards.
5. The Vikings have been caught adjusting alignments at the snap, especially when motion is continuing through the snap. Defenders haven't always been on the same page with shifting left or right as an offense's motion alters gap responsibilities. Even when they are seemingly in sync, players are caught shifting at the snap and knocked backward like this 9-yard run by Williams in the third quarter.
Lions tight end Darren Fells (#80) motions into a lead block, changing the strength of Detroit's formation from the defense's left to the right. So defenders shift right.
But the ball is snapped while Fells is in the middle of motioning, catching the defensive line off balance. Watts, the nose tackle, gives up a lot of ground while facing a double team from the Lions left guard and left tackle. They miss Pierce on plays like this.
Another issue arises among linebackers, as Kendricks spills seemingly too far toward the motion side which leaves open an alley for Williams.