During Mike Zimmer’s first four years as the Vikings head coach, his teams had lost five of eight meetings against the Detroit Lions, falling by way of self-inflicted wounds, late-game lapses and, at times, just plain weirdness.
On the three occasions the Vikings were able to break through the malaise and get the better of the Lions, they did it largely through the force of the pass-rushing crew they’ve carefully assembled under Zimmer. They battered Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford so thoroughly in Week 2 of the 2015 season that he needed X-rays on his chest and ribs after the game. They sacked him seven times at Ford Field later that season, and applied consistent pressure against him on Thanksgiving Day last year, as they hung on to break a three-game losing streak against the Lions.
The Vikings’ group of pass rushers dominated again Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the first in which the home team left victorious against the Lions. In a 24-9 win against Detroit, the Vikings sailed into their bye week comfortably, despite the fact they played without a raft of injured starters, lost Xavier Rhodes for part of the game and committed a pair of dubious turnovers.
But when the Vikings were able to come after Stafford with such ferocity, not much else factored into the final outcome. They set a team record by sacking the quarterback 10 times, leaning on their defensive line for all but one of the takedowns and pressuring Stafford so consistently he rarely had time to look downfield.
“I didn’t think we’d get 10,” Zimmer said. “I thought we had an opportunity to do some things if we gave them some looks and with our guys. I felt pretty good about Everson [Griffen] coming back, getting better last week in practice. I guess it’s a surprise, but again I think we did a good job in making him hold the football, too.”
Though the quarterback spent much of the day holding the ball in an attempt to connect on downfield throws, he threw for only 199 yards, with his longest throw of the day going for just 18 yards. The Lions’ approach, instead, played into the Vikings’ hands.
“We don’t get that a lot,” said defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who had 2½ sacks on Sunday. “When you look at [Drew] Brees, how they [the Saints] attacked us, how LA attacked us, guys respect our secondary, they respect our D-line, so they try to catch a lot of checkdowns, be consistent, move the ball and not really try to go for the deep ball. With our offense scoring points and the defense being able to stop them, they had to go for chunk plays, which allowed us to be able to eat a little bit. Our DBs covered well, so we were able to benefit from it.”
And when Stafford was flushed out of the pocket in the fourth quarter, flipping an errant option pitch in the direction of Kerryon Johnson, Danielle Hunter scooped it up for a 32-yard fumble return touchdown that effectively sealed the game.
The Lions had invested a pair of first-round picks and signed veterans Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang over the past two seasons, in an attempt to shore up their line in front of Stafford. The group, which had given up just 13 sacks before Sunday, was no match for the Vikings — and particularly Hunter, who finished the day with 3½ sacks along with the fumble recovery for a touchdown.
“I was staying in my rush lane, going after the passer,” Hunter said. “In pursuit, Coach Zimmer stresses that in practice, so I was after Stafford, and then he pitched the ball and dropped it on the ground.”
Johnson had 2½ sacks and Everson Griffen had 1½. Stephen Weatherly had a sack, Sheldon Richardson split a sack with Johnson and Mackensie Alexander posted one on one of the Vikings’ blitzes on Sunday.
Playing without wideout Stefon Diggs, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw for just 164 yards, as the Lions focused on Adam Thielen and forced the Vikings to look elsewhere. Thielen caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Cousins in the first half, but saw his streak of 100-yard games halted at eight, as his attempt to break the NFL record he shares with Calvin Johnson end with a four-catch, 22-yard day. He was also Cousins’ intended target on a first-half interception, when Darius Slay peeled off Laquon Treadwell and picked off the pass.
“It was single-high coverage, so I felt that [Treadwell] would be able to clear out that third corner,” Cousins said. “If the corner is going to play deep as I expected, then the throw is to Adam, where I wanted to throw it. But if the corner is going to be a little nosy and try to poach an out-breaking route, then you have a touchdown to Treadwell. I’m seeing coverage and thinking it’s three-deep, and that he’s got to honor the go ball. Good, smart veteran corners are going to take gambles at times, and he gambled.”
The Vikings, though, were able to run for 128 yards on 23 attempts against the league’s worst run defense, which had given up four plays of 50 yards or more already this season.
Dalvin Cook, playing his first game since Week 4 after returning from a strained hamstring, found a big hole on the left side of the Vikings’ line in the second quarter, racing 70 yards on the longest run of his career to set up Thielen’s touchdown. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cook reached a top speed of 22.08 mph on the run, making him the fastest ball carrier in the NFL this season.
“Faster than Tyreek [Hill]?” Cook responded when told of the statistic. “That is good, man. I am not a slow guy, but running faster than Tyreek, that is fast, man. I know I had it in me, but it is a matter of getting me out there. It’s a great feeling to be back suited up.”
The Vikings will not have to suit up again until a week from Sunday, when they play the Bears for the division lead at Soldier Field. By that point, they could see the return of players like Stefon Diggs, Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo, and get Rhodes and Riley Reiff back to full health.
Even without the benefit of a fully-stocked roster on Sunday, the Vikings had what has worked best for them against the Lions: A pass rush that was too fierce to be stopped.
“It’s something special,” Hunter said. “It tells you that we go out there and we work together as a team.”