The Lions moved to 3-1 on the season with a gritty, grind-it-out road victory over their division rival.
Minneapolis — If this is how they have to do it, well, this is how they’ll do it. And the Lions look increasingly capable of doing it this way, a more brutally effective way.
They did it Sunday with a banging defense and a running game that was more than an afterthought. They went on the road and outslugged a physical opponent again, and when a play had to be made in the closing minutes, the Lions got two spectacular ones from their defense.
See the ball, punch the ball, knock the opponent out. That’s what the Lions did on the clinching play in their 14-7 victory over the Vikings, and that’s what their defense is doing more and more, perhaps redefining what this team is about.
It used to be, if Matthew Stafford wasn’t making miraculous throws in frantic fourth quarters, the Lions weren’t winning. Well, Stafford didn’t do much Sunday, smothered by Minnesota’s defense, and then the strangest thing happened. The Lions defense — missing two starting linebackers — out-smothered the Vikings, who were using backup quarterback Case Keenum, then lost star rookie runner Dalvin Cook to a knee injury.
No mercy, only mayhem from the Lions. They recovered three fumbles, none bigger than a classic dislodge by Glover Quin, who punched the ball out of Adam Thielen’s arms as the Vikings receiver was completing an 11-yard gain to the Lions’ 45 with 1:43 left. Out of timeouts, the Vikings were done, undone by a relentless Lions defense doing things nobody expected before the season began.
Well, almost nobody.
“Everybody threw us under the bus at the beginning of the year, because you guys don’t live the life we live, you’re not in the locker room with us, you’re not on the practice field with us,” said Anthony Zettel, who collected two sacks and has four this season. “So you guys are slowly starting to realize we have a tough group. … We’re just tough, gritty. We get after it. Everybody’s now pulling in the right direction, and we refuse to lose.”
Frankly, if not for the bizarre touchdown-no-touchdown finish against the Falcons last week, they’d be 4-0. They’re 3-1, with two victories on the road, and nary a single one required late Stafford magic.
Don’t get me wrong. The Lions need Stafford and the offense to be more productive, but when it isn’t, especially against a defense as stingy as the Vikings, they’re not doomed. This might have been the most impressive ho-hum victory the Lions have recorded in a while, and that’s absolutely a compliment. Offensive players were annoyed they didn’t put the game away sooner. Stafford wasn’t happy with his own performance and was sacked six times.
But the Lions had other options. In the face of a fierce pass rush, they handed the ball to Ameer Abdullah, who scooted for 94 yards, nearly becoming the first Lions runner in 55 games to top 100. Abdullah wasn’t satisfied, calling the running game “borderline good, not great at all,” a sentiment repeated by several.
“We haven’t really even come close to playing our best football,” Stafford said. “As a defense, we’re playing great, special teams are playing really well. But on offense, we have to get it going a little bit more.”
For all its wobbles Sunday, the Lions’ offense dominated time of possession (36-24 minutes), which speaks to the improved running game, which speaks to the steady character of a team that doesn’t cave to its deficiencies.
The defense looked in trouble against Minnesota when rookie Jarrad Davis was inactive due to a concussion, and linebacker Paul Worrilow left early with a knee injury. The Lions were using guys like Steve Longa and Nick Bellore, and got a tremendous effort from Tahir Whitehead, who recovered two fumbles, including the final one forced by Quin.
The Lions star safety saw Thielen catch the ball and turn upfield, and figured he could blindside him.
“Right then, I knew I was going for the punch,” Quin said. “Lot of times that’s where the punch happens, coming from the backside and they don’t see you.”
Opponents are more likely to see the Lions’ defense coming now. That play wasn’t happenstance or luck, although to be fair, some turnovers are, such as a couple of Matt Ryan interceptions last week, which bounced off Atlanta receivers.
Coughing up the ball
But the Lions now have forced 11 turnovers in four games, compared to 14 all last season. There’s been a stronger emphasis by Jim Caldwell and coordinator Teryl Austin on knocking the ball loose. And the truth is, you only get a chance to knock the ball loose if you’re close to the ballcarrier, and the Lions blanketed the Vikings.
The crowd booed whenever a Lions cornerback, often Darius Slay, harassed a receiver but avoided a penalty. Slay was whistled once, and afterward, the Vikings sounded more frustrated by their inability to get open against the Lions’ deep, aggressive secondary.
“We knew what they were doing, it’s the same stuff they’ve been doing all year,” Thielen said. “They’re a good defense, they got guys that can play in the back end and they get after the quarterback.”
Simply relying on turnovers isn’t necessarily a strategy, more like the byproduct of a physical style. It’s always been entertaining to watch Stafford-led comebacks, but if the Lions were going to become a sounder team, they had to broaden their identity. Through four games, that’s what appears to be happening.
“We’ve been playing good defense except for a little hiccup in the last game, but other than that, our guys have been hanging in there,” Caldwell said. “We’re taking the ball away, and that’s one of the things that made a tremendous difference. We were able to cause some havoc with our guys knocking the ball loose.”
The first two Minnesota turnovers were their own mistakes — a mishandled handoff on a trick play and Cook’s fumble as he was injured. But the last two moments of havoc — Zettel’s clobbering of Keenum and Quin’s well-timed punch — were all about the Lions.
They won a couple games last year with late defensive heroics, including an interception by Slay, so maybe this wasn’t a transformative way to win. But the more often the Lions do it, it’s looking like an affirmative way to win, and confirmation they can beat you all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways.