Can Lions take advantage of young, struggling Vikings defense?

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

For as long as Mike Zimmer has coached the Minnesota Vikings, you could count on two things from the team's defense. First, they were going to make life rough for the quarterback by utilizing a variety of aggressive pressure packages. Second, good luck scoring. 

In his first six seasons at the helm, the worst the Vikings finished in scoring defense was 11th, in 2014, his first year with the franchise. The unit ranked in the top-five three times the other five years, including last season, when they allowed 18.9 points per game. 

Eric Kendricks

But it's been clear from the start of this campaign, after the Green Bay Packers hung 43 on them in the opener, it wasn't going to be a normal year in Minnesota. Through the first two months of the season, the Vikings are near the bottom of the NFL in both yards and points allowed per game. 

Man, what happened? 

"Well I think the biggest thing is the number of young guys that we're playing with," Zimmer explained during a conference call earlier this week. "There are times we've had seven rookies on the field at one time.

"We obviously lost some really good players," Zimmer continued. "And then we had a guy opt out and we lost (Danielle) Hunter for the year, so we've been kinda force-feeding some of these young guys. But they're starting to get better and hopefully we can continue to get back to the way we've been able to play defense around here for a while."

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What Zimmer indirectly acknowledges when talking about the team's youth movement is the loss of continuity that has been critical to the defense's success. After several years of a stable core, they weren't able to keep the group together, with a mass exodus occurring between this season and last. 

This offseason, the Vikings saw the departure of several key cogs on the unit, including starting cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive ends Everson Griffen and Stephen Weatherly. 

Coincidentally, Griffen will be making his debut with the Lions this week after the team acquired him in a trade from the Dallas Cowboys. 

On top of those departures, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, signed to replace Joseph, opted out of the season due to respiratory concerns, while multi-time Pro Bowlers Anthony Barr and Hunter are sidelined by injuries injuries. 

All added up, it's been too much for the Vikings to overcome. 

But if last week is any indication, those young pieces the Vikings have been forced to lean on might be starting to figure it out. In a upset win over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday, the opponent was held to 22 points, essentially half of what they scored when the team's met seven weeks earlier. 

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"I think one game is really too early to turn the corner," Zimmer said. "We mighta put a foot around it, but I don't know if we've turned it all the way."

And despite all the experience the Vikings have lost, there's an unmistakable glue that's holding the defense together through this rough patch. That's not lost on the Lions, who come to town this week to test whether the performance against the Packers was a mirage or a start of a trend. 

"I think the one thing that definitely shows up on tape right away is just how strong they are through the middle of the defense," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "It starts with (Eric) Kendricks in the middle, (with) his ability to communicate, especially with the front. I think the front’s improving every single week. Those guys are long, they get off the ball, they knock the line of scrimmage back. So, I think he’s done an outstanding job in the middle, kind of settling all that down.

"I feel that the strength at the linebackers, plus the strength of the safety position — Harrison Smith, obviously, and Anthony Harris — those guys are phenomenal," Patricia continued. "A lot of what they do out of their pressure packages is because of the disguise that those two can come up with. They’re very in sync with all that, and you see them communicating out to the corners. I feel that their defense is getting better each week."

Matthew Stafford

But quarterback pressure is also down for the Vikings this year, which isn't surprising following Griffen's departure and the neck injury that's knocked Hunter out for the year. Through seven games, the Vikings have just 14 sacks, while the team's 21.1-percent pressure rate is in the bottom half of the NFL.

That's welcome news for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who has been pummeled by Vikings defense during his career. And if you are to believe Zimmer, this year's game plan might not be as committed to blitzing Detroit's quarterback. 

"We've gotten a lot of sacks around here, but it's really not about sacks," Zimmer said. "It's about a combination of coverage and rush, understanding the quarterback that we're playing. For instance, Stafford, he's a great scrambler. We're going to have to be extremely careful with the way that we rush him. There might be times where we don't really turn it loose, we try to keep him in the pocket and hopefully we're tight enough in coverage that we can (get him to) pull the ball down and get him that way."

Stafford, of course, is on the COVID reserve list after an early-week exposure. That said, he continues to test negative for the virus and it's expected he'll be cleared to play ahead of Sunday's matchup. 

With or without Stafford, the Lions will look to rebound from their worst offensive performance of the season. The team struggled to sustain drives, exhausting its defense in the process, in a 41-21 loss to the Colts. 

The Lions enter Sunday with a 3-4 record and fast-fading playoff hopes, sitting two games behind the Los Angeles Rams in the race for the final seed in the NFC. A loss to the 2-5 Vikings would further dim Detroit's chances, while dropping them to the basement of the division, where they've finished each of the past two seasons.