It wasn’t pretty and it is definitely not how a win is drawn up, but the Lions improved to 3-0 after spotting the Vikings a 20-0 lead at halftime. The first half exposed several of the Lions’ weaknesses that their first two opponents couldn’t exploit as well as the Vikings did.
I have been worried about the Mike Martz style play calling from Scott Linehan this season and it finally haunted the Lions today. The Vikings were able to control the line of scrimmage because they knew they didn’t have to worry about the run game. I understand the Lions’ offense is built around the passing game, but it is simply impractical to continue running the offense almost exclusively in the shotgun. The Vikings’ rush got into Stafford’s head and he stopped trusting his protection forcing him to watch the rush and frequently bail out of the pocket in anticipation of the rush.
It is also incredibly difficult to run block from the shotgun because the field is spread out and the five offensive lineman are usually trying to block six or seven defenders. This is countered by pulling lineman or trap blocking but those plays have been ineffective because the Lions have been losing at the point of attack. Jahvid Best lacks the patience to run into the line and get whatever he can, instead bouncing out to the sideline and losing yardage more often than not.
The Lions found themselves in several third and long situations because of their inability to run, and instead of keeping extra blockers in, the Lions tried to beat the blitz by frequently sending four or five receivers looking for holes in the coverage. That strategy did eventually pay off later in the game once the Lions built up some momentum.
The other chink in the armor has been the run defense, which as I explained in my game preview, is a secondary concern for the Lions. However, against a team that is great at running the ball and terrible passing the ball there should be a greater focus on stopping the run. The Lions’ defensive front left huge running lanes as they stormed upfield and Vikings were more than willing to run through those lanes. Peterson is too hard to bring down when he gets a head of steam especially when he gets to the secondary. The Lions adjusted in the second half and limited Peterson to five yards on five carries, while the Vikings did their part by…giving Peterson five carries in the second half…with a 20-7 lead.
The Vikings deserve just a much credit for the Lions’ win as the Lions do, since it wouldn’t have been possible without their penalties, poor play calling and general inability to do anything right. Nothing could embody that more than the ridiculous notion to bypass a field goal and go for it on 4th down at the Lions’ 17, except for the play call. The Vikings apparently forgot that the best running back in the NFL is better used as a runner rather than a decoy. Or at least if they use him as a decoy, it shouldn’t be so they can give the ball to his less talented backup.
The Lions rode the momentum of that stop all the way down the field to tie the game at 20. The remainder of the 4th quarter was an embarrassment of mistakes by both teams with penalties and mistakes littering the field like confetti. The Lions were lucky to escape to overtime, where they won the toss and easily moved downfield for the game winning kick.
There were dozens of key plays in this game, but ultimately only two really mattered. The first was:
Calvin Johnson’s 31 yard touchdown grab early in the 3rd quarter gave the Lions the jump start they needed to start the half as well as planting the first seed of doubt in the Viking’s minds. The Vikings had so much success rushing the passer in the first half that they didn’t show the Lions’ downfield passing game much respect. Stafford took advantage of the single coverage on Calvin Johnson with a beautiful jump ball that only Calvin had a shot at.
Obviously, the other key play has to be the 4th down stop at the Lions’ 17 yard line. I blame this debacle on the Vikings’ coaches for two reasons. First, the Vikings were trying to overcome an avalanche of momentum from the Lions 17 unanswered point run. Leslie Frazier knows his team had to be thinking “not again” after blowing two other huge leads this season. Instead of stopping the bleeding and giving his players a little bit of confidence, Frazier instead tried to go for a kill shot. Normally I am a fan of aggressive play calling, but his team did not have a go for the kill mentality at that point, they were hesitant and tentative.
Second, the play call was one of the worst I have ever seen in all my years of watching football. The Vikings have an All Pro left guard in Steve Hutchinson and the best running back in the league. This situation was tailor made for their biggest offensive strength. Instead they went away from their best player with the game on the line. That is the type of playcall that poisons a locker room by making players questions their coaches. The Vikings never recovered from it in this game, and sometime they don’t recover for the remainder of the season. Just look back to the Redskins benching McNabb in Detroit last season for a prime example of that.