The Minnesota Vikings’ defense is shaping up to be one of the NFL’s best and continues to carry the club’s lackluster offense.
They may need to lean on the unit again as they seek their first NFC North road win in nine tries Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
The Vikings (3-2) began their defensive turnaround under Mike Zimmer last year, limiting opponents to 21.4 points per game after giving up a league-worst 30.0 in 2013.
They look even better in 2015, allowing 16.6 per game to rank second in the NFL.
Minnesota’s defense led the way again in last Sunday’s 16-10 win against Kansas City. The Chiefs only converted 3 of 12 third downs, were scoreless on two red-zone possessions and the Vikings forced and recovered a key fumble in their own territory with less than five minutes remaining.
"They got the job done for us," running back Adrian Peterson said. "That’s why it’s called a team."
Teddy Bridgewater was picked off twice, and his 65.1 passer rating marked his third of 79.0 or lower.
With their young quarterback still developing, the Vikings have leaned heavily on Peterson, who is third in the NFL with 20.2 rushes a game. He was ineffective Sunday, however, with 60 yards on 26 attempts. The 2.3 yards per carry marked his third-lowest ever in a game in which he had 20 or more runs.
Peterson has averaged 107.1 rushing yards with 11 TDs in 13 matchups against the Lions. He ran 29 times for 134 yards but fumbled twice in a 26-16 victory in Week 2.
Peterson was downgranded to questionable for this game due to an illness. He jammed the ring finger on his left hand last week against Kansas City and was originally listed as probable to play the Lions because of that injury. The illness did not come into play until the Vikings made the announcement Saturday.
Detroit (1-5) finally tasted victory last week, 37-34 in overtime against Chicago after averaging 16.6 points through its first five games. The Lions’ 546 total yards marked their most since racking up 561 in a 2013 Thanksgiving victory over Green Bay, though they still committed three turnovers. Their 18 giveaways are four more than the next highest total.
They also had three giveaways in the first meeting with the Vikings, including an interception by Matthew Stafford, who averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt. Though Stafford was only sacked once, he was under constant duress from the Minnesota pass rush, which recorded six hurries and nine knockdowns.
Stafford was 27 of 42 for 405 yards and four TDs last week, but that came against the Bears, who have given up a 108.6 opponent passer rating to rank 31st. Detroit is last at 110.3.
Calvin Johnson also came alive with six receptions for a season-high 166 yards and his second TD. He had been averaging 64.4 receiving yards, his fewest since averaging 50.4 as a rookie in 2007.
"We’ve been asked this question on several occasions this year, last year and I answered it this year: Can he still run by people? Absolutely. Can he jump over the top of folks and make catches? You better believe it," coach Jim Caldwell said. "Can he score touchdowns? All right, he can do all of those things."
Johnson had 10 catches for 83 yards in the first meeting and has averaged a modest – by Megatron standards – 77.2 yards over his last six matchups.
Stefon Diggs continued his emergence in the Minnesota passing game, catching seven balls for 129 yards in his second career game last Sunday – two weeks after he had 87 yards on six receptions against Denver.
Teammate Mike Wallace has said Diggs’ skills are reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown.
"He works really hard and he runs good routes, he catches the ball good," Zimmer said. "He’s competitive, he really wants to be good and so I think that’s why he works so hard at it. And he’s talented as well."
The Vikings, the league’s only undefeated home team without a win on the road, have won once in their last 16 division games away from home – 20-13 at Detroit on Sept. 30, 2012.
One issue has been their pass protection, as they’ve surrendered 12 sacks in two road games compared to three at home.
"We’ve got to protect the quarterback better than what we’ve done on the road," Zimmer said.
The Lions have won four of the last five home meetings.