Vikings win despite not playing their best

The Minnesota Vikings snapped their 11-game NFC North losing streak Sunday by going on the road and beating the Detroit Lions 20-13, in the process staying on top in the division and building on the momentum created from last week’s win against San Francisco.

Percy Harvin’s 105-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff started a second-straight impressive win for Minnesota, which outlasted Detroit thanks to defense and special teams. But the Vikings (3-1) still have things to work on with the Tennessee Titans (1-3) coming to town next week.

Here’s how Minnesota stacked up in its NFC North-changing win against the Lions:

Pass offense: D

Receiver Jerome Simpson’s return was expected to provide a spark to Minnesota’s short-passing offense. His impact was felt even with a modest line of four catches for 50 yards. Simpson was the recipient of two big pass interference calls that accounted for 57 yards for the Vikings. He also caught a big first-down pass helping to draw more time off the clock in the fourth quarter. Tight end John Carlson had his first catch with Minnesota and lost a yard, his only catch of the game.

However, Detroit’s defense was able to limit Harvin (three catches) and tight end Kyle Rudolph was held to just two catches, both coming on a drive midway through the third quarter. With the Lions seemingly focused on taking Harvin out of the game, quarterback Christian Ponder failed to sustain drives with the passing game. The Vikings finished 3 of 12 on third-down attempts. Ponder finished 16 for 26 for a season-low 111 yards passing and Minnesota went without an offensive touchdown in the game. Of course, Ponder also didn’t commit any turnovers, playing a conservative game plan that ended with a win. As the season progresses, and with running back Adrian Peterson gaining steam, teams will force Ponder to beat them. He made the big plays when needed much of the first three weeks, but Sunday was a step back in terms of the passing game.

Run offense: B-plus

Peterson is getting better as the season goes on and he gets further away from knee surgery. Peterson showed the trademark burst through the line and acceleration that might have been the one thing missing during the first three weeks. Sunday, he showed some of the explosiveness that turned him into the league’s highest-paid running back and nearly broke a few real big gains. He also demonstrated he’s not concerned with his surgically repaired knee, using several big cuts to avoid tacklers. He finished with 21 carries for 102 yards and was the entirety of Minnesota’s offense for much of the game.

Detroit did shift its attention to stopping Peterson late in the game with the Vikings trying to run out the clock. Peterson’s last four carries went for minus-3 yards. But Minnesota was in clock-grinding mode and was mostly conservative with the play-calling on its final two drives while trying to make its two-touchdown advantage hold up. Backup Toby Gerhart was in to give Peterson a breather at different points in the game, taking three carries for eight yards in a clear, strictly backup role. The past two weeks, there has been no sign of a shared backfield role between Peterson and Gerhart. Peterson, amazingly less than nine months from knee surgery, is showing it’s not needed by getting stronger the past two weeks.

Pass defense: B

The Lions entered Sunday with the league’s top passing offense, but probably won’t stay that way. Detroit finished with 286 net passing yards with quarterback Matthew Stafford being sacked five times. He had been sacked four times total the first three weeks.

Under pressure a lot, Stafford finished 30 of his 51 passes for 319 yards. And the game was in Stafford’s hands throughout with the Lions unable to establish any running game. Of Detroit’s 341 yards, 286 were through the air.

The Lions receivers have been plagued by drops all season and it happened again Sunday. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew each suffered critical drops in the end zone, and had others as well.

Credit is due to Minnesota’s secondary though, after being routinely beaten last season, especially by Detroit’s receivers. Rookie safety Harrison Smith had a strong game, breaking up three passes and putting the hit on Johnson that caused an incompletion on what would have been a touchdown. Jamarca Sanford, starting for injured safety Mistral Raymond, was called for pass interference on Johnson on the Lions’ first play from scrimmage. But he also had two passes defensed, one ball that went through his hands for a possible interception, had a forced fumble for the second straight game and ended up with his own recovery. Johnson, who came in leading the league in receiving yards and third in receptions was held to five catches for 54 yards. Much of the passing yardage came from backup running back Joique Bell, who had six catches for 72 yards as Detroit tried to rally.

Run defense: A

Minnesota can safely call itself a top run-defense in the league now. The Vikings entered Sunday a top-10 unit while going against the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew in the opener and Frank Gore last week. But the Vikings, as they emphasize, made Detroit one-dimensional. Lions running back Mikel LeShoure was coming off a 100-plus yard performance last week and he finished with 13 carries for 26 yards on Sunday to lead the team. Detroit finished with 55 yards rushing. The biggest carry was a 14-yarder for LeShoure, whose fumble at the end was recovered by Minnesota. The Lions only had 15 yards rushing in the first half.

Special teams: A

Starting with Harvin’s 105-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff, the big plays came via special teams for the Vikings, versus Detroit coverage units that have been torched the past two weeks. Punt returner Marcus Sherels, on his birthday, scored his first NFL touchdown with a 77-yard punt return following the Lions’ first drive of the second half, firmly re-establishing Minnesota’s momentum. Following Harvin’s touchdown, Detroit refused to kick the ball to him again, setting up the Vikings in good field position each time. Sherels’ touchdown was his only return.

Detroit has given up a kickoff and punt return for touchdown in each of the past two weeks. Harvin and Sherels became the third pair in team history to do so in the same game, the first team in league history with three such games. Harvin has five kickoff returns for touchdowns in his first four seasons, only Hall of Famer Gale Sayers (six) has had more in his first four seasons.

Rookie kicker Blair Walsh put each of his five touchdowns in the end zone for touchbacks, but he did miss a field goal attempt for the first time this season. He connected on attempts from 49 and 27 yards, but missed a 46-yard try in the fourth quarter that would have put the game all but out of reach. Punter Chris Kluwe averaged 43.2 yards-per-punt and downed two inside the 20-yard line, including his final punt which pinned Detroit on its own 2-yard line.

Overall: B-plus

Credit Minnesota’s coaches for having the team prepared to play another tough game a week after Sunday’s big win against San Francisco. And credit the defensive staff for a game plan that was able to hold Stafford and Johnson down and stop the running game to take any balance away from the Lions’ offense. The Vikings have already won as many games as they did all of last season, and did so the past two weeks against playoff teams from last year. Minnesota didn’t commit a turnover, getting one themselves. The Vikings won despite just 227 total yards of offense. Winning a game on the road when they didn’t play their best is a big step.

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