Former Vikings GM: “Stay Ahead of SF.”

Justin Jefferson Can Wrap
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

After a tough day in Motown, the Vikings need a win over Indy to wrap up the division and stay ahead of the 49ers.

The good news for the Purple from their Sunday visit to Detroit is Justin Jefferson remains superhuman, and their 9-0 record this season in one-score games held firm. That’s because the Vikings lost 34-23 in Detroit while J.J. had a record-breaking performance. 

The loss to the hot Lions (now 5-1 in their last six games) dropped the Vikings to 10-3. The result became more predictable when the news broke that three key starters — Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith and two offensive linemen — Christian Darrisaw and Garrett Bradbury — were being held out due to injuries that shouldn’t prevent them from playing this Saturday against the Colts. 

The Smith absence was felt in a secondary afflicted by busted coverages and was missing the NFL’s second-leading interceptor and a key blitzer. Lions QB Jared Goff, who is having a great second half of the season (10 TD passes with just one pick in his last six games), took advantage with a 330-yard, 3-TD passing day with no turnovers.

The missing linemen hurt the Vikings running attack, which was shut down with only 22 rushing yards and seven tackles for loss, thus allowing the Lions to win time of possession. Pass protection also was shaky as the Lions recorded four sacks and nine quarterback hits. Lions rookie and second-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson was a force with a sack, two tackles for loss, and two QB hits. It was somewhat surprising to see him beat the Vikings excellent tackle, Brian O’Neill, a couple of times after O’Neill and the Vikings line handled Hutchinson in their September matchup.

Explained: State of the Vikings thru 4 Games
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The Vikings wasted tremendous performances in the passing game, especially by Jefferson and Kirk Cousins. J.J. set the Vikings’ record for receiving yards in a regular season game with his 223 yards on 11 receptions (breaking Sammy White’s 46-year-old record of 210 yards in 1976, also against Detroit). Jefferson now leads the league with 1,500 receiving yards, and his goal of 2,000 yards (which would break the NFL record) remains a possibility. Cousins was on target and willing to throw into the consistent double coverage on Jefferson as he passed for 425 yards and 2 TDs. 

The Vikings will win the NFC North with one more win or a Detroit loss (they are home to 4-8-1 Indianapolis while the 6-7 Lions are at the 7-6 Jets, with both Detroit and New York in playoff contention and needing a win). The bigger concern for the Purple should be the surging 49ers, who won their sixth straight by walloping Tom Brady and the Bucs 35-7. San Fran is hot on the Vikings heels for the important No. 2 seed, now trailing by only one game, and the 49ers hold the tie-breaker with a better record in NFC games if both teams wind up 13-4. 

Here are my other reactions to the loss in Detroit:

1. Vikings miscues costly: there were a bunch in this game, including the blown coverage by Cam Bynum (with no help from Cam Dantzler, who had nobody to cover on his side of the field) on Jameson Williams’ 41-yard first-quarter TD pass from Goff; Chandon Sullivan’s unnecessary hit on Goff as he slid to extend a drive, and a third down sideline drop by T.J. Hockenson that killed a second-quarter drive.

The two worst Vikings miscues were the Dalvin Cook fumble inside the Detroit 5-yard line late in the first half on a bad play call (with worse execution) which cost the Vikings at least three and probably seven points when they were down 14-7 and the fake punt for 42 yards by the Lions’ D. J. Moore early in the third quarter that led to a Goff TD pass to Josh Reynolds and a 21-7 lead.     

Kirk Cousins Was Elite in Detroit. Didn't Matter.
David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports.

Regardless of how well Kevin O’Connell said they had practiced it, I did not like the play with Cook faking a run and attempting to throw over the line. Guard Ed Ingram was quickly beaten inside, disrupting the timing, which resulted in a disastrous fumble on 1st-and-goal. If O’Connell wanted to try a creative play with the Vikings having difficulty running the ball, how about going with Jefferson on a jet sweep with a run-pass option, as we know he can throw it effectively?

The fake punt was a gutsy call by Lions Coach Dan Campbell (especially on 4th-and-8 from the Detroit 26 with a seven-point lead at the time), but the Vikings still should’ve been wary of such a play as the Lions have successfully executed 6 of 7 fake punts under Campbell. 

2. Pass defense — yikes! It’s the fifth straight game the Vikings defense has allowed over 400 total yards, and most of the damage has been through the air. This is a huge concern moving into the last four games of the regular season and then the playoffs, and getting Harrison Smith back is essential. 

The Vikings have survived their porous defense with clutch takeaways, but there were none against the Lions. It’s hard to win when the Vikings defense allows six conversions between 3rd-and-7 and 3rd-and-12, including the game-clinching 3rd-and-7 gain of nine yards on the tackle-eligible pass to Penei Sewell that Eric Kendricks didn’t cover. 

O’Connell said post-game that the Vikings have to get their pass defense fixed, and he added that more blitzes might be necessary. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell will need to get the defense back on track, or his job could be in jeopardy next year (and can’t assistant head coach Mike Pettine, a long-time successful defensive coordinator in the league, be of more help to Donatell and O’Connell immediately?).  

Kevin O'Connell Has Earned a Bad Game, But It Needs to Stick
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3. It starts with the pass rush: the Lions have a top O-line, but there were no sacks and limited pressure, with only four hits on Goff. It’s hard for the Vikings to win without their two top pass rushers — Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter — wreaking havoc. Hunter had two tackles and no QB hits, while Smith had one tackle and one QB hit. That won’t cut it for two high-priced defenders. Smith now has four straight sackless games, and if his knee is bothering him, he should sit out a game or two so he’s healthy come playoff time.

4. J.J. was robbed by the zebras: he said (and I agree) that he stayed inbounds on his 39-yard circus catch and run that should have been 32 more yards to the end zone, which would have given him 255 receiving yards on the day. That would have put him closer to breaking the NFL record of Calvin Johnson (1,964 yards in 2012), and most importantly, it cost the Vikings 45 valuable seconds before K.J. Osborn’s 15-yard TD reception. Perhaps if there was 3:41 remaining instead of 2:56 after that score, then the Vikings wouldn’t have tried the unsuccessful onsides kick that rarely works. Detroit then would have had further to go for the game-clinching field goal. 

5. Can someone explain the logic of going for the two-point conversion after Adam Thielen’s 23-yard TD reception pulled the Vikings within 21-13 late in the third quarter? Why not kick the PAT and pull within seven points unless O’Connell felt he had a great two-point play? The wide receiver screen to Thielen, where he caught the ball short of the end zone, did not turn out to be such a play. 

The Vikings Playoff Probability Meter: Week 15
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6. Watch out for the Lions the rest of this season and more so in 2023: what a difference a year makes in looking at the trade of Goff, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick to the Lions for Matthew Stafford. 

It looked good for the Rams last year when Stafford led them to a Super Bowl victory, but now it’s turned sharply in Detroit’s favor as Stafford played only nine games this season (3-6 record) before going on IR with a scary neck injury/spinal cord contusion while Goff is having his best season and has led the Lions’ impressive rebound from a 1-6 start to where they are now in the wild card hunt. Goff is no longer viewed as a bridge QB to a future high draft pick, and the Lions will have the Rams’ first-round pick next April, which looks like it will be a top-five pick with the Rams now 4-9. 

Around the NFL Observations:

1. The Vikings can forget about the No. 1 seed in the NFC as the Eagles crushed the Giants 48-22 behind Jalen Hurts’ two TD passes and one TD run and Miles Sanders’ 144 rushing yards and two TDs. Philly now leads the Vikings by two games, along with a head-to-head win. 

2. Tom Brady bought 100 tickets for family and friends for his second-ever game in San Franciso and proceeded to have a bad game with two interceptions and little production against the 49ers excellent defense. Not a great homecoming to his native Bay area in the 35-7 defeat that dropped the Bucs to 6-7 (but still leading the lousy NFC South). Never thought we’d see seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy beat Brady but Purdy has a much better supporting cast.  

3. The Bills held onto the top AFC seed by beating the Jets 20-12 on a snowy day in Buffalo. The two biggest Week 14 upsets were the Seahawks losing their third straight as they fell at home to the Panthers (and now host the 49ers in a critical Thursday night game) and the Titans fell at home to Trevor Lawrence and the improved Jaguars 36-22. It’s the third straight loss for 7-6 Tennessee, who still leads the AFC South by two games over the Jags. And happy to see the Bengals beat Deshaun Watson and the 5-8 Browns 23-10 to put Cleveland on the brink of playoff elimination.

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl