Bud Grant formed a Hall of Fame coaching career from 1967-85. Give the Detroit Lions a big assist.
Grant’s initial Vikings team finished fourth in the NFC Central Division in 1967, but then he went on to win four straight division titles. After a year after finishing third in 1972, Grant added another streak of six straight division titles. In all, Grant won the Central Division 11 times.
Before Grant, the Vikings were 3-8-1 against the Lions. During his tenure, however, the Vikings were 27-8-1 against the Lions, including a 13-game winning streak from 1968-74 – which covered the last part of his initial streak winning the NFC Central and the first part of his second, six-season streak as champions of the NFC Central.
The Vikings were kings of the division then, marching to four Super Bowls, and the Lions assisted Grant’s Vikings for playoff positioning by providing a doormat team on which the Vikings wiped their feet.
Other Vikings coaches have come and gone between the Grant era and Mike Zimmer rookie season as a head coach, but no coach compares in Grant’s no-nonsense demeanor as much as Zimmer. There is a mix of separation from players, yet strong respect from them.
But if Zimmer is going to enjoy anywhere close to the success that Grant did, his teams will have to turn around their fortunes against the Detroit Lions. Granted, these are no longer the doormat Lions of Grant’s era, but as long as the Green Bay Packers have Aaron Rodgers they will remain contenders. The Chicago Bears could be a mess for a few years while they work through another coaching change and Jay Cutler’s mystifying mannerisms.
Meanwhile, Zimmer’s inaugural season as a head coach saw his team go only 1-5 against teams in the NFC North. While others waxed excitedly about the Vikings’ possibilities in 2015, Zimmer remained resolute that his team had proved nothing. Look no further than their results against the Lions for proof of that.
In the first game against Detroit last year, the offensive line showed its weaknesses. Guard Brandon Fusco was already lost for the year with a torn pectoral muscle and Vladimir Ducasse was starting in his place. Matt Kalil was in the midst of a slump that Detroit defensive end Ezekiel Ansah was too happy to exploit. Ansah had only 7½ sacks last year, but one-third of those came in the Week 6 matchup against Kalil and the Vikings.
But Ansah was hardly the only wrecking ball for the Lions. Ndamukong Suh broke through for two sacks, and as a team the Lions laid out Teddy Bridgewater for eight sacks. Bridgewater took responsibility for what remains the worst game of his career. He threw three interceptions and posted a 41.3 passer rating.
The 17-3 loss was ugly on many levels. Not long after, Bridgewater began a resurrection when he became bullish on getting the ball out on time. It took another five-sack performance against another stifling defensive line with the Buffalo Bills the following week, but after that Bridgewater averaged just over two sacks per game over the next six weeks … until the Vikings met the Lions again.
Bridgewater played better, completing 75 percent of his passes for 315 yards, but he was sacked four times, threw his only touchdown pass against the 2014 Lions in his two games against them, and added another two interceptions.
There is no better time for Zimmer to get out his Detroit and divisional doldrums than Sunday.
It is the Vikings’ home opener and the Lions have a different defensive look. The team that finished second overall on defense in the NFL gave up 483 yards to the San Diego Chargers last week and allowed 30 unanswered points after building a 21-3 lead in the first half.
Since last year, the Lions have lost Suh to the Miami Dolphins in free agency and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley to the St. Louis Rams. Suh was replaced by free-agent signee Haloti Ngata, who is questionable for Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury.
“Ngata is a big, athletic guy, very similar to Suh. I would hate to say that one is more powerful than the other because they both are and they’re both very, very good athletes,” Zimmer said Friday. “I remember Ngata from his younger days, but he’s a good player.”
The Lions are expected to be without perhaps their best defensive player, linebacker DeAndre Levy, who is doubtful with a hip injury. Given that Bridgewater didn’t have Adrian Peterson or Kyle Rudolph available for the first meeting against the Lions last year, the loss of Levy could be game-tilting.
These days, the Lions still have some formidable weapons on offense with Calvin Johnson among the best receivers in the league, Golden Tate working underneath routes and Ameer Abdullah flashing his explosiveness at running back in the his professional debut last week.
But if Zimmer is going to get 2015 on the right track, it has to start in the division against Detroit. These aren’t the pushover Lions of the Grant era, but they are a Lions team the Vikings should beat at TCF Bank Stadium if they are truly a playoff contender.