Whether it was by design or given the additions to the laundry list of injuries that have decimated the Minnesota Vikings offensive line, Thursday’s 16-13 loss to the Detroit Lions underscored what the Vikings offense has become.
Entering today’s game, one of the rallying cries for the struggling O-line was that they were having the same five guys on the field for two games in a row.
That didn’t last long.
Joe Berger, the only Vikings full-time starting offensive lineman who hadn’t missed any time due to injury this season, went down with a concussion on the Vikings’ second drive of the game and didn’t return. Early in the fourth quarter, Jeremiah Sirles, the third different starting right tackle, was knocked out of the game and had to be replaced by rookie guard Willie Beavers – who was cut at the end of the preseason and re-signed to the practice squad and was only active because of the other injuries that have gutted the Vikings offense.
The result was arguably the shortest passing game in Vikings history. Sam Bradford completed 31 of 37 passes, but only one of them – a 21-yard pass to backup tight end Rhett Ellison – was thrown more than 10 yards.
The Vikings had three pass plays of more than 10 yards, but the other two were on short passes that had run after the catch. The biggest play of the game was a 41-yard catch and run by Jerick McKinnon that was actually a check-down pass caught near the line of scrimmage, and Kyle Rudolph had a completion of 18 yards that was a short pass over the middle that found a seam and allowed Rudolph to get upfield.
Other than that?
Bradford’s other 28 completions included on pass of minus-4 yards, one of 1 yard, three of 2 yards, four of 3 yards, two of 4 yards, five of 5 yards, four of 6 yards, one of 7 yards, one of 8 yards, three of 9 yards and three of 10 yards. Unbelievably, most of those passes were shorter than that and included some yardage after the catch.
The frustration was evident on the field as the Vikings needed to string together very long drives to get into scoring position, which is a rarely a recipe for success.
Following the game, Bradford said the Vikings have to find a way to take deep shots and keep defenses honest because the Lions were able to pack in their defense when it became obvious that just about every pass was going to be coming out of Bradford’s hand quickly and be a short pass in front of the defenders.
“We’ve probably got to try to find a way to create some explosive plays,” Bradford said. “It’s hard when you are only picking up 5, 6, 7 at a time. There are things we can do to try to figure out how we can create more explosive plays. I think that’s an area we’ve got to get better in.”
The biggest difference in the Vikings offense Sunday was not having leading receiver and top deep threat Stefon Diggs out of the lineup. The Vikings were forced to concentrate most of their passes to Rudolph and Adam Thielen. Rudolph was targeted 10 times, catching nine passes for 64 yards (a 7.1-yard average) and Thielen was targeted 11 times, catching eight passes for just 53 yards (a 6.6-yard average).
Bradford made it clear that the Vikings offense still had weapons, but it’s hard to replace Diggs. That being said, he was happy how the other receivers stepped up and tried to make plays.
“I thought those guys played well today,” Bradford said. “Obviously, missing Diggs, he’s a big part of our offense and what we do, but I thought those guys, they played well. They stepped up. I think that’s the good thing about this group is we’ve got a lot of depth. We’ve got a lot of guys we can put in and make plays.”
The loss couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Vikings. With a chance to reclaim sole possession of first place, Minnesota now not only sits a game behind Detroit, but, by virtue of losing twice in 18 days to the Lions, Detroit owns all divisional tie-breakers, which means that if the Vikings are going to win the NFC North, they will have to make up two games on the Lions in the final five.
While depressed to see how the loss came about late – as Detroit won its seventh game this season when trailing at some point in the fourth quarter – head coach Mike Zimmer said his team isn’t giving up or giving in. They have a job to do and won’t stop until they’ve been eliminated from defending their division crown.
“We’ve got five games left to play,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to go play them and we’re going to keep fighting. It is what it is.”