Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer found himself in an all-too-familiar spot Friday afternoon, standing in front of a throng of media asking questions as to why his team that started out so strong continues to flounder – losing the fifth game of their last six Thursday with a 16-13 loss to Detroit.
As has been his habit after losses, Zimmer’s answers were short and unenlightening, but when it came to his defense, he had some things to say.
In what turned out to be one of the most critical plays of the game with 10 minutes to play, the Lions faced a third-and-15 from their own 20-yard line and quarterback Matthew Stafford avoided the pass rush and gained the needed 15 yards.
It didn’t lead to points, but it flipped field position and the Lions would take advantage on a play in which the Vikings uncharacteristically got away from their assignments.
“We had poor rush lanes,” Zimmer said. “We had a free runner on the one side and we would have had him. We got up the field too far and he ducked underneath.”
Just as critical was the game-tying drive that began with five minutes to play. Much like the last-minute drive in Detroit’s win at U.S. Bank Stadium 18 days earlier, the Lions were pinned deep in their own end – this time on the 2-yard line – and torched the Vikings for three first downs that put Detroit in scoring position.
While he wouldn’t name names, Zimmer pointed out three plays that the Vikings got out of their assignments and opened the door for Detroit’s comeback. It wasn’t that the Lions surprised them with anything, it was the execution of his defense that he saw as the problem.
“They didn’t do anything different,” Zimmer said. “We knew exactly what they were doing. We had a guy play coverage wrong twice and we had a guy take a poor rush angle. Those are three things. That’s what I’m talking about in executing at critical times of the game.”
For the first time all season, the Vikings will have to start scoreboard watching. They no longer control their own playoff destiny. At 6-5, not only are they a game behind Detroit for the division title with no tie-breakers in their favor, they’re a half-game out of the second wild card spot behind Washington.
With five to play, the Vikings aren’t concerning themselves with what other teams do. They didn’t do that when they won their first five games and they haven’t done it since they’ve lost five of their last six.
Zimmer believes the team can finish strong by taking the approach that has led to success the last two seasons.
“Part of it is to do your job and the other part is to finish, continue to play hard and believe,” Zimmer said. “Even when we were in the playoff mix, we didn’t ever talk about it. We just talked about the next game and that’s all we’re going to continue to talk about is the next game coming up and the next game after that and the next game after that. We’ll find out how we want to fight and how we want to go about our business.”
While the ending of games has been a problem for the Vikings, the defense allowed just one touchdown – the 27th time in the last 29 games that Minnesota has limited an opponent to two touchdowns or fewer of any fashion – offense, defense or special teams.
Zimmer clearly isn’t happy with his team’s slide toward a .500 record, but as long the defense continues to do what it has done for the last two years, he knows his team has a chance to win every game it plays.
“I keep going back to it, we’re averaging (giving up) 17.5 points a game,” Zimmer said. “It’s not bad. It’s not like guys are just going up and down the field on us. They’ve got some good players too and they make some plays. Typically, what happens is there’s something we mess up, but I would take 17 points a game every day of the week.”
PRESS CONFERENCE NOTES
O-Line Problems Again: Zimmer declined to comment on the hip injury suffered by right tackle Jeremiah Sirles or whether he will play next Thursday given the extent of the injury. He also didn’t elaborate on the concussion suffered by center Joe Berger. When asked if Berger remains in the concussion protocol, Zimmer said, “You can assume whatever you want.” Since Berger didn’t return to the game, it is apparent he is in the concussion protocol.
The Replacement: Zimmer had good things to say about reserve offensive lineman Nick Easton, who replaced Berger and finished the game at center.
“He did well,” Zimmer said. “He was quick to get to where we want (him) to. He had power. He got to the second level. He finished plays.”
Boom Goes the Dynamite: Following Thursday’s game, Sam Bradford expressed some frustration for the lack of explosive plays that the offense has been able to generate. Consistently throwing short passes that barely got past the line of scrimmage – even on third-down plays that required more yardage than where the passes were thrown, Zimmer said you can’t simply dial up plays or throw beyond the sticks when the first or second read is covered.
“There’s always a combination of things,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes it’s play selection. Sometimes it’s just taking your shots when they’re presented to you. I would agree that we need to score more.”
Keeping Sam Clean: While the offense sputtered much of the day Thursday, Zimmer praised the makeshift pass protection in front of Bradford, but noted that their brutal third-down conversion rate (making good on just two of 10) has to change.
“It was good,” Zimmer said of the pass protection. “(Bradford) got hit three times yesterday, so it was pretty good. There are so many different way of doing (pass strategy) – everybody talks about it – but sometimes these 3-yard throws or runs turn out to be 5-yard plays. We’re trying to get a mixture of runs and throws in there and we’ve got do a better job on third downs. Obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job there yesterday. When we’ve been more successful offensively this year – I just went and checked all the things – our third-down conversion rate has been pretty good. We have to make a point of emphasis on that.”