The Vikings thought they found a weakness in a decent Detroit defense and were able to exploit it just often enough Sunday in a 21-16 win at Ford Field.
Minnesota's offense under replacement quarterback Brad Johnson has been labeled conservative and efficient, but the only label the Vikings cared about was "winners." That trend continued Sunday for the fifth straight week, but Minnesota needed to exploit the Lions' aggressive cornerbacks to make it happen.
Johnson completed two deep passes to Koren Robinson in the first half – one an 80-yard touchdown on the offense's first play – and needed every bit of that vertical success in order to come away with a 14-6 halftime lead that turned into a 21-16 win.
The offensive emergence of Robinson allowed Johnson to have his most productive game of the season, completing 17 of 23 passes for 256 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 139.0 rating. Robinson finished with four catches for 148 yards and a touchdown, including 125 yards on two first-half catches.
But the Vikings were fortunate they had that game plan, because little else worked on offense. No other receiver had more than 32 yards, starting running back Mewelde Moore was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with a sprained ankle and Michael Bennett averaged only 3.6 yards per carry on 22 attempts. Even punter Chris Kluwe was lost to an ankle injury midway through the second half.
Instead, an ever-improving Minnesota defense limited Detroit to 223 yard of total offense, including 118 yards passing, and a 3.8-yard average per offensive play.
If the Lions were looking to get more explosive with their young, first-round wide receivers, you wouldn't have known it. Mike Williams was held to one catch for 6 yards, Charles Rogers was inactive and, despite efforts to heavily involve Roy Williams, he was held to four catches for 34 yards. Jeff Garcia looked more comfortable hitting check-down, short-yardage routes as he completed three passes on the first drive, but backup running back Shawn Bryson handled the majority of the first drive after a 34-yard kickoff return by Eddie Drummond. But, despite the longest play of the opening drive going for only 7 yards, the Lions drove into field goal position, a 45-yarder by Jason Hanson, for a 3-0 Lions lead.
While it took Detroit 13 plays to drive 35 yards on its opening drive, it took the Vikings only one play to score an 80-yard touchdown. Johnson used play-action to set up an 80-yard bomb to Robinson down the right sideline for a quick-strike 7-3 lead with 7:56 to play in the first quarter.
The teams exchanged three punts before another explosive play to Robinson put Minnesota in Detroit territory. Facing third-and-3, Johnson hung in the pocket under pressure and delivered a 45-yard bomb to Robinson down the left sideline. With the ball on the 16-yard line, runs of 9 and 7 yards put the Vikings on top 14-3 with 13:53 to play in the first half.
The next drives for each team went three-and-out and the Vikings stopped the Lions' fifth drive after getting to midfield, but Minnesota was trying for one last score to end the first half. The Vikings started moving the ball with a 15-yard run by Ciatrick Fason for the initial first down and a 5-yard run by Bennett for another first down, but three consecutive rushes for losses was only a portent of the problems immediately ahead.
A snap over Chris Kluwe's head caused trouble on the ensuing punt. While Kluwe tracked down the ball and punted it across midfield, the timing of the play was broken and the Vikings were called for an illegal man downfield. Being backed up 5 yards and giving Eddie Drummond another shot at a punt return hurt Minnesota's field-position game, and after a 38-yard return the Lions were inside the red zone with 36 seconds left in the half. Detroit picked up one first down on the first play, but a scattered passing game forced it to settle for a 26-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 14-6 at the half.
Johnson answered to start the second half. He hit Travis Taylor on the opening play for 14 yards, then found Nate Burleson for 15 yards on third down. After a 13-yard pass to Robinson and a 7-yard scramble by Johnson, the Vikings were on Detroit's 10-yard line and looking to push the lead back to two scores. Two touches of 5 yards apiece by Bennett did the trick with 10:45 remaining in the third quarter, and Minnesota assumed a 21-6 lead.
The Lions weren't about to lie down. After an exchange of punts, Detroit picked up three big plays on their second drive of the second half. Running back Artose Pinner caught consecutive passes of 15 and 19 yards, and Minnesota cornerback Brian Williams followed with a 27-yard pass interference penalty while defending the Lions' Mike Williams. But with the ball at the Minnesota 12-yard line, the Vikings defense held and forced a 28-yard field goal from Hanson to make it 21-9.
Things got even worse for the Vikings in the third quarter. They wished they would have been allowed to go three-and-out on the next drive, but that was extended when Vernon Fox ran himself into Kluwe's plant leg after a punt, taking a potential rookie Pro Bowler out of the game and maybe the season with an ankle injury. After three more offensive plays, kicker Paul Edinger came up with a 35-yard punt, and the Lions were set up for their only touchdown drive of the game.
Pinner picked up two first downs with runs of 12 and 2 yards, both on third downs, before another penalty hurt the Vikings' chances. Brian Williams returned an interception of Garcia for a touchdown, but Minnesota was flagged for a questionable late hit, negating the points and extending Detroit's drive. From the 27-yard line, three consecutive Pinner rushes put the Lions in the end zone and drew them within five points, 21-16, with 7:38 to play.
The Vikings took possession at their own 23-yard line and, following a 14-yard pass to Marcus Robinson, they went into clock management mode. They moved across midfield with an end-around to Koren Robinson and four consecutive Bennett runs, but a holding penalty on Anthony Herrera brought the ball back to midfield and forced another Edinger punt. He delivered a beauty, pinning Detroit on its 7-yard line.
With 2:46 to play, the Lions needed a touchdown drive to win. Garcia found a rhythm in the no-huddle offense and completed passes of 4 and 6 yards. Bryson took a handoff 7 yards to bring the game to the two-minute warning, but Detroit was only on its own 24-yard line. An illegal contact penalty and passes of 13 and 12 yards to Roy Williams brought them across midfield and to 46-yard line with just over one minute to play. But, one play later, Corey Chavous ended the game when he beat Roy Williams to a Garcia bomb at the 2-yard line to end Detroit's chances with 52 seconds remaining.
After three quarterback sneaks, the Vikings were able to run out the clock and sneak home a 21-16 win.
Even with the win and moving to 7-5 on the season, the Vikings remain two games behind the NFC North-leading Bears with four games remaining, but Minnesota did what it had to once again in winning its fifth straight game with Johnson at the helm.
The playoff picture will continue to be a developing situation.
Winning Effort: Strong Defense, Big Plays
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