Thursday, November 23, 2017

Notebook: Vikings feast on the Lions, take control of the NFC North


The Vikings put themselves in an excellent position to claim an NFC North title with a 30-23 Thanksgiving victory over the Detroit Lions. Daniel House provides his initial takeaways.

The Vikings put themselves in an excellent position to claim an NFC North title with a 30-23 Thanksgiving victory over the Detroit Lions. Quarterback Case Keenum completed 21 of his 30 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Kyle Rudolph grabbed a pair of scores and the Vikings snapped a three-game losing streak against Detroit. 

Keenum takes control, Rudolph snatches touchdowns
Quarterback Case Keenum took control and played very confidently in Thursday's win. He was moving in the pocket to escape the rush and made plays with his legs. Keenum shook a safety blitz and found wide receiver Adam Thielen for a key third down conversion. To open the game, he led the Vikings on a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, taking 6:59 off the clock. The team converted all three of their third down tries and Keenum finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown strike to tight end Kyle Rudolph. Much of the analysis last week discussed Keenum taking risky chances down the field. In this game, he still drove the ball up the field, but only had two or three decisions one would consider risky.

Otherwise, he was in a rhythm and using his pocket presence to find his pass catchers up the field. He scored a nine-yard rushing touchdown out of a zone-read look and picked up critical yardage with his legs. Later in the game, Keenum also delivered his best pass of the season with a free rusher in his face. Keenum stood tall and fired the pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph for a 22-yard score. He lofted the pass over two defensive backs and absorbed a big hit to complete the touchdown. Keenum didn’t make mistakes and played very relaxed throughout the game. His pocket presence is a major asset and shouldn’t be overlooked. His natural feel for the game is truly something you cannot teach.

Keenum has a fantastic level of chemistry with wide receiver Adam Thielen. Nobody sets up their routes and plays more methodically than Thielen. He understands the defensive back’s tendencies and uses his footwork and quick movements to settle into coverage soft spots. Thielen had eight catches for 89 yards and picked up several key third down grabs. The Vikings have also been efficient in the red zone throughout the past three weeks. At one point, Minnesota had a streak of 12 consecutive red zone trips where they scored a touchdown. They were 3-for-5 inside the 20-yard-line on Thursday and completed their ninth scoring drive of 80 yards or more this season. The Vikings’ offense has been executing and playing efficient, which has helped them find balance. Offensive coordinator Pat Shumur has been calling excellent plays in the red zone and it has helped the Vikings execute at a high level.

Statement drive by the offense
The offense made a huge statement by marching down the field for a 4-play scoring out of halftime. Running back Latavius Murray broke free for a 46-yard run and Jerick McKinnon added a 16-yard scamper to get Minnesota into the red zone. Two more rushes, including a 2-yard plunge by Murray put the Vikings up by three scores. Minnesota used 136 rushing yards and a pair of scores to complement a rhythmic passing game. The offensive line was solid during this sequence, especially guard Nick Easton and center Pat Eflein. Easton sparked numerous runs and made an impressive block on a wide receiver screen to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. He got out on the run and delivered a key block to set up the play. Center Pat Elflein was sprinting into the second level and ran over 30 yards to block for Diggs. The Vikings quietly have a young core of offensive lineman starting to develop and it has played a major role in their success. The group is playing physical and it has opened up the entire offense. With more experience, the unit is becoming more fundamentally sound as the season progresses. The offensive line’s progression has been the single biggest difference for the 2017 Vikings.

Defense bends, but doesn’t break
The Vikings’ defense had several lapses throughout the game, but the officiating played a role in several of the blunders. A quick 3-play, 75-yard drive by Detroit over 37 seconds was largely fueled by penalties, including a long pass interference call. The Lions moved the ball in the second half, but the defense held them to a pair of field goals. Their lone touchdown over the final 30 minutes came with 12 players on the field. Cornerback Terence Newman was unable to get off the field and tangled up with cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Neither Rhodes or Newman were able to tackle Marvin Jones. Quarterback Matthew Stafford lofted the pass to Jones and he made a leaping grab to score from 43 yards out. However, the defense made timely plays, including a key sack by Everson Griffen and a game-cinching interception by cornerback Xavier Rhodes. It wasn’t Rhodes’ best day, but he still made key plays throughout the afternoon. His late interception put the game on ice for the Vikings. 

The officiating placed the Vikings in odd positions throughout the game and the defense managed to overcome those obstacles. Quarterback Case Keenum was called for a mysterious taunting penalty and the crew nearly failed to review a scoring play, which was eventually called back. The crew also missed a blatant defensive pass interference call on a deep throw to wide receiver Stefon Diggs. This questionable non-call changed the entire dynamic of the game and gave the Lions a glimmer of hope.

Minnesota pressured Matthew Stafford enough to get him frustrated and the defensive backs were in position to make several plays, but the Lions' wide receivers snatched difficult catches. Stafford injured his ankle in the late stages of the game and the Vikings used their pass rush to take advantage of this weakness. They sent extra pressure and locked down the Detroit offense in the late stages of the game. 

Special teams needs work
The Vikings must improve their special teams units on their ten-day break. An extra point and field goal were blocked due to interior pressure. Longsnapper Kevin McDermott was pancacked and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson got a paw on the ball. The second miss was related to a poor snap and hold, which attributed to a timing issue between the specialists. In addition, there were multiple penalties on returns and Marcus Sherels made a poor decision to run a deep kick out. Punter Ryan Quigley also poorly struck a punt in the late stages of the game and was unable to flip the field. These are areas the Vikings must clean up as they continue to play important games down the stretch.

Minnesota has won seven games in a row and will now take advantage of a ten-day vreak to prepare for the Atlanta Falcons. The Vikings now hold a three-game lead in the NFC North with five games to play. They also have erased the head-to-head tiebreaker with Detroit during this key win. This team has chemistry and is firing on all cylinders, which should make the final stretch of the season extra exciting.