Sunday, November 4, 2018

Notebook: Vikings' pass rush dominates in a 24-9 win over the Lions

Defensive end Danielle Hunter helped the Vikings' pass rush set a franchise record for sacks in a 24-9 win over Detroit. Daniel House takes you inside his game notebook. 

When the Vikings’ pass rush is clicking, it takes their defense to another level. Sunday was the perfect example as Minnesota’s defensive line pummeled Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford with a franchise-record ten sacks.

Defensive end Danielle Hunter dominated the edge with nine tackles (three for loss), 3.5 sacks, and a 32-yard fumble return touchdown. Hunter has now posted 11.5 sacks in nine games this season. He dominated certain stretches of the game by making brilliant reads against the run and obliterating right tackle offensive tackle Ricky Wagner with his pass rushing moves. Hunter’s rapid growth is showing up every week as he continually makes big plays. The Vikings’ timely decision to sign him to a five-year, $72 million deal, was an extreme value signing.

It wasn’t just Hunter, either. The Vikings’ defensive line was constantly battering quarterback Matthew Stafford the entire day. They did so against a Detroit team with a pair of first-round draft picks and veterans Ricky Wagner and T.J. Lang up front.

Defensive tackle Tom Johnson posted 2.5 sacks, including a takedown where he showed incredible effort to keep the play alive. The Vikings often deployed a twist inside with Johnson and Sheldon Richardson in this game. It caused confusion, resulting in a sack and one quarterback hurry. Minnesota had six different players post a sack in this game and the unit held Stafford to just 199 passing yards. The Lions’ receivers couldn’t get separation and several of the sacks were the result of Stafford having no time to work. Minnesota blitzed on a low amount of snaps and manufactured pressure by frequently rotating their front-four. The rise of Danielle Hunter and Stephen Weatherly, along with the decision to re-sign Tom Johnson, is paying off.

The Vikings held the Lions to just 2.75 yards per carry, including just 37 yards by rookie running back Kerryon Johnson. The success Minnesota is having in early down situations has helped their pass rush take off on third down. Detroit converted just four of their 15 third down tries as the Vikings continue smolder teams in late downs.

This year, opponents have converted on third down against Minnesota on just 26 of their 101 tries (25.74%). This type of statistic is something that will leave many people encouraged if the team can continue to stop the run. Their pass rush is showing progress with additional depth and limited pressure packages. In this game, one of the only sacks produced by the blitz was out of a nickel package by cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Otherwise, they were using their defensive line to frustrate Matthew Stafford the entire day. The Lions’ quarterback tossed for just 199 yards and the Vikings’ defense finally eliminated occasional explosive passing plays. Not only that, but they managed to put together a complete performance with cornerback Xavier Rhodes hobbled and linebacker Anthony Barr out.

On offense, running back Dalvin Cook made his presence known during his return from a hamstring injury. He burst free for a big 70-yard run up the left side and was sprung free due to excellent blocks by center Pat Elflein and guard Mike Remmers. Cook hit the hole and exploded for the big gain. According to NFL Next-Gen Stats, Cook’s top speed was 22.08 mph, which was the fastest run in the league this year. It topped several big plays by Kansas City Chiefs spark-plug Tyreek Hill. Cook saw 28 snaps in his first appearance since Week 4 and made a huge play to set up a 2-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Kirk Cousins to wide receiver Adam Thielen. Cousins tossed for just 164 yards without wide receiver Stefon Diggs (ribs), as the Lions gave Thielen more attention in their coverage schemes. Instead, the Vikings used a 128-yard performance on the ground to fuel two scoring drives. Quarterback Kirk Cousins forced an interception late in the first half as he was trying to slide a throw into double coverage for Adam Thielen. Detroit cornerback Darius Slay picked off Cousins, but the Vikings’ defense held the Lions to a field goal before half.

Minnesota’s passing game didn’t completely click during Sunday’s win, but the ground game and defense did enough to control things. This has been a formula for past success with this specific team. The passing game has shown an ability to groove games and has potential to grow down the stretch. If the defense can stop the run in early downs and get after the quarterback, the Vikings’ unit suddenly becomes one of the toughest to attack. As Minnesota enters the bye week, this is the type of confidence boost that could pay dividends as they approach two important NFC North games.