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Shorthanded Vikings Defense Makes Enough Plays vs. Lions

The Vikings starting defense in Sunday's 2020 season finale wasn't the collection of players Minnesota envisioned when building the roster a year ago, and it likely won't be the unit the Vikings roll out to begin the 2021 season.

But in Week 17 against the Lions, a banged-up group did just enough to help Minnesota get a 37-35 win and finish with a 7-9 record.

The Vikings started the game in their nickel package, with just three players who were envisioned as starters: defensive tackle Shamar Stephen and safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.

Jaleel Johnson started at defensive tackle, a spot that would have likely been occupied by Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19.

D.J. Wonnum and Hercules Mata'afa started at defensive end in place of Ifeadi Odenigbo (who missed Week 17 with a chest injury) and Danielle Hunter (who didn't play all season) and his replacement Jalyn Holmes (who missed Week 17 with a groin injury).

The two starters at linebacker — Eric Wilson and Todd Davis — are multi-year veterans who each provide play-making ability and depth. But in the typical nickel package, those spots have been occupied by Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, two Pro Bowlers who played a combined 13 games this season.

Jeff Gladney started at cornerback, and progressed nicely through his rookie season. But the other starters were Harrison Hand (a fifth-round rookie) and Cordrea Tankersley, who was elevated from the practice squad to help a position group that underwent an offseason rebuild and dealt with injuries throughout the season.

Smith and Harris were the veterans on the back end, with two-plus seasons of starting together.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer summed up the roller-coaster season that was for the Vikings defense.

"You know, it's frustrating that we had so many injuries, especially defensively," Zimmer said. "Guys opt out, and Hunter and Barr and Kendricks [got injured].

"Lot of times when you get injured players, it depends on who the injured players are. And we had a lot of really good ones get hurt this year," Zimmer said. "So, we've got a lot of work to do. I've got a lot of work to do."

The Vikings allowed 417 total yards to the Lions, the seventh such game in which the Vikings gave up 400-plus yards in 2020.

The 35 points scored by Detroit marked the seventh time a team went over 30 points against Minnesota.

The Vikings gave up 129 yards on the ground, as Minnesota allowed the opposition to gain 100-plus yards on the ground in 12 of 16 games this season.

And the Lions hit on seven passing plays of at least 20 yards, bringing that season-long total to 63, the most allowed in Zimmer's tenure with the Vikings.

View game action photos as the Vikings take on the Lions in Detroit for the 2020 season finale.

But the unit stepped up in crucial situations, as Smith had an interception early in the third quarter. It was his team-leading fifth of the season and 28th of his career.

Mata'afa also had a solo sack (Minnesota's lone one of the game), and ended his second season on the roster (he spent 2018 on Injured Reserve) with 2.5 sacks. The Vikings finished with 23 total sacks as a team, which was fewer than half the total the unit had a season ago (48).

And the Vikings also stopped the Lions on a pair of 2-point attempts, as those plays were noticeable in the eventual 2-point victory.

Both of Detroit's failed 2-point attempts were pass plays. The Vikings kept the Lions from tying the game at 31 with just over three minutes left in the third quarter, and kept a 37-35 lead with just under 4:30 to play in the fourth quarter.

"Defensively, we came up with [two] 2-point stops today, which I thought was big," Zimmer said. "Those kind of plays are big."