Minnesota's defense couldn't get going in the Motor City.
"It was mainly on us," said safety Josh Metellus, who started in place of Smith. "Any time you don't execute well against an offense like that, they'll make big plays – which they did. On defense we try to limit the big plays, and we didn't do that today."
The Vikings knew they'd have to be on top of their game against a Lions squad that had won four of their past five games entering the matchup, but early defensive mistakes gave Detroit a leg up.
The Lions were held to a three-and-punt on their first possession but came back roaring on their second. On second-and-5 from the Vikings 41, Jared Goff connected with a wide-open Jameson Williams for a 41-yard touchdown. The rookie receiver was untouched in "kind of a quarters coverage structure" that broke down, noted Head Coach Kevin O'Connell.
Minnesota's offense answered back quickly, driving down the field and tying the game with a Dalvin Cook touchdown.
But the Vikings simply couldn't keep pace with a full-strength Lions offense that had Minnesota's defense reeling.
Detroit's second touchdown of the day was a 48-yard pass play to DJ Chark on the team's first snap of the second-quarter series. Cameron Dantzler, Sr., who returned this week for the Vikings after spending the past four games on Injured Reserve, was defending on the play and unable to intervene.
Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks said the Lions "changed a few things up here and there" from their Week 3 showing at U.S. Bank Stadium but emphasized that it's never an excuse.
"They did a good job in the first half with those big shots," he said. "[They] capitalized on it."
Big plays were the name of the game for Detroit, who recorded five that gained 23-plus yards.
The Vikings entered Sunday's matchup knowing it would be tough to sack Goff, who had been taken down only 19 times over the previous 12 games. They pressured him a bit early on but seemed to affect him less and less as the afternoon progressed and never recorded a sack.
Goff finished the day 27-of-39 passing for 330 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 120.7, his third highest of the season thus far.
Chark led the Lions in receiving with 94 yards, followed by Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds, who added 68 and 51 yards through the air, respectively. Minnesota didn't allow a single rusher to reach 50 yards but did give up 134 total yards on the ground.
When all was said and done, the Vikings allowed Detroit to rack up 464 yards.
"That's our job on defense, is to stop the offense, and I don't feel like we did our job today," Kendricks said. "Can we hang our hat on some of the stuff we did? Maybe. But overall, we've got to do better. We've gotta go back to the drawing board."
Kendricks also bemoaned a lack of Vikings takeaways.
"You've just gotta get back on the ball and get to it. Obviously, we want to create some more turnovers than we did today," he said. "We know they like to go for it on fourth down, we knew that coming into it, but yeah, those third-and-long situations – we've got to do better, for sure."
The Vikings allowed the Lions to convert seven of their 15 third-down attempts, including a third-and-7 down the stretch that sealed Minnesota's fate.
Right tackle Penei Sewell reported as an eligible receiver, and the 335-pound lineman caught a 9-yard pass by Goff to keep Detroit's drive alive. The catch marked Sewell's first of his career, and it enabled the Lions to move into field goal range and extend their lead for the last time.
"He motions like that all the time and comes in and blocks … so it was a little bit of a trick play," Kendricks said.
"I know they've shown the look to run the football – that's become a popular look around the league with some of your really athletic tackles," O'Connell weighed in. "That's just them being able to execute a play like that at a crucial moment. It was a good call and great execution."
Asked about the issues overall on defense, O'Connell said "a combination of things" can be pointed to.
"But I think we need to take a look at what we can do to potentially help our guys be in position to make more plays … and just try to limit explosives," he said.
The road loss means the Vikings will head back to Minnesota and try again to secure the NFC North crown. They are scheduled to host the Colts on Saturday for a noon kickoff.
"It's obviously frustrating. We want to clinch the division. We want to do all these things, but we've got to take it one game at a time," Kendricks said. "I'm not new to this. A lot of us have kind of been in this situation before … we've got to handle it one play at a time, one practice at a time, and we've just gotta get back to work."
Metellus said the Vikings are disappointed but not deflated.
"We're a team. And when I say that, I don't take that lightly," he said. "We're connected on every level, so we're just leaning on each other. We know what we're capable of, we know what we're going to be able to do in these next couple weeks.
"We get a short week to lean on each other and come back," Metellus added. "Everybody's spirits are still high. We've still got faith in this group; we've got a good group."