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Lunchbreak: The Athletic Dives Deep on Vikings End of Half Defense

The Vikings 5-7 record through 12 games is worse than it should be and better than it could be.

After three confounding months, Minnesota's all-season struggle with end-of-half situations struck in both halves at Detroit to enable the first Lions victory in 364 days.

In leading up to tonight's Thursday Night Football game against the Steelers (6-5-1), The Athletic's Arif Hasan took a deep dive on how the points allowed during ends of halves by Minnesota. The points are historically high and undermining other parts of the game in which Minnesota has played well.

If the Minnesota Vikings scored as often as their opponents did in the final two minutes of halves – or if those minutes were wiped out of existence with nothing to replace them – the Vikings would be 9-2-1, second-best in the NFL just behind the New England Patriots (11-1-1 in this imagining). It is an utterly baffling conundrum that a team that could be good enough to be one of the top squads in the NFL for 56 minutes of a game feels like a failure.

Shackled by their own late-half ineptitude, the Vikings are simultaneously good and bad. They rank 9th in point differential against teams with a winning record and 22nd against teams with a record of .500 or worse. Is it possible for the Vikings to fix their end-of-half woes, and why is it such a distinct problem, anyway?

Citing stats from Trumedia, Hasan noted that the six points per contest in the 29th and 30th minutes of games this season is the worst in 21 years of data. It's more than a point more per game than the 2018 Bengals, who allowed. 4.75 points per game in those situations.

It's not as if the Vikings are bad defensively outside those two minutes, either. In the first 28 minutes of the game, they've given up the third-fewest points in the NFL and rank 7th for the 56 minutes outside of the final two minutes of each half.

Hasan noted the tendency of all teams to shift defensive approaches toward playing more zones and blitzing less. The goals of the offenses to move the ball quickly with longer passes, Hasan wrote, can reduce the impact of one of Minnesota's strengths, which is creating pre-snap confusion by crowding the line and dropping into coverage.

The Vikings play with a less complex defense in the final two minutes – like most teams do – than they do in the first 28. The issue is that it seems like that's what they've been thriving on. When thedefense does such a great job creating confusing looks, dropping linebackers and cornerbacks in unusual places and forcing creative blitz looks and tough protection calls, abandoning that approach can seem like relief for opposing quarterbacks.

If scheme gets easier, the defense has to button down all of the basics and execute better than the offense.

NFL.com Previews 'TNF' Matchup

The Vikings have made it clear they understand their backs are against the wall. The Steelers felt the same way after giving up 41 points in Weeks 11 and 12. Pittsburgh responded with a 20-19 victory over AFC North leader Baltimore in Week 13.

NFL.com's Chase Goodbread previewed tonight's matchup, noting the contrast of emotions from Week 13.

The mood in the building for this week's Thursday night combatants comes from two very different places. Following an embarrassing 41-10 loss in Week 12 and [Pittsburgh Head Coach] Mike Tomlin's fiery declaration that it was look-in-the-mirror time for his team, the Steelers delivered an inspiring divisional win against the AFC North-leading Ravens. The outcome couldn't have been more impactful for a 6-5-1 Steelers team embroiled in an AFC Wild Card chase that's looking ultra-competitive. At the other extreme, the Vikings lost to the previously winless Lions to put themselves in a very precarious position where the postseason is concerned. As losses go, this one was unequivocally devastating. In a hunt for seven conference playoff spots, there are now 11 other NFC teams with a record as good or better than Minnesota's 5-7 mark.

Goodbread listed the following four things to watch:

1. Kirk Cousins "at his best."

2. Is Pittsburgh's rushing attack "primed for improvement?"

3. "The Justin Jefferson show rolls on."

4. The Steelers "need to heat up the pocket on Cousins."

If it's close?

The Vikings lead the NFL with 11 games decided by one score this season and have gone 4-7 with an incredible four losses on the final play of the game.

Dave Campbell of The Associated Press noted the Steelers have thrived in close games, going 6-1-1 in contests decided by one score.

The Minnesota Vikings have spent the entire season on the edge, with all but one game decided by one score. The NFC Wild Card race that was recently so inviting will require extra work to re-enter.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are on the outside of the playoff picture in the AFC, too, similarly facing a difficult schedule down the stretch. … As random and unpredictable as NFL results can be, the Steelers appear to have cracked the code on these close games that the Vikings are still scrambling to solve.

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