Heading into Week 16, the Vikings defense ranks No. 4 overall in the NFL in yards allowed.
That's an impressive number for a couple of reasons. One, Minnesota's defense struggled a bit out of the gate, allowing an average of 381.5 yards per game in the first four weeks.
Not only have the Vikings rebounded from a rocky start, but the defense has done so while weathering injuries to a number of its key players – some long-term and some short-term.
Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune highlighted Minnesota's depth on defense and said that solid reserve play has allowed the Vikings defense to remain among the NFL's best. He wrote:
With two games left in the NFL regular season, one number — 22 — reveals how much his fourth-ranked Vikings defense has overcome compared to the rest. It's the number of games missed due to injury and illness by Vikings defenders who started Week 1.
Health has been fleeting for the Vikings defense this season, but silver linings have emerged in the form of such reserves as defensive end Stephen Weatherly, safety Anthony Harris, cornerback Holton Hill and linebacker Eric Wilson. Those four not only answered a pressing preseason question of defensive depth, but they also could be long-term, cheaper solutions in an expensive starting lineup.
Only one other top-10 defense, the Chargers at No. 8, has weathered more absences (33) than the Vikings. The Vikings have 30 absences when accounting for Hughes, the standout rookie who earned a rotational role before his season-ending knee injury in October.
Opponents have lamented the "waves" of pass rushers brought by the Vikings, but the secondary has shown it, too, has a long bench. Only three quarterbacks — Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Tom Brady — have eclipsed 300 passing yards against the Vikings.
Krammer credited General Manager Rick Spielman for three undrafted free agents signed by the Vikings who have stepped in and stepped up this season: safety Anthony Harris (2015), who took over Andrew Sendejo's starting role when he went to Injured Reserve; linebacker Eric Wilson (2017); and cornerback Holton Hill (2018)\.
Not only has Spielman drafted skilled players, but he's drafted or signed undrafted players who have the ability to learn quickly.
"Obviously, they do a good job of getting good talent," Harris told Krammer. "But I think also the guys that come in, they understand offenses, understand concepts. They're really high-quality guys on the field and off the field. That translates."
Keys to division game include Vikings run game, defense
Several Vikings this week said they don't expect the Lions to make Sunday's game an easy one, even though they've been eliminated from the postseason.
"They're going to keep fighting. You see it every week from them," receiver Adam Thielen said. "They've been in a lot of games late in the fourth quarter and have been playing pretty well. We know they're going to get our best effort. They don't want to lose at home, especially. So we're going to get a team that's going to give their full effort the whole game."
A writer in Detroit's media market recently opined that it won't matter how hard the Lions fight if they don't protect quarterback Matthew Stafford. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press said the Lions only have a chance to win if they allow two or fewer sacks. In the division rivals' last meeting, the Vikings sacked Stafford 10 times. Birkett wrote:
Stafford was running for his life when the Lions faced the Vikings back in September. Minnesota had 10 sacks that game and leads the NFL with 47 overall this year. The Vikings are 7-1-1 when they get at least three sacks in a game, and 0-5 when they don't. They do a good job mixing up their blitz looks, and they have one of the game's best pass rushers in [Danielle] Hunter. The Lions have done a better job protecting Stafford of late by running the ball and relying on more of the short passing game. They need to keep things close Sunday so they don't have to stray from that plan.
Looking at the Vikings offense, Birkett said Minnesota will win the game if it continues its balanced attack from last week against Miami.
There's a reason [Vikings Head Coach Mike] Zimmer was so adamant about running the football when he fired [Offensive Coordinator John] DeFilippo and promoted [Kevin] Stefanski – because when the Vikings do that effectively, they win football games. Every time the Vikings have run the ball at least 23 times in a game this year, they've won. Last week, the Vikings had a season-high 40 rushing attempts and played arguably their best game of the season. It's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. You can't run if you fall behind big. But the Vikings seem recommitted to the run, and that's important. The Lions are allowing just 79 yards rushing over their last six games, so they won't be easy to run on. But for Minnesota, the effort to run seems like the most important thing.