EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings dropped both games to the Lions in 2016, losing the pair of NFC North tilts by a combined nine points.
Minnesota's woes in the red zone were a major reason for the defeats.
The Vikings scored three touchdowns on eight combined trips inside the 20-yard line in two games. Minnesota kicked three field goals, punted once and also turned the ball over on downs.
Minnesota finished 28th in the NFL in 2016 by scoring a touchdown just 46 percent of the time on its red zone possessions.
"Anytime you don't score (a touchdown) in the red zone, it hurts you," said Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon. "There were times where we got to the red zone and got points, but they weren't touchdowns.
"We want touchdowns," McKinnon said.
Perhaps the most frustrating sequence against the Lions came early in the second quarter of Minnesota's 22-16 overtime loss at home in Week 9.
Retired Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway picked off Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and returned the ball to the 18-yard line, setting Minnesota up with near-perfect field position.
The Vikings, already in the red zone, gained four yards on the first play but went backwards after that. Two straight penalties accounted for 15 yards before a loss of 4 yards on a run and a 9-yard sack forced the Vikings to punt.
With the Lions on tap Sunday, members of the Vikings offense know the importance of executing in the most crucial area of the field.
"When you get down in the red zone, you've done all that work to get there, however the drive started," said Vikings right guard Nick Easton. "It's important to finish it, and finishing it with seven (points) over three has proven to make a difference in the game.
"Finishing in the red zone is something we stressed in the offseason and throughout the year," Berger said.
The Vikings have fared better in the red zone in 2017, scoring touchdowns on seven of 12 possessions inside the 20-yard line. That accounts for a 58.33 percentage, which ranks 18th in the NFL.
"That's a credit to how hard everyone has been working as a unit," McKinnon said. "We're more efficient because we're not getting as many penalties and putting ourselves in bad situations."
Kick and cover
Kai Forbath and the kick coverage team worked together to pin the Buccaneers deep after the Vikings second touchdown last week.
Rather than aiming for another touchback, Forbath angled the ball to the Vikings right side of the field. It bounced near the 3-yard line, and Bucs return man Bernard Reedy took the ball on the hop at the goal line.
He tried to find room, but rookie Ben Gedeon tracked him down at the 11-yard line, some 14 yards deeper into Tampa Bay territory than if the kickoff would have resulted in a touchback.
Tampa Bay gained four yards apiece on consecutive runs, but quarterback Jameis Winston was sacked on third down by Everson Griffen and forced to punt.
Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer said Forbath's approach to the ball on the tee might have been tough for Tampa Bay to read and predict the type of kick that was about to happen.
"We were surprised [Reedy] couldn't get there, he couldn't get there in time because I think you can't read Kai's approach," Priefer said. "Kai is a hard guy to read because of his approach, but sometimes you can get it at the end.
"Our guys just did a good job of covering it," Priefer continued. "Obviously when the ball hits the ground it's going to help our coverage tremendously. If he would have caught it on the fly we would tackle him maybe on the 22-yard line, but fortunately he did not catch it on the fly. We call it effective hang time; ball hits the ground, goes back up in the air. By the time from the start of the kick until when he finally got the ball in his hands probably six or seven seconds which is huge for our kickoff team."
Forbath said he's continued to work on directional kickoffs and the deceptive factors that can help them succeed.
"We try to avoid showing where we're going with kickoffs and feel like our guys can cover well, so kicking touchbacks isn't something that we feel like we have to do every single time," Forbath said. "We think we can get them inside the 25, so we're going to try to place kicks where we think we can cover best. It worked well."
The Vikings tried the same thing again in the third quarter, but Reedy found an opening and returned the ball 50 yards to the Minnesota 46. Tampa Bay capitalized on the advantageous field position and scored its first touchdown.
"We lost leverage inside, and that should not have happened on that play," Priefer said. "In fact the one play before that when we let the ball hit the ground we tackled him at the 11. It was a similar type deal. We covered that one obviously extremely well, and we just didn't do a very good job [with the second], and my hat's off to them. They did a nice job blocking. We've got to do a better job of covering. It was a good kick, we just got to do a better job."
Rashad's big weekend
The Vikings will induct the 23rd member of the team's Ring of Honor this weekend in wide receiver Ahmad Rashad.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer mentioned Rashad in his opening statement and noted theaccomplishments of the four-time Pro Bowler.
"Ahmad Rashad getting inducted into the Ring of Honor, so that will be a great deal," Zimmer said.
"He was a little older than me, but he was a heck of a football player," Zimmer later added.
Rashad had 400 career catches in Minnesota for 5,489 yards with 34 touchdowns.