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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Run Defense Stingy Heading into Rivalry Renewal with Lions

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When the Vikings and Lions meet Sunday at noon at U.S. Bank Stadium, it will be the 112th all-time meeting between the longtime rivals.

Although the Vikings have a 71-38-2 edge in the series that dates to 1961, the Lions have claimed eight of the past 14 meetings. The games have been close, too, with only four of the past 14 being decided by double digits. Four of the games have been determined by three or fewer points, and two have required overtime.

The Vikings had been swept seven times by the Lions before Detroit did it again last season, but the two combined losses in 2016 by a total nine points left a bitter taste in Minnesota. (The Vikings also lost two games by nine combined points in 2011).

While each of the Vikings eight losses were tough in 2016, the pair against Detroit were extra aggravating because the both came on the final play of each game. The Lions won 22-16 in overtime on Nov. 6 before rallying again to win on a field goal as time expired on Thanksgiving a few weeks later.

The Vikings haven't forgotten about the close losses that kept Minnesota out of the postseason. A win is a win, a loss is a loss, but division games carry extra significance for their value in playoff tiebreaker scenarios.

"One loss is not more valuable than others, but you want to win more than you lose," Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said Wednesday. "Those divisional games, you want to win everything. But every loss is something we harp on." 

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer opened his weekly Wednesday press conference by remarking how important games within the NFC North are.

"Big division game this week.  Detroit is a very good football team," Zimmer said. "We are going to need our fans this week to help us out. This will be a big one. It will be a fun game. 

"It's a division game, and they're a good football team," Zimmer later added. "I think Coach [Jim] Caldwell has done an outstanding job there. It's a good division game. It'll be a good test for us." 

Caldwell and Zimmer were both hired by their teams in 2014. Caldwell's familiarity with the teams runs deeper.

"It's a division game, and they're always hard fought," Caldwell said Wednesday during a conference call with Twin Cities media members. "When I was a kid growing up in Beloit, Wisconsin, the only teams you'd get on TV primarily were the teams in this division, which they referred to as the Black and Blue Division.

"It's always been a tough, hard-nosed division, and it's no different today," Caldwell added. 

Stuffing the opposition

Minnesota's defense made a little bit of history Sunday against Tampa Bay as the Vikings gave up just 26 rushing yards on the day.

It's the lowest total allowed by a Vikings defense since Zimmer arrived in the Twin Cities in 2014. The previous yearly lows were 66 yards in 2014, 38 yards in 2015 and 40 yards last season.

The Vikings rank third against the run this season by allowing just 62.7 yards per game and are one of two teams to not have allowed a rushing touchdown in 2017. The longest run allowed by Minnesota this season is 11 yards, which is the lowest total in the NFL.

Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson explained the secret to the Vikings success on Wednesday. 

"Being disciplined, playing in the scheme, not trying to do too much, keeping it simple," Johnson said.

Johnson said stuffing the run has been an area of emphasis in recent years. The Vikings gave up 100-plus rushing yards 12 times in 2014, Zimmer's first year in town, but have combined to allow opponents that much yardage 15 times in the 35 games since.

Minnesota finished 20th in the NFL in 2016 by allowing 106.9 yards per game. 

"Learning from our mistakes [is helping]. Last year, we saw that guys were trying to do too much or we had too much in the game plan," Johnson said. "Right now, we're trying to simplify it and let guys play fast."

Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen noted that keeping opponents one-dimensional makes life easier for Minnesota's defensive unit.

"If you stop the run, you're able to rush the passer," Griffen said. "Even though Jameis Winston was getting the ball out quickly, if the offense keeps putting up points like that, they will have to start throwing more balls down the field and hold the ball longer, and we'll be able to get more sacks."

Injury Reports

For the Vikings: Sam Bradford (knee) and Stephen Weatherly (illness) did not participate.

For the Lions: Ezekiel Ansah (knee), Don Carey (knee), T.J. Lang (fibula) and Dwayne Washington (quadriceps) did not participate. Jamal Agnew (pelvis), Jarrad Davis (concussion), Kenny Golladay (hamstring), Glover Quin (knee), Travis Swanson (ankle), Tavon Wilson (shoulder) and Anthony Zettel (knee) were limited.

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