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Vikings Defense Ready for Detroit's Improved Rushing Attack

EAGAN, Minn. — Earlier this week, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer was asked if anything had surprised him so far in the NFC North.

The division is perhaps the most tightly contested of them all, as Chicago leads the division at 4-3 but Detroit resides in fourth place at 3-4.

Zimmer gave an answer for each division foe, noting Chicago's ferocious defense and Green Bay's stability with success.

But when Zimmer mentioned Detroit, which is Minnesota's opponent Sunday, he gave an interesting answer.

"You know," Zimmer said. "Detroit is running the ball a lot better than they have."

If we look at the stats since Zimmer arrived in Minnesota in 2014, the Lions have ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of both total rushing attempts and yards per carry. Here is how Detroit has fared over the past four full seasons:

2014: 396 total rushes (25th); 3.6 yards per carry (29th)

2015: 354 total rushes (t-30th); 3.8 yards per carry (26th)

2016: 350 total rushes (t-32nd); 3.7 yards per carry (27th)

2017: 363 total rushes (t-27th); 3.4 yards per carry (32nd)

The Lions currently rank tied for 27th in total rushing attempts with 162, but Detroit has already had its bye week. Detroit is on pace for 370 rushing attempts, which would be its most since 2014.

But even if the Lions aren't pounding the rock for 30 times per game, they are finding success on the ground as their 4.1 yards-per-carry average ranks eighth in the NFL. Detroit ranks 16th overall at 109.7 yards per game.

Minnesota's defense knows that stopping the run will be a priority Sunday in what is essentially the start of a playoff chase for both teams.

"They weren't big on running, but this year I was watching some games and their [rushing] yards per game are up there," said Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. "I think they put up over 200 yards earlier in the season, so they're definitely dedicated to running the ball."

Weatherly was referring to Detroit's Week 7 win at Miami in which the Lions rushed for 248 yards, a game in which Lions running back Kerryon Johnson had 158 yards on just 19 carries.

The 248 yards was the franchise's highest total since Week 7 of the 1997 season when they had 259 rushing yards, 215 of which came from Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.

"I don't know if they are or they aren't [placing an emphasis on running the ball more]," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said of the current Lions offense. "I just know they're running the ball well.

"The young guy, Johnson, obviously has a great average and has been breaking off long runs," Smith added. "He runs really hard and has been doing some good things."

Johnson leads Detroit with 466 rushing yards and also has a score. LeGarrette Blount has 170 rushing yards and a team-high three rushing touchdowns.

Johnson is a big-play possibility. His 6.1 yards-per-carry average ranks second in the league, and his five runs of 20-plus yards are the third-most in the NFL.

Johnson has a pair of 100-yard games this season, as the rookie ran for 101 yards in Week 3, snapping a stretch of 71 games in which the Lions didn't have a 100-yard rusher.

Zimmer noted that while the Lions are running the ball around the same rate in recent years, Johnson has simply added a dynamic to the backfield Detroit has lacked in recent years.

"He is good. Very good," Zimmer said. "Runs hard, speed to the perimeter, catches the ball well, has been good in protection. He is a good back.

"I think they're more committed to running the football, number one. He has been running the ball extremely effective," Zimmer later added. "I'm not sure it's changed the run game all that much. There is a lot of similar runs they've had in the past, but they're much more effective at it."

Of course, an improved running game has been a boon to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

The former No. 1 overall pick has played 16 career games against Minnesota. He is 8-8 and has thrown for 3,993 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Stafford has thrown for 1,912 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions for Detroit this season.

Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said Minnesota will need to be wary of deep shots down the field if Detroit's running game has success.

"Their running back has been running really well. Their running game ran a lot against the Dolphins," Rhodes said. "They've just been trying to establish the run a lot lately, and once they establish the run, we have to look out for Marvin Jones.

"He's a guy that's been a deep-threat guy. We'll have to be on top of him in tight coverage," Rhodes added. "I'm looking forward to being on the receivers every play and stopping the run."

Added Smith: "That's always what offenses want. They want to be able to establish the run and then set up almost any other play they want to run based off that."

The Vikings will counter with the league's fifth-ranked run defense. Minnesota has allowed 91.8 yards per game and has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

"They're definitely committed to [the run], but we're committed to trying to stop it," Weatherly said. "It's going to get a good matchup."