With running backs Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart, along with starter and first-round pick Xavier Rhodes out, this game had the tone of an exhibition matchup—especially with Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and starting cornerback Chris Houston on the sideline.
Other players for both teams—including Minnesota nose tackle Letroy Guion and Detroit's primary backups at cornerback (Bill Bentley) and tackle (LaAdrian Waddle)—sat out, driving home the point that the Metrodome's final game would not be as exciting as Candlestick Park's.
A fantastic special teams performance propelled a mediocre offense and allowed a stalwart defense to define the game for the Vikings as they throttled out a 14-13 victory.
|Positional Unit||First-Half Grades||Final Game Grades|
Week 17 against the Lions
Final Game Analysis for the Minnesota Vikings
Passing Offense: The Vikings were more aggressive in the passing game coming out of the second half, and Cassel found a better rhythm, both with his receivers and his footwork. While his ball placement didn't improve, the general success rate did. That said, it wasn't a good outing for the career backup. Despite open receivers and solid blocking, Cassel's efficiency dropped to 5.7 yards per attempt, and his final statline (20-of-33, 189 yards, one touchdown and one interception) actually speaks better to his performance than his actual play did. That said, nearly every other player involved in the passing game put in a fine performance.
Running Offense: The story of the game was about the run blocking, but running back Matt Asiata took advantage of the space he was offered, after a questionable first few runs, and ate up the yards that the blocking gave him. Nearly the entire offensive line did a fine job creating massive room and Rhett Ellison made up for a poor performance last week by creating nice holes for Asiata. Jerome Felton's recognition skills were as good as they had ever been, as well. To top it off, a bizarre but exciting scramble by Cordarrelle Patterson put the shine on an already great-looking ground game from Minnesota.
Passing Defense: Minnesota really embodied the spirit of its defensive design against the Lions this week, working from the inside out. Its passing defense revolved around a strong pass rush that will walk away with five sacks and a good number of pressures. Brian Robison, Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd and Kevin Williams all contributed by either hitting the quarterback or altering his decision-making with timely pressure.
At the back end, the secondary had some notable miscues but was still an important contribution towards quarterback Matt Stafford's pedestrian day. By no means perfect, the secondary broke down in the second half and allowed players like Kevin Ogletree and Nate Burleson to bloom late into the game. Harrison Smith seemed relatively absent and out of position and may have been saved by the effective pass rush.
Running Defense: Last week, the running defense was notable in that it was the only performing unit in the game. This week, they performed at a similar level, but quietly so. On 22 carries, Lions running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell were limited to 2.9 yards per carry on both outside and inside runs. Smart gap control and discipline, paired with judicious aggression, forced several tackles for loss and choked out the running game for the Lions, one that looked great at different moments throughout the season.
The second level of the running defense wasn't tested as often as usual, which is just as well, given how the defense there wasn't up to the standard set by the defensive line and blitzing linebackers. Nevertheless, it was a good effort all-around, and limiting the Lions to two or three decent runs was a big part of the win.
Special Teams: Despite breaking a team record, Cordarrelle Patterson's day as a kick returner was all right, though limited by situation and blocking. Regardless, it should be counted as a good day for the special teams units as they secured solid field-position advantages throughout the game. Whether it was Marcus Sherel's underrated 12- and 15-yard returns early on or his 50-yard return near the end of the game, the Vikings were dangerous returning punts. On the other side of the ball, Jeff Locke had one of his better days and consistently forced the Lions deep in their own territory, limiting them to eight total return yards. Blair Walsh wasn't tested as a field-goal kicker, but punted well enough to only allow one kick return.
Coaching: The Vikings coaching staff could potentially be credited for the field-position advantage they gained through conservative play, but it was too much to rely on massive punt returns and fluky runs to secure a one-point win. Instead, the staff was a detriment, again making poor decisions when being risky, and even worse when being safe.
Most coaches don't play the numbers on fourth down, but the Vikings are notoriously bad. More than that, play design was suspect on offense, but at the very least creative on defense. Hiding the talent deficit on the back end of the field is difficult and putting the defensive line in a position to win is a small credit to Alan Williams, although the Lions' offensive talent played a part, too.
First-Half Analysis for the Minnesota Vikings
Passing Offense: Matt Cassel won't ever likely repeat his performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, and games like this are the reason. His efficiency (5.9 yards per attempt) was pedestrian and his red-zone interception is (and should be) the highlight of his passing performance. His ball placement has been unusually bad, often hitting receivers in ways that limit their yards after the catch—getting the ball to Vikings players often too high, low or behind them. The receivers have been excellent and have consistently found ways to get open while the offensive line has continued its late-season surge in play, but as the quarterback goes, so too does the passing offense.
Rushing Offense: Even if Patterson’s mad scramble for the game’s only score were excluded, the Vikings running game has been pumping on all cylinders. Runs to the outside have been drawn up well and sparingly with excellent blocking, while the Vikings have won the battle in the interior to consistently gain yardage when necessary. Asiata still doesn’t have the burst of a starting running back, but that’s been irrelevant as the Vikings continue to move the chains on the ground.
Passing Defense: It would be generous to say that the Minnesota pass defense has been playing against a starting-caliber receiving corps, but even with that in mind, it’s been alright. More a result of Detroit’s odd play-calling and personnel deficiencies in light of injuries on the offense, they’ve still done a good job limiting yards after the catch and eliminating the deep ball. The best work has been done by the defensive line, where Kevin Williams, Brian Robison and Jared Allen have consistently found pressure on the edge and up the middle to change Stafford’s timing and throwing ability. In addition, middle linebacker Erin Henderson has a sack to benefit to his mission to recapture the middle linebacker spot. Cornerback-turned-safety-turned-cornerback-again Robert Blanton has also been having a surprisingly good game.
Running Defense: The Lions have been more balanced on offense than usual because of Calvin Johnson’s absence, but it hasn’t been that much more effective. Aside from one or two successful runs, both Joique Bell and Reggie Bush have been ineffective and have often been hit behind the line of scrimmage. Leading the way in that effort once again has been Henderson, who has fulfilled his attack responsibility a bit better than the force-and-spill responsibilities he had as a weak-side linebacker this year. The defensive line has been difficult to move and the Detroit line can’t create new holes.
Special Teams: There isn’t much to say about the special teams performance, except that Patterson needed to be more focused on his lone opportunity to return a kick. Jeff Locke has been on point and Blair Walsh hasn't been challenged. Marcus Sherel's punt return was more impressive than it looked, and he's showing why he's improved as a returner even over last season.
Coaching: Despite the shutout and dominant defensive performance, the Vikings coaching has actually been fairly poor. Needlessly risk averse when it matters (on fourth down) and carelessly aggressive when it doesn't matter (Jared Allen in the red zone), the Vikings coaching staff has been baffling. Even the successful plays look to be fluky play calls, like Patterson's touchdown run or Asiata's success outside. On defense, the third-down calls have been inconsistent but helped by a dearth of talent on the Lions' receiving corps.
Injury information courtesy of ESPN.com.