MINNEAPOLIS -- For the better part of the Vikings' game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Minnesota defense played like the stifling unit it has been through most of the season. The Vikings held the Lions to 224 yards in regulation, forced three consecutive three-and-outs in the third quarter and created the only turnover of the day when Matthew Stafford threw an interception under pressure.
But nine of the Lions' points in a 22-16 overtime victory came from plays that were either brilliantly schemed or immaculately executed to turn two of the Vikings' patented defensive tricks against them. The Vikings are 5-3, not 6-2, in large part because of those plays.
Theo Riddick's 42-yard run in the first quarter, which set up Detroit's opening field goal, came on a trap run that took advantage of the Vikings' double-A gap blitz look on third-and-7 and marked the second time in two weeks the team had given up a big first-quarter run. And in overtime, when Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith had Golden Tate bracketed in the same coverage they used to neutralize Odell Beckham Jr. a month earlier, Stafford threw a strike and Tate eluded both players for a winning touchdown.
"You have to give credit to Detroit, in terms of their scouting ability, in terms of playing their tendencies," said ESPN's Matt Bowen, who played seven seasons in the NFL as a defensive back.
The Vikings sent six rushers on a third-down blitz, looping Tom Johnson over Emmanuel Lamur and Brian Robison under Anthony Barr in a pair of stunts designed to confuse the Lions' protection. But Stafford made a check at the line of scrimmage, and in what seemed like an obvious passing situation, the Lions sprung Riddick for a big gain.
They pulled right guard Larry Warford, allowing center Travis Swanson to turn and wall off Barr. On the left side of the play, the Lions employed a fold block, with Taylor Decker blocking down on Johnson while guard Graham Glasgow kicked out on Everson Griffen.
"You're still getting two-for-two, but instead of two base blocks, you're using a fold technique," Bowen said. "That forces the linebacker [Lamur] to step with the guard for a second. He might be taught that if it's a pull [from Glasgow], you've got to get hands on the pull and squeeze there. That, again, plays into what Detroit's wanting to do. Now, it's an even better angle. [Warford] doesn't get a great piece of him, either. But again, it's a trap. That ball's coming so quick. This isn't a counter play. This isn't a slow-developing play. This is straight downhill."
"The safety, what you're taught to do is, you have to defeat the block, but you also want to give some ground. You don't want to let the run out," Bowen said. "It's a real tough situation to be in, because you're also the last line of defense. You're not a rolled-up safety at this point, with the free safety over the top. You're not a linebacker with a safety behind him. You're the last line of defense, and they have the perfect setup here. They've beaten the front with the trap call, and now they've got two guys upfield to block the safeties."
Only cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who gave chase to Riddick downfield, prevented the play from going for a touchdown. "You see that a lot with Minnesota," Bowen said. "Their guys always play hard. ... That backside run from the corner, you do it time and time again, and sometimes corners get tired of doing it, because nothing ever happens, and it's wasting energy. But that one time it does happen and you're not running, that's when it burns you."
On a third-and-8 from the Vikings' 28 in overtime, Minnesota sends five rushers after Stafford, with Lamur responsible for Riddick. The Vikings use a "thumbs" technique on Tate, with Rhodes showing press coverage before the play and Smith lining up off Griffen's shoulder. Tate's tight split to the ball suggests he's going to run an out route, and the Vikings want Stafford to think he can throw it there.
"This is the perfect call by Mike Zimmer in my opinion," Bowen said. "You're game planning here to take away the out route. You can see Rhodes is bailing over the top. So if it is a straight vertical, then Rhodes has the cushion. He can drive to the post, he can stay over the top of the fade, he can open his hips and play the corner route. He's got enough cushion there. The key is Harrison Smith underneath. If [Tate] runs a dig route, now Rhodes will drive top-down, Harrison Smith rolls with the dig route. If he rolls to the out route, you've got Xavier Rhodes over the top, and Harrison Smith drives to the out route."
But the Lions beat the coverage when Tate ran a sharp route. "He doesn't chop down, he doesn't sink [his hips]; he runs through his cut," Bowen said. "You see a lot of receivers do that in the NFL now, because it doesn't give the defensive back time to [identify] the break or [identify] the route."
Stafford threw a strike to Tate in the perfect spot. If the ball was behind Tate, Smith could make a play on it, knowing he had help from Rhodes over the top. Stafford, though, put the ball where only Tate could find it. And after that, Bowen said, "it's just missed tackles."
Rhodes launched himself at Tate, who chopped his feet to stay in bounds and was now facing Smith as he regained his balance. Tate eluded Smith's high tackle attempt, flipped into the end zone and absorbed a shot from Sendejo after he scored the winner.
"Golden Tate, when he catches the ball, turns into a running back," Bowen said. "He's not going to go down; he's going to fight for every yard. That's how he makes his money. I'm not going to say they got caught here, like the trap play. This is a great route and a great throw that beats the coverage. After the catch, that's on the Vikings' defense. You have to make the tackle and hold them to three."
Instead, as Tate's flip sent U.S. Bank Stadium into stunned silence, the Lions walked off winners.