DETROIT -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made waves this week when he detailed his favorite quality of his starting quarterback.
Guts. Moxie. Fortitude. However you want to phrase Zimmer's "he's got big balls" comment, Case Keenum continued to display why his willingness to take risks and give his playmakers a chance is a major reason the Vikings extended their win streak to seven games Thursday with a 30-23 victory over the Detroit Lions.
"Case is playing outstanding," Zimmer said after the game. "He’s a great competitor, studies his rear end off, works extremely hard. Today, he seemed like he was more settled. There’s times when he gets a little bit excitable and kind of goes off the reservation a little bit. But today, even throughout the course of the game, he seemed like he was in a pretty good mindset.”
Statistically, his numbers in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- his first win of the season -- are his best so far, but Keenum played one of his most complete performances to date, making some exceptional throws in the first two quarters and serving as the catalyst in building a sizable early lead. It started on the Vikings' first drive by gaining three first downs, and he remained accurate under pressure.
Keenum didn't turn the ball over as he completed 21 of 30 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns. In what's been the basis for his success this season, the quarterback beat the blitz after being pressured by Detroit on 33 percent of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Keenum's nine passing touchdowns against the blitz this season are more than he'd had in his entire career. Thursday's win was the third time this season where Keenum has thrown multiple touchdowns against the blitz.
Being able to make throws in the face of pressure, whether it's from a team's standard pass rush or when they bring in extra defenders, is something Keenum takes pride in. His mobility remains one of the Vikings' biggest assets.
"It’s a lot of drill work, being able to move in the pocket a little bit, keeping your eyes downfield," Keenum said. "It’s trusting your guys. I have a lot of trust in my guys out there catching the football. Kyle [Rudolph], Adam [Thielen], [Stefon] Diggs, across the board. Jarius [Wright] made some big plays today. I love those guys. I trust those guys, and when you have that trust, it helps.”
Keenum was terrific at sensing pressure, confidently climbing the pocket and scrambling to keep drives alive. He used a play-action pass to hit a wide-open Rudolph for the first score of the game. He then relied on the option to run in his own 9-yard score on the Vikings' next drive.
“He has used his legs and he’s done that throughout the season," Zimmer said. "You wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a scrambler, but I think he’s smart. When he sees some kind of coverages that he has an opportunity to do or -- maybe the best thing about him is he’s got great vision. I think he sees a lot of things that’s going on out on the field and maybe the game has slowed down for him throughout the course of time that he’s played."
Arguably his biggest throw of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Vikings ahead by four points. On third down, Diggs ran a crossing route toward the near side of the field. Keenum zipped a pass while being hit by Darius Slay, which his receiver grabbed for a 7-yard gain and the first down.
The drive resulted in a field goal. But on the Lions' ensuing possession, members of Minnesota's defense showed Keenum just how thankful they are that he's their quarterback when Xavier Rhodes picked off Matthew Stafford on fourth down, giving the Vikings the ball for the duration of the game.
"I don’t know who was in front of me to knock me down, but it was just a play we needed," Rhodes said. "A play we needed to gain momentum, try to win the game, to kill the clock and it just was over."
In eight games this season, Keenum has gone from a career journeyman to proficient veteran. He led the Vikings to their most pivotal win of the season, crushing any desire for Detroit to come back and win the NFC North. With a 9-2 record, the Vikings are now three games ahead of the second-place Lions in the division standings. The path to a division title is crystal clear for Minnesota.