Courtney Cronin, ESPN Staff Writer 51d

Mike Zimmer's underachieving defense may have sealed his fate in Minnesota

DETROIT – When they needed to dig deep and display their very best, the Minnesota Vikings’ defense made things easy on Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff on Sunday.

After the Vikings regained the lead – 27-23 – with a late fourth-quarter touchdown, Goff and the Lions' offense took the field at their own 25-yard line with 1:50 to go. Over the course of 14 plays, the Vikings blitzed Goff just once, and that play nearly resulted in an interception by Bashaud Breeland, who couldn’t come down with the ball.

Instead of pulling out a stop, Minnesota let a Lions team that was on a 15-game winless streak – and had no timeouts – march 75 yards en route to an 11-yard touchdown and 29-27 win.

“It was as good as you can do it for us offensively, and we were able to walk down the field there on them and made that play at the end,” Goff said. “It came down to one play, and we were able to make it.”

It’s become routine at this point, the Vikings playing “off and soft” – the way Goff described Minnesota’s zone coverage – as a method of preventing a big play from happening, only to allow a team to come back and score at the end. Four times the Vikings have been beaten by their opponent’s final drive.

Coach Mike Zimmer called two timeouts in the last eight seconds to help his defense get set at the 11-yard line, but it backfired and gave the Lions a chance to regroup and figure out how they were going to attack on that final fourth-and-2 play.

Zimmer said he probably should have dialed up more pressure on Detroit’s final drive – Minnesota sent just three rushers on the Lions’ TD – but the Vikings let Goff off the hook. Minnesota blitzed on just 14% of Goff’s dropbacks, the lowest blitz rate they’ve ever had against him, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“We weren’t covering that great,” Zimmer said. “So, I mean, everything is hindsight, I guess.”

Make no mistake about a loss that drops the Vikings to 5-7 and cuts their chances of making the playoffs to 26%. Offensive playcalling deserves a bulk of the blame for the poor start Minnesota got off to Sunday, but Zimmer’s defense – this once vaunted unit – has failed the Vikings again and again.

It happened in Carolina on Oct. 17, when the Vikings let Sam Darnold force overtime by going 96 yards in 1:27 to score a touchdown and convert a 2-point attempt. It occurred again when Dallas backup quarterback Cooper Rush strung together a 75-yard drive that ended with a touchdown in the final minute to give the Cowboys the win two weeks later.

It even happened against Detroit on Oct. 10, when the Vikings allowed the Lions to take a 17-16 lead with 41 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and had to rely on a 54-yard field goal to narrowly escape.

Minnesota’s two-minute defense has been a struggle all season, but now it’s closing in on historic lows. The Vikings lead the NFL in points allowed in the final two minutes of any half with 101 (the next closest team is Seattle with 83). The most points allowed in the final two minutes of a half in the last 20 seasons is 107 – a record set by Minnesota in 2020.

For weeks they’ve tried to remedy this problem area by condensing their defensive playcalls and emphasizing the two-minute drill in practice to focus on preventing the pass interference penalties that have killed drives.

None of it has worked.

“That’s been an area we’ve struggled in all year, and it bit us [Sunday],” safety Harrison Smith said. “We’ve got to fix it.”

As they regroup for a short turnaround with Pittsburgh coming to Minneapolis for Thursday Night Football (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox), the Vikings face a stark reality about this defense. It appears this unit was never going to be good enough to stand up against the type of teams it would face in the playoffs, and it very well could be what seals Zimmer’s fate after eight seasons in Minnesota.

There hasn’t been a consistent return on investment for a defense that was the focal point of the offseason. In retooling this entire unit, Minnesota doled out north of $46 million in guaranteed money to defensive players.

Of course, injuries are an issue behind many of their struggles. The Vikings found out Sunday morning that they would be without linebacker Anthony Barr (knee/hamstring) in addition to Eric Kendricks (biceps) while top cornerback Patrick Peterson remained on the COVID-19/reserve list. And even though the Vikings got starting defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce back in Detroit, their pass rush remains thin, especially at defensive end.

But being the victim of Detroit’s first win is inexcusable, no matter who is on the field. Goff went 6-for-10 for 124 yards and two touchdowns on throws traveling more than 10 yards down field Sunday. He threw one touchdown and four interceptions on throws traveling the same distance in his first nine games of the season combined.

The Vikings made a bottom-tier quarterback look competent and blew another late-game lead. The same issues for this defense in Week 13 were there in Week 1, but Sunday might have been the last straw on what’s been a consistent pattern under Zimmer for years: This team hasn't been able to put away or stop teams when it matters, and it has regressed each year since losing the NFC Championship Game to Philadelphia in 2017 with a defense that was ranked No. 1.

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