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The Vikings' Defensive Approach on the Lions' Game-Winning Drive Made No Sense

Jared Goff struggles against pressure. So why did Mike Zimmer decide to blitz him just once on the final series?

Set aside the Vikings' horrific first half, which saw them limp out to a disappointing 6-0 lead due to squandered opportunities on offense and then give up a 20-0 second-quarter run to the worst team in the NFL. Set aside the penalties and failed two-point conversions that slowed the Vikings' charge back into the game in the second half. Set aside the unnecessarily early snap on a late third-and-1 that caused the Vikings to run another play before the two-minute warning, saving the Lions precious time.

None of that should've mattered. The task was a simple one: prevent Jared Goff and his ragtag group of receivers from driving 75 yards with no timeouts in a minute and 50 seconds.

Then Mike Zimmer and company came out with a defensive strategy that made no sense.

Goff had struggled throughout the day, in large part due to the Vikings getting a decent amount of pressure on him. Entering that fateful final drive, the much-maligned former No. 1 pick was just 1 for 7 for 6 yards when pressured. He was sacked three times on those dropbacks, with Vikings backup linebacker Blake Lynch getting to him once on a blitz and later forcing and recovering a key fumble to set up Justin Jefferson's go-ahead touchdown. Those three sacks brought the Vikings to 36 on the season, good for second-most in the NFL. Goff's inability to deal with pressure has been a career-long trend and was a big reason why the Rams moved on from him this offseason.

With all of that context, it's hard to believe the Vikings were content to sit back in coverage and let Goff operate out of a clean pocket on the final drive. But they were. They rushed just four on the first seven plays of the possession (excluding a spike) and got no pressure with a defensive line of D.J. Wonnum, Armon Watts, Sheldon Richardson, and Kenny Willekes. The Vikings dropped seven into coverage, keeping everything in front of them, and watched as the Lions dinked and dunked their way from their own 25-yard line to the Vikings' 24.

“We were just too soft on them," Harrison Smith said. "Let them get out of bounds a couple times."

When the Lions ran their next play with just 27 seconds left, the Vikings finally brought pressure. Zimmer sent Smith and Nick Vigil as blitzers, Smith made contact with Goff as he threw, and Bashaud Breeland nearly came down with a game-ending interception on an errant throw.

Rushing six worked. It made Goff uncomfortable and nearly created a takeaway.

Naturally, the Vikings didn't do it again. They shifted into prevent defense on the final four plays, dropping eight into coverage and rushing just three. That resulted in an easy third-and-6 conversion, a nine-yard gain to get the ball to the 11, one incompletion, and then the already-infamous final play.

Oh, that final play. Where to begin?

Not only did the Vikings only rush three, their defensive backs seemed to continue the approach of keeping everything in front of them. That plan makes sense in Lions territory, not when they're at your 11 and need a touchdown to win the game. They backpedaled and backpedaled, letting Amon-Ra St. Brown take up residence in the front of the end zone for an easy game-winning pitch and catch.

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The near side of the field gets the attention for their bizarre coverage, but look to the top of the screen. Breeland was employing the same technique, which tells you that was the play call, not an individual mistake by Cameron Dantzler.

Dantzler has taken most of the heat for this play, and understandably so. If you just watch him, it looks like he has no clue what he's doing and made the error of a lifetime. And although he probably deserves some portion of the blame, he also may have just been doing what he was told to do.

“Yeah, [Dantzler] was supposed to be off, but I couldn’t tell exactly where his inside help was or not," Zimmer said.

Blame also falls on the two inside defenders nearest to the play, Xavier Woods and Mackensie Alexander. Woods was far too deep and was late to break on the play. Alexander was covering the middle receiver of the three on that side of the formation, but as former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber pointed out, he may have been out of place. Alexander might've had some inside responsibilities on St. Brown, but allowed himself to get pushed out of the way by the slot receiver.

We haven't had a chance to ask anyone directly involved about the specifics of the play, as Zimmer and Smith spoke postgame but hadn't seen the tape yet.

"I’d have to see the whole deal," Smith said. It looked like a good throw, fit it in, [but] we’ve obviously got to be tighter. Can’t give them the goal line there."

Regardless of what the exact responsibilities of the DBs were on that play, there was no reason for them to be playing as far back as they were. The possibility of getting beat on something like a corner route in the back of the end zone is so much less dangerous than the chance of giving Goff a simple, easy throw to the front of the end zone.

But again, it all comes back to the lack of pressure on that final play and 11 of the 12  plays on the drive. Zimmer made the choice to let Goff carve his defense up, and it may end up costing him his job.

"We weren’t covering that great," Zimmer said when asked about the approach. "Everything’s hindsight I guess."

'Everything's hindsight' could be the title of a book about this Vikings season. I suppose if you aren't covering well, one way to react to that is to allocate more resources to coverage. But the better approach would've been to make things easier on the coverage by sending pressure at Goff to make his job more difficult. And that's not just hindsight analysis: FOX color analyst Jay Feely was confused about the strategy while the drive was unfolding.

It didn't make any sense at the time, it doesn't make any sense now, and it resulted in one of the Vikings' most embarrassing and damaging losses in recent memory.

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