It wasn't pretty, or easy, or comfortable, but the Vikings survived.
A loss to the Lions would've functionally ended their season, dropping them to 1-4 after an unbelievable late collapse and causing calls for Mike Zimmer's firing to reach a fever pitch. Somehow, when a 16-6 lead and possession of the ball turned into a 17-16 deficit in just three minutes of game time, we were 37 seconds away from that becoming reality.
But Kirk Cousins moved the ball down the field, Greg Joseph drilled the game-winning field goal from 54 yards out, and the Vikings lived to fight another day.
Let's take a look at the Vikings' snap counts and some Pro Football Focus grades and stats from the 19-17 victory over the Lions.
Offensive snap counts
Total offensive snaps: 67
- QB Kirk Cousins: 67
- LG Ezra Cleveland: 67
- C Garrett Bradbury: 67
- RG Oli Udoh: 67
- RT Brian O'Neill: 67
- WR Adam Thielen: 62
- WR Justin Jefferson: 60
- TE Tyler Conklin: 50
- RB Alexander Mattison: 44
- WR K.J. Osborn: 40
- LT Rashod Hill: 39
- FB C.J. Ham: 32
- LT Christian Darrisaw: 28
- TE Ben Ellefson: 14
- WR Dede Westbrook: 14
- RB Ameer Abdullah: 12
- TE Chris Herndon: 7
The Vikings gave no indication all week that Darrisaw would play in this game, so it was a surprise when I looked down from my press box seat and saw No. 71 out there with the offense to start their third possession. I hadn't seen Hill get hurt, so it seemed like the move had been made — the struggling veteran had been benched for the promising rookie. But that wasn't exactly the case, as Hill returned to the game and ended up out-snapping Darrisaw by 11 in a rotation that Zimmer said was the plan coming into the game. More on that later.
Ham played a season-high 32 snaps as the Vikings went ultra run-heavy in this one (an approach that probably deserved to cost them the game, I might add). Other than that, not much was atypical here. Trading for Herndon continues to look like a mistake, as he only played seven snaps and committed costly penalties on two of them.
Defensive snap counts
Total defensive snaps: 68
- S Xavier Woods: 68
- S Harrison Smith: 68
- LB Eric Kendricks: 68
- LB Anthony Barr: 68
- CB Patrick Peterson: 68
- CB Bashaud Breeland: 68
- DE Danielle Hunter: 61
- DE Everson Griffen: 49
- CB Mackensie Alexander: 43
- DE D.J. Wonnum: 40
- DT Armon Watts: 36
- DT Dalvin Tomlinson: 34
- DT Sheldon Richardson: 34
- LB Nick Vigil: 25
- DT James Lynch: 11
- DE Stephen Weatherly: 7
No Michael Pierce or Cameron Dantzler and the return of Barr caused some shakeups to the defensive playing time distribution. Breeland and Barr joined Peterson, Kendricks, and the safeties as every-down players, leaving just five spots to be divvied up. Either Alexander and Vigil took one of them, with the other four being the defensive line. Blake Lynch was the odd man out at linebacker with Barr back in the mix. Breeland had his best game of the season, by far.
The defensive line rotation is always fascinating, and this week was no exception. Griffen got the start over Wonnum and played a season-high 49 snaps, excelling with six pressures and two sacks. Still, Zimmer thought that was too many. "If we can keep him to 30, 35 [snaps per game], we feel like we can maintain his athleticism and power and things like that through the course of the year," Zimmer said. It'll be an interesting situation to follow because Griffen is clearly the Vikings' second-best pass rusher right now, but he does turn 34 in December. Also, back in 2019, Griffen averaged 6.3 pressures per game for the first seven games of the year and then wore down with just 2.8 pressures per game over the final eight. It's a little different because he was a full-time player that year, but a decline like that is what the Vikings want to avoid.
Wonnum had his best game of the year, grabbing his first sack and notching three pressures. Weatherly barely played. At defensive tackle, it's interesting to see basically an even split between Watts, Tomlinson, and Richardson, with James Lynch joining the rotation and recovering a fumble on one of his 11 snaps.
Pro Football Focus notes
Here are the Vikings' highest and lowest grades on offense and defense against the Browns, via PFF, for players with a minimum of 15 snaps played.
Darrisaw and Hill split time, with similar results
There was no clear winner from the left tackle competition in this game. The veteran Hill gave up two pressures and a sack, although he stepped on Mattison's foot during that sack. Darrisaw kept a clean slate pressure-wise, but that doesn't mean he was great. He whiffed on a couple blocks in the run game and had inconsistent technique in pass protection. Zimmer described his performance as "OK."
In the end, both graded out similarly in PFF's eyes. But given the context of where both players are at in their careers, there's no question it should be Darrisaw's job full-time soon, whether that happens next week or after the bye.
“We’ll see how the week goes, and we’ll decide from there," Zimmer said.
Barr struggles a bit in return to action
Playing in his first game in 13 months after recovering from multiple major injuries, it's understandable that Anthony Barr showed some rust on Sunday. Playing every snap, he was the Vikings' lowest-graded defensive starter. Barr did some good things, but he missed a tackle, was involved in some miscommunications in coverage, and generally looked a bit stiff and slow out there.
"I felt a little slow at times," Barr said on Monday. "But I think that’s normal. It was good to get back out there and run around a little bit, and I’ll continue to get better as time goes on."
Barr was quite honest about the physical toll of playing football again. He said he feels like sh** but will be fine in a couple days. He said he was exhausted several times during the game and pushed through it. He said "it's kind of good to be in pain" again. And he said that he has to have the mentality of playing without fear of re-injuring his knee: "If I explode, I explode."
"There were multiple plays when I felt like I was never going to be able to walk again," Barr said. "Your body feels like it explodes and then you get up like, ‘OK, I’m good.’ The more of those I get the more conditioning my body gets for just banging and running and all that good stuff.
I gotta say, playing in the NFL sounds quite painful. It'll be interesting to see how Barr does over the final 12 games of the year.
Other PFF notes
- Bashaud Breeland had his first good game in a Vikings uniform, allowing only three catches on seven targets. He needed that. But Breeland did get ran over by D'Andre Swift late in the game and sent a dumb, vulgar tweet after it was over, so Cameron Dantzler could still be in the mix for that job when he comes off the COVID list.
- PFF were big fans of Kirk Cousins' performance. I was surprised to see his grade be an 88.4, which is close to elite. Cousins was quite accurate and was hurt by a couple drops, but I didn't think he was aggressive enough. Facing a poor pass rush, there were too many times where he checked it down instead of trying for something bigger. That's the context that PFF grades don't help you evaluate.
- Justin Jefferson continues to be elite. The Lions simply couldn't cover him on Sunday, and it's a pretty big indictment of the coaching staff that he finished with just eight targets. Jefferson trails only Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill in PFF grade among wide receivers.
- Speaking of elite, Eric Kendricks had his best game of the year, including an incredible one-handed interception.
- The entire starting defense outside of Barr, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Xavier Woods graded above 70, which is very good.
- Oli Udoh had another rough game on the offensive line, his second in a row after a strong three-game start. Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, and Brian O'Neill were merely solid against a bad defensive line.
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