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Zimmer excited about Vikings’ foundation despite loss

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer likes the direction his team is heading, with or without a win so far in the NFC North.

“I know people are going to be on my butt about that, not winning division games,” Zimmer said Monday, a day after the Vikings lost a 14-0 first-half lead in a 16-14 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. “But if we keep playing this way, with the kind of grit and preparation and things we do, we will win division games.”

The Vikings are 6-8 overall and 0-5 within the division. They need to beat the Chicago Bears in the season finale in two weeks in order to avoid becoming just the second team in franchise history not to win a division game.

No one at Winter Park is asking for moral victories, but plenty are pointing to the progress the Vikings have made since their first two division games, when they lost to the Green Bay Packers 42-10 and the Lions 17-3. In Week 11, they were competitive to the end of a 21-13 loss to the Bears despite some decided defensive mismatches that exposed short cornerback Josh Robinson against Chicago’s tall receivers.

A week later, in the rematch against the Packers, the Vikings contained a Green Bay scoring machine that was coming off a franchise-record back-to-back games of 50-plus points. A 24-21 loss certainly signaled progress, as did Sunday’s two-point loss in front of the loudest Ford Field crowd the Vikings have ever experienced.

“I think I’m learning this division better, but I’d rather learn with a win than that,” Zimmer said. “We’ve tried to improve each week and each time. I’m just learning more about personnel and how to play guys. Things like that.”

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner caught the Lions off-guard early with a heavy dose of five-wide, shotgun sets that enabled rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to negate Detroit’s fierce pass rush with quick slants and screens and rollout passes against a spread-out Lions defense. Meanwhile, defensively, Zimmer’s decision to have big corner Xavier Rhodes shadow Calvin Johnson everywhere but the slot was a pivotal coaching decision that held Johnson to just four catches for 53 yards and quarterback Matthew Stafford to a season-low 153 yards passing.

The Vikings led 14-0 on two long touchdown drives before Detroit notched a first down. But interceptions on back-to-back Bridgewater throws handed the Lions 10 second-quarter points and allowed them and the home crowd to get back into the game.

“As I told the team, we’re going to stick with it, keep working on getting better,” Zimmer said. “Because we’ve got something here to build on for the future.”

REPORT CARD VS. LIONS

PASSING OFFENSE: C – Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did a lot of promising things while operating a well-conceived game plan from offensive coordinator Norv Turner. With a heavy dose of five-wide, shotgun sets, Bridgewater was quick and decisive with slants and screens designed to assist a rag-tag offensive line sporting backups at three positions compete with Detroit’s vicious defensive front. Bridgewater completed 31 of 41 passes for 315 yards and a touchdown to help the Vikings go on top 14-0 before the Lions notched a first down. But Bridgewater also experienced a typical rookie moment when he threw interceptions on back-to-back throws in the second quarter. That handed the Lions 10 points and let them back into the game.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C – Considering the Vikings were playing the league’s best run defense, 76 yards on 21 carries (3.6) isn’t terrible. For three quarters, they were able to maintain balance with a running game that didn’t lose yardage on 17 carries. Matt Asiata ran hard and determined, notching 36 yards on 11 carries against a defense that was giving up less than 63 a game. But Ben Tate III got three fourth-quarter carries and lost yardage on two of them, including one on first-and-goal from the 7.

PASS DEFENSE: A – Cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadowed Lions receiver Calvin Johnson everywhere but in the slot. He was left without help on several occasions and played well. Johnson had only four catches for 53 yards, including three for 49 against the big, physical Rhodes. The Vikings also held Lions QB Matt Stafford to just 153 yards passing, his lowest total of the season and second lowest since 2009.

RUSH DEFENSE: B – The Vikings held the Lions to 80 yards on 22 carries. Only one run, a 15-yarder, was longer than six yards. But the Vikings did give up four rushes for 31 yards on Detroit’s game-winning field goal drive.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C – Again, it was a case of some very good and very bad plays. The Vikings got a key 51-yard kickoff return to midfield by Cordarrelle Patterson late in the fourth quarter. They also got a 35-yard punt return from Marcus Sherels. On the flip side, they had a 26-yard field goal blocked when J’Marcus Webb, playing his first game of the season after signing just three weeks ago, got shoved back by Jason Jones while playing right guard. That kick would have given the Vikings a 17-13 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

COACHING: B – Turner’s offensive game plan was superb and just what the Vikings needed in a loud road venue against a pass rush that the offensive line had no chance to match up with. The five-wide, shotgun sets, the rollouts right and the moving pocket helped reduce the Vikings’ sack total from eight in the first meeting with Detroit to four this time. Defensively, Mike Zimmer’s decision to have Rhodes shadow Johnson was perfectly timed. The Vikings also played one of their better games of the season the week they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. So the coaching staff still has everybody’s attention.


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