The Vikings defense is wont for the classic clichés about how to win football games. One of their primary mantras is talking about getting the defense off the field on third downs. In Sunday’s 34-24 win over Detroit, the Vikings didn’t allow a third down to be converted into a first down until 3:40 remained in the game and it would be the only third down the Lions made all game in a start-to-finish turning-point statistic.
“That’s what we talk about all the time – getting them into third-and-long situations and get them off the field,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “They made some plays in the second half to get some points on the board, but we had made enough plays to be in control and get the win. We needed this one bad because we’ve got three more division games coming out of the bye week and had to come up big today.”
The key to success on third down often centers around the distance needed to pick up a first down. Not only did Detroit convert just one of nine third downs, the numbers tell you they shouldn’t have. The Lions faced nine third downs in the game, from distances of five, seven, eight, eight, 10, 10, 11, 19 and 20 yards. On average, teams convert about 30 percent of third downs of five yards or less. Get them to eight or more yards and the conversion rates drop precipitously.
Linebacker Chad Greenway said it was a team effort involving all 11 players, as well as the collective 12th man in the stands.
“You have to give credit to our fans for picking up a couple of penalties and credit to our guys for making plays that forced them into those types of situations,” Greenway said. “We always talk about getting off the field on third down and we did that today.”
The Vikings forced the issue early and often on the critical third-down plays. In the first quarter, facing a third-and-10 play, Greenway intercepted a pass that helped get three points and gave the Vikings a 10-0 lead. With a third-and-5 early in the second quarter, Kevin Williams got an 11-yard sack that forced the Lions to settle for a field goal. In the third quarter, pinned deep in his own territory, Lions QB Matthew Stafford had to run for his life when protection broke down and scramble out of bounds to turn the ball back to the Vikings, who would use the short field to increase their lead to 16-3. And a key fourth-quarter stop on a third-and-20 opened the door for a 61-yard touchdown run for Adrian Peterson that gave the Vikings a 14-point lead and effectively iced the game.
“I didn’t realize we had done that well on third down, but clearly we did,” Kevin Williams said. “Our thing was getting off the field when we had the chance. Once we got up early on them, our defensive guys felt we had to hold up our end. We didn’t play perfect by a long shot, but it looked good in the long run,”
As with most successes on third down, it started with what the Vikings had done on the first two downs. After getting gashed the last four weeks on the ground, the Vikings defense allowed just 60 yards on 17 carries, which helped set up so many third-and-long situations.
“It all started with stopping the run,” Jared Allen said. “That had been our problem. I’m just mad we gave up seven points at the end. I know it was dink-and-dunk football and you kind of let them have that at that time to run the clock out, but I thought it was a great way for the team to bounce back after a couple of weeks of not playing so hot.”
As the Vikings head into the bye week, they do so with renewed optimism that the struggles that brought them back to the pack in recent weeks was in play Sunday, creating a potentially season-changing turning point.
“We know if we want to get where we want to get to that we have to be more consistent,” Greenway said. “We’ve been a little up and down this last month. This is sort of who we are – where we were in the first five weeks. We knew it was out there. We just had go figure out to do it again. Now we have to do it on the road. That’s going to be the key moving forward.”
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.