After having to retool his blitz package because other teams have caught on to it and emulated it, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said he's had to make adjustments as the season went on.
Zimmer again has opposing quarterbacks running for safety while Minnesota's pass defense is wreaking weekly havoc. Entering Sunday's game at Detroit, the Vikings lead the league with 47 sacks. It's already the most in one season for Minnesota since Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014.
"As the season's gone on, we've changed a few up," Zimmer said of his blitz packages. "There were a couple, maybe four or five (last week) that we haven't really shown much of. It's part of the game-plan thing, just seeing what we feel like what we can do and how we can attack certain players. Sometimes it's just we're going to do this blitz so that we can throw some of these chips off the defensive ends."
Detroit knows all about the pressure the Vikings can bring. Minnesota battered Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford when the two teams met in November, with the Vikings registering a franchise-record 10 sacks.
Minnesota posted nine sacks of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill last week, becoming just the second team since 1990 and the seventh since the 1970 merger to have at least nine sacks in two games of a season.
"We're just playing more aggressive," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "I think we know our backs are against the wall. I think we play best in those situations, when we know we have to have it. I think we've definitely reached a new level the last few weeks, and hopefully we can keep that momentum riding."
The Vikings are fourth in the league in total defense, giving up just 314.3 yards per game. Minnesota has given up just 180 gross yards passing the past two games, a glaring total in this year's pass-happy NFL.
And that's before accounting for the sacks, 11 coming in the past two games. Minnesota gave up 37 net passing yards to Miami and 60 against Seattle.
One new wrinkle has been using Barr more as a pass rusher. He's had his only three sacks of the season in the past two games, including two last week.
"Yeah, always extra attention," Barr said. "I think protection turns to me a lot and that allows other people to get matchups, favorable matchups. I'm all for that. It is what it is. The scouting report is out. Teams know what we like to do. They know what I do well. We try and combat that."
It's hard for opponents to account for what Zimmer can bring every down.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter is second in the league with 14.5 sacks. Everson Griffen has been one of the top pass rushers in the league since becoming a full-time starter and has 4.5 sacks despite missing five games. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has 4.5 sacks in his first season in Minnesota.
And then there's cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the added element many opponents aren't ready for when he makes a surprise run at the quarterback from his nickel spot. Alexander has four sacks this season, a single-season team record for a defensive back.
"I think it adds an extra problem for them," Hunter said. "We got us up front and then we got Barr. And sometimes they'll be focused on us five and then Mackensie comes up free. So, we've got guys on all levels that are just able to go out there and be able to rush the quarterback."
Stafford has faced Minnesota 17 times in his career, one fewer than his matchups with Chicago and one more than he's faced Green Bay. Stafford has been on the turf much more against the Vikings.
Minnesota has sacked Stafford 61 times in the 17 games, an average of 3.6 times per game. The Bears have got Stafford on the ground 46 times in the 18 contests.
The Lions officially fell out of playoff contention with last Sunday's loss to the Buffalo Bills, but first-year head coach Matt Patricia said he won't change his message to players at all over the final two weeks.
"Obviously the playoffs are, that's the goal and that's what you're shooting for every single week," Patricia said. "The thing that's different, I think, is that every week you don't walk into the room and talk about playoffs. You just kind of walk in and talk about the game that week and what you need to do to get ready to prepare and try to win and the opponent coming up and all the stuff.
"In the end, you hope that all of it works its way out. If you take care of your business, then it usually does. In this situation, obviously a little bit different, because that is the reality of where we are in the season."
The Lions are 5-9 with two games to play and in danger of having their first double-digit-loss season since 2012. They're staring at a likely top-10 draft pick, and potentially an offseason of major change as offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter's job could be in jeopardy.
Cooter said this week that he and Patricia have a "very good" working relationship, but the Lions have underachieved on offense, and Stafford -- who was Cooter's biggest champion last winter -- has regressed at quarterback.
Patricia said he wants to wait until the end of the season to take stock in what went wrong this year, but while his defense has improved steadily as the year has gone on, the offense has struggled more and more each week.
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