MINNEAPOLIS — The identity of these Detroit Lions has been undeniably forged through the air, on the strength of Matthew Stafford’s right arm and all his fourth-quarter rallies.
The Lions sure enacted a different formula to finish the first quarter of their schedule tied for first place in the NFC North.
They left Minnesota behind with a defining, few-frills performance that looked a lot like the one the division rival Vikings have been used to relying on.
Anthony Zettel led a ferocious performance by Detroit’s defense with two sacks, four quarterback hits and a fumble recovery, as the Lions forced three turnovers while holding Minnesota scoreless in the second half on the way to a 14-7 victory over the Vikings on Sunday.
“Being on this defense, I’m very blessed,” Zettel said. “Every guy in this locker room is pulling the same direction. We really truly care about one another, and it translates to the field. You can see how we play. Everybody’s got each other’s back.”
The Lions (3-1) turned two fumbles lost by the Vikings in the third quarter into 11 points, taking the lead on Ameer Abdullah’s 1-yard touchdown run five plays after rookie Dalvin Cook fumbled at the Minnesota 29 as his left knee buckled beneath him during a cut gone bad.
The Vikings (2-2) were concerned that Cook tore his anterior cruciate ligament , which would sideline him for the rest of the season.
The Vikings were already without quarterback Sam Bradford for the third straight game because of a sore left knee, and the scars from last year’s ruinous injuries starting with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s left knee dislocation have not quite faded.
“Unfortunately, I’m getting used to it,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Lions managed to make the playoffs last season, despite forcing only 14 turnovers over 16 games. This year, through four games, they already have 11 takeaways. Keeping that pace will be tough, of course, but so was trying to score, for the Vikings.
Running back Jerick McKinnon took a direct snap and faked an inside handoff to Cook early in the third quarter before fumbling as he started a read option play .
Zettel recovered that one. Tahir Whitehead secured the other two, forced by Tavon Wilson and Glover Quin . Detroit leads the NFL in turnover margin at plus-9.
Here are some other key developments from the game:
ZIGGY AND ZETTEL
Zettel, who was drafted in the sixth round out of Penn State last year, had the first two-sack game of his career and leads the Lions this season with four sacks.
“I just want to keep stacking the blocks and build this defense,” Zettel said.
His pass-rushing prowess at left end has emerged as a valuable complement to Ziggy Ansah, who has three sacks, on the right side.
“I love the way he plays, and because of the kind of effort he gives play after play after play, he’s always around the ball. If it’s held long enough, and our coverage is good to keep them holding the ball for a while, one of those guys is going to get him,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “They know where Ziggy is, but I think they’ll have to start looking for Zettel more, too.”
Cook, who entered the game second in the league in rushing, had 13 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown before he was hurt. He has 354 yards, the most to start a career with the Vikings through four games since Adrian Peterson (383) in 2007.
“Worried,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “He started off strong. He is an excellent running back. I pray for him, that everything comes out negative. I just hope he bounces back.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE
For the 10th time in 52 regular-season games under Zimmer, the Vikings posted five-plus sacks. They gave up only one touchdown and limited the Lions to 251 yards. Still, there were plenty of missed opportunities to lament.
Xavier Rhodes, Anthony Barr and Trae Waynes all broke up passes that could’ve realistically been intercepted, with the attempt by Waynes coming the play before Abdullah scored.
“Obviously we want to catch the football when we get the chance. Stafford’s an excellent quarterback, and he’s not really going to throw them to us,” Zimmer said.
“I thought the defense played their hearts out today. We didn’t tackle in some certain situations as well as I would’ve liked, but they had their backs to the wall after those first two turnovers, and I thought they fought.”
An injury to Abdullah’s right foot kept the Lions from stopping a dubious streak. Abdullah carried the ball 20 times for 94 yards, so the Lions have now gone 56 straight regular-season games without producing a 100-yard rusher.
He was cleared to return to action, but the Lions shifted strategy late in the game and kept him on the sideline.
“I want it every week, but it’s a long season,” Abdullah said, when asked about the elusive 100-yard work. “I just want solid outputs every game.”
The last player to reach triple digits was Reggie Bush, who rushed for 117 yards against Green Bay on Nov. 28, 2013. Abdullah, for his part, said he was more concerned about the limited production by the entire offense.
“We only had 14 points,” Abdullah said. “That’s not going to beat a lot of teams.”