Hunter leads the way as Vikings' defense has a record day in 24-9 win over Lions

Brace Hemmelgarn, USA TODAY Sports Images

Danielle Hunter had 3.5 sacks, nine tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown, while team set record with 10 sacks.

MINNEAPOLIS – Everson Griffen, in his second game back for the Minnesota Vikings, converged on Matthew Stafford in the pocket. Danielle Hunter closed in on the other side.

Minnesota’s two defensive ends met at Stafford, combining to bring him down for the second sack of Stafford on Sunday. Hunter urged on Griffen to join him in a sack celebration, but the two wouldn’t team up for Griffen’s “Sack Daddy” dance.

Hunter got Griffen to follow in his chosen celebration, a jumping kick that is quickly becoming a familiar occurrence.

The student has now become the master.

Hunter had 3.5 sacks to lead Minnesota’s onslaught against Stafford. The final total was a team-record 10 sacks in Sunday’s 24-9 win against Detroit.

“He was like, ‘Let’s do it,’” Griffen recalled. “We were talking out there and we just did the ‘Hi ya’ whatever. It was good.”

Griffen is among the league leaders in sacks since becoming a full-time starter in 2014. In his second game back from missing five games to handle a mental-health issue, Griffen had 1.5 sacks and now has 46 since 2014. Hunter was the third-round development pick out of LSU who had 18.5 sacks in his first two seasons as a situation pass rusher and then seven last season as a full-time starter.

The 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hunter finished Sunday’s game with a league-leading 11.5 sacks.

“He’s a coachable player,” Griffen said. “He’s a freak of nature. He looks like a superhero.”

With Hunter unblockable on one side -- Minnesota is able to alter looks with its rotation of Hunter, Griffen and Stephen Weatherly – Stafford and Detroit’s remade offensive line had no chance.

The Lions entered the game giving up 13 sacks all season with a pair of first-round draft picks in third-year tackle Taylor Decker and rookie guard Frank Ragnow on the left side. Right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Ricky Wagner were signed a year ago to help protect Stafford.

Nearly everyone on the Vikings’ line got into the action on Sunday.

Backup tackle Tom Johnson had 2.5 sacks. Weatherly had one and Sheldon Richardson had 0.5 sacks. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander added the other on a blitz.

“We all have a day like that,” Stafford said. “The fault is on everybody. I have to get the ball out faster. When you get in the game situation like that, and you are down as many scores as we were late in the game, you are going to put your offensive line in a tough spot. We understand that, but we don’t want that. I can do my part better.”

Minnesota held the Lions to 66 yards rushing on 24 attempts. Stafford passed for just 199 yards and had a key fumble when he tried to pitch to running back Kerryon Johnson on a scramble midway through the fourth quarter. Johnson couldn’t catch the pitch and Hunter picked up the fumble and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown.

Hunter added nine tackles, three tackles for loss and four quarterback hits. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hunter is the second player with 3.5 sacks and a touchdown in a game since 1982, joining San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips, who had four sacks and a touchdown in 2010.

“We did it together,” the humble Hunter said afterward. “It wasn’t just me. The defensive line working together; staying in our rush lanes and just getting to the passer.”

Stafford wasn’t sacked in the first quarter when the Vikings led 7-0. As the deficit increased, Stafford kept trying for deep passes and holding on to the ball. Minnesota took advantage.

“We could tell he was looking for a big play, a momentum changer,” Weatherly said. “We weren’t able to give him that. Our secondary was playing outstanding. I believe I was told half of our sacks were coverage sacks, and that’s just a testament to those guys in the secondary doing their work, doing their due diligence and shutting down all their favorite plays.”

Detroit trying to go deep played right into Minnesota’s hands. It’s a tactic few opponents have tried.

“You don’t get it a lot,” Johnson said. “(Drew) Brees, you look at how (the Saints) attacked us, how L.A. (Rams) attacked us. Guys respect our secondary. They respect our D-line, so they try to catch a lot of checkdowns, be consistent, move the ball and not really try to go for the deep ball.

With our offense scoring points and defense being able to stop them, they had to go for chunk plays, which allowed us to eat a little bit. And our DBs covered good, so we were able to benefit from it.”

Minnesota had recorded nine sacks in a game four times. Three of the occasions were recorded by the famed “Purple People Eaters” that had Hall of Famers defensive lineman Carl Eller and Alan Page. The 1993 team that featured Hall of Famers Chris Doleman and John Randle on the defensive line was the last Vikings’ group to post nine sacks in a game.

The 10 sacks on Sunday were the second-highest total in a single game this season, trailing the 11 sacks Baltimore had against Tennessee in Week 6. After Sunday’s early games, Minnesota had a league-leading 31 sacks this season and could just be finding its way with Griffen’s return and a steady rotation at tackle and end.

Hunter, Griffen and Weatherly rotate at end, with Johnson coming on at tackle to spell starters Linval Joseph and Richardson.

“Still knocking the rust off a little bit but it’s coming back faster than I thought it would,” Griffen said. “Our defense, we’ve still got a lot of improvements to make, but we can be good. We can be really good.”

Hunter might just be the best of the bunch.

Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings

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