Don’t overthink it: As the defense goes, so go the Vikings
MINNEAPOLIS — How have the Vikings rallied to pull themselves back into relevance after a 1-2-1 start? With defense, mostly, but also a slightly improved running game.
The story isn’t told entirely by defensive statistics; three missed field goals, for instance, cost the Vikings victory in a 29-29 tie at Green Bay in Week 2, and the Vikings are 1-3-1 when they lose the turnover battle. They also have played several games without end Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr, tackle Linval Joseph and safety Andrew Sendejo.
Some of those players have returned, and coach Mike Zimmer said he continues to tweak a base defense coming under increasingly tense scrutiny from opponents and teams hoping to achieve some of the Vikings’ recent success.
But whatever the reasons, the defense undoubtedly has improved since Week 4, when the Vikings gave up a season-high 556 yards in a 38-31 loss to the Rams on Sept. 27 in Los Angeles. They played probably their best game of the season in last Sunday’s 24-9 victory over Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium.
As Minnesota held the Lions without a touchdown, and sacked quarterback Matt Stafford a franchise-record 10 times, the Vikings’ defense appeared to have finally become the one most expected after returning every key member of a unit that ranked No. 1 in total defense during the 2017 regular season.
“I wasn’t on that team, you know?” said defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who has made his presence felt since signing a one-year free-agent deal in the offseason. “We gladly would like to be the No. 1 defense in the league and all that stuff, but still got some season left and winning games is more important than what y’all’s (statistics) say.”
The Vikings head into their next game, Nov. 18 at Chicago, a half-game behind the Bears in the NFC North, having won four of their past five games.
“It’s meshing together,” Joseph said after the Lions game.
The running game has improved, as well. After averaging a meager 77 yards in the first four games — during which time Minnesota ranked dead last in rushing among 32 NFL teams — they have run for an average of 104 yards in their past five games.
But the Vikings’ offense has been more than adequate, averaging 24.6 points a game with the NFL’s sixth-best passing game (374.3 yards a game) behind new quarterback Kirk Cousins. The difference the past five games has been most apparent on defense, and the biggest reason might be schematic adjustments.
The Vikings have had a strong lineup the past few years, yet they gave up plays of 22, 28, 36, 39 and 56 yards in a season-opening win over San Francisco — and got lucky when Jimmy Garoppolo overthrew his tight end in the third quarter — and were crushed by then-winless Buffalo 27-6 at home in Week 3.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of boot action since the Buffalo game — and San Francisco, honestly. Buffalo just happened to expose us because we hadn’t made adjustments,” Richardson said. “Yeah, we’ve eliminated some of the big plays — most of them.”
In their first four games, the Vikings gave up nine plays of 35 yards or more; in the five games since, four — and the Lions never gained more than 18 yards (twice) on any play from scrimmage.
“We’ll go back through the season and look at plays that hurt us and kind of see if there’s a pattern going on,” Zimmer said this week. “We’re kind of constantly doing that. Same thing offensively, so we can figure out what we have to change or adjust the coverage or make different calls or game plan — things so we don’t get hurt.
“For instance, (Detroit) tried to run two of those roll-out screens, and we got hurt with them earlier in the year – I think San Francisco had one and probably the Rams had one and there was someone else. So, we’ve had to make adjustments on how we’re playing that. I think (the Lions) lost yards on both of them.”
The Rams, in fact, had plays of 31, 36, 47, 56 and 70 yards against the Vikings. Since then, Minnesota has given up four plays of 35 yards or more, and none for as many as 50, in five games.
The game next Sunday, Nov. 18, will be for first place in the NFC North. The Bears are the division’s surprise team, starting the season 5-3 under first-year coach Matt Nagy. The Bears, behind second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, are averaging 29.4 points a game but also lead the NFL with three defensive touchdowns — and cornerback Kyle Fuller is tied for the NFL lead with four interceptions.
Trubisky has passed for 1,949 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions; running back Jordan Howard leads the team in rushing with 490 yards on 126 carries with five touchdowns.
Asked if the Vikings would use their bye week to make further adjustments to the defense, Zimmer said, “Not too much, really,” but acknowledged that changes have made a difference.
When scouting opponents, he said, “You watch their offense and they’re all attacking with basically the same combination, route combination and things, and you see it’s versus that particular style of (defensive) coverage. That’s when it really shows up. You see everybody game-planning the same coverage every single week. That’s why we’ve had to change.”