Last year when the Vikings finished with a franchise-worst 3-13 record, much was blamed on the defense. The Vikings finished with the 21st-ranked defense (11th rushing, 26th passing), which was better than the team with the best record in the NFL (Green Bay) and better than the two teams that played in the Super Bowl (the New York Giants and New England Patriots).
The Vikings defense was vulnerable, but not overwhelmed. As the team has gotten off to a 4-1 start to the 2012 season, much of the credit can go to the defense.
Through five weeks of the season, the Vikings have the seventh-ranked defense in the league and are consistently making big plays to either end drives or knock players to the turf with big hits that send a message.
The impetus for the Vikings aggression began back in late July. The Vikings coaching staff felt a bit hamstrung by the new CBA rules that allow only one full-pad practice per day with the days of the Bataan Death March two-a-days a thing of the past. Still, Vikings defenders were trying to get the most of their limited time in pads under the Mankato sun.
"It started in camp back in Mankato," Griffen said. "We were in pads all the time and got physical and strong. We were just focusing in and it's showing on the field."
Jasper Brinkley was one of those players that embraced the hitting mentality that was spawned in Mankato. Replacing E.J. Henderson as the starting middle linebacker and coming off a hip injury that cost him his 2011 season, he came in training camp ready to hit people and prove the Vikings' confidence in him correct.
Like Griffen, Brinkley said there was something in the air in Mankato early on that the Vikings embraced and carried over into games when they got to hit people that weren't teammates. His job is to shoot gaps and hit running backs and quarterbacks, and he believes the success the Vikings are currently enjoying owes its genesis to the dog days in Mankato.
"At training camp, we were out in pads, and when we had pads on we were hittin' it," Brinkley said. "We were getting after each other offensively and defensively. I think it has translated on into the season, which is big for us because on defense you want guys to be looking at you as a defensive unit and saying, ‘Those guys are going to hit every opportunity they have.' You don't want to give a running back any doubt in his mind when he's watching film against us, saying, ‘I can give a little extra effort because I know they're not going to run to ball.'"
One of the more pleasant surprises has been rookie safety Harrison Smith. Many Vikings fans are left scratching their heads when it comes to remembering the last time the Vikings had a safety that could lay the wood and call dibs on the middle of the field – a warning to opposing wide receivers and tight ends to enter at their own risk.
Smith has started a tight little highlight film of big hits (referee shoving aside), but he said making the type of hit that ends up on the sports network highlight shows isn't his motivation, it's just how he plays the game.
"I don't really go out there thinking I have to get big hits," Smith said. "But when the opportunities arise to get a good shot on somebody, that's always the way I've played. That's just part of the game – going out there and trying to make plays and be impactful."
No small share of the credit belongs to defensive coordinator Alan Williams. Cornerback Chris Cook said that part of Williams' coaching mantra is not to allow a player with the ball get to the ground without being hit … and hit hard.
"They preach that we want 11 guys around the ball – to run to the ball and play fast," Cook said. "I feel that once you practice that way it transfers over to the game. So far, that's what has been going on with us."
There are certain teams that gain a reputation for having the type of defense that forces opponents to pack a lunch – it's going to be a long day. Baltimore, Pittsburgh and San Francisco are examples of teams that have earned that reputation. The Vikings are looking to be one of those defenses. They are starting to build a base of believers that is growing with every win.
A team that many national football analysts viewed maybe winning four games all season now has four wins in five games and is looking to make it five in Washington D.C. The more teams they line up and knock down, the more the respect for the Vikings defense will grow. Beating the 49ers was viewed as a fluke by many, until they watched the game film. The win over Detroit started raising eyebrows. The beatdown of the Titans made believers.
The Vikings are still flying under the NFL radar to some extent and they don't seem at all disrespected by that. They enjoy it. They are hoping that by the time the rest of the NFL world figures out that this defense has the capability to be dominant it just might be too late. The East Coast media hubs haven't figured it out yet. A win over Washington Sunday may put a stamp on that point and erase the persisting memory of a Vikings team that was effectively eliminated from playoff competition a year ago at this time.
"If we keep on doing this, we're going to be a good team and we're going to be moving forward," Griffen said. "This is a new year. We can't worry about last year. Last year is in the past. We're 4-1 right now on the way to Washington, and Washington has got to be ready to play because we're going to be ready to play at all times."
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.
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