With the 24-hour media coverage the NFL receives, it isn't easy for a prosperous part of a team to be anonymous. But it isn't impossible. Just ask the Vikings defense.
For a team that has been at the forefront of national news over the last two months, surprisingly little has been said about the defense. The headlines were dominated by Brett Favre, then the loss of Sidney Rice to hip surgery, then the pursuit of disgruntled Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and finally the trade for Randy Moss. You can't turn on NFL coverage without seeing something Vikings-related, but almost without exception, the discussion has been about the offense.
The Vikings have allowed just 38 points and seven of those were the result of a defensive touchdown when Favre fumbled in the end zone against Miami and another touchdown was scored by Detroit following an interception that let the drive begin on the Vikings 12-yard line. Entering the weekend, only Pittsburgh and Kansas City had allowed fewer points per game than the Vikings' 12.7 ppg. But, those two teams had a combined record of 6-1, while the Vikings were 1-2.
Linebacker Ben Leber said he doesn't care if the achievements of the Vikings defense have been swept under the rug by the offense's inability to score points. The defense has allowed 21 points in the first quarter of games, allowing both New Orleans and Miami to score on the opening drive and putting the Vikings in an early hole. But after the first quarter, the Vikings defense has surrendered just 10 points in those nine quarters.
"That's what we're asked to do," Leber said. "Obviously, we've made some mistakes early in games and given up some yards we shouldn't have, but overall we're doing what we can as a defense and, if we get some recognition for it, I don't think anyone on the defense really cares. We're just proud that we can put it out there and that other teams respect us."
The sustained effectiveness of the Vikings defense isn't represented in their record, but the numbers bear out that the Vikings have done an excellent job. Minnesota and San Diego were the only teams in the league to be in the top 10 in both run defense and pass defense through four weeks – the Vikings have the fourth-rated defense, allowing opponents an average of just 276.3 yards a game. The run defense (87.3 ypg) is ranked eighth and the pass defense (185 ypg) is ranked ninth.
While the numbers speak to the consistency of the defensive effort, defensive end Ray Edwards said the only statistics that really matter are the numbers under the "W" and the "L" on the standings sheet and, at 1-2, the Vikings aren't cutting it.
"I don't really look too much at statistics," Edwards said. "The only statistic that matters to me is that we're 1-2. As a team, we're just trying to get to 2-2 and back at .500. We've got a long haul in front of us and it doesn't matter how well one side of the ball plays. If you don't get a win, you don't get it as a team, not on offense or defense."
Cornerback Antoine Winfield, who had an interception in the last game against Detroit, said he doesn't understand how defenses can be rated simply on yardage. With a passer rating that takes into account everything but a quarterback's astrological sign, basing defensive and offensive rankings merely on yardage isn't an accurate reflection. If a team is up by 21 points, the defense will allow short check-down passes that keep the clock moving, but pile up meaningless yardage late in games.
Winfield said the team takes pride in keeping yardage numbers down, but they aren't always the most accurate description of a defense and, in the end, aren't that significant.
"We're 1-2 and we're not where we want to be," Winfield said. "I think stats are overrated sometimes. They look at yardage, not the other aspects of how you played. If we were the 32nd-ranked defense, I'd be fine with that if we were 3-0. But we're not. We're 1-2 and we need to keep fighting to get back to where we think we should be."
The Vikings defense being pushed away from the spotlight isn't unusual, said defensive tackle Kevin Williams. He said most aspects of the NFL are geared toward offense. Most rules changes have made it more difficult for aggressive defenses to do their job. For the Vikings defense to go relatively unnoticed while Favre, Rice, Jackson and Moss have dominated the headlines, Williams said, shouldn't really surprise anyone.
"It's been the same around here the eight years I've been here," Williams said. "Almost nobody talks about defense. It's a game built on trying to help offenses and it's harder on us all the time. Offense sells tickets. We know that. But defense wins championships. We've been at the top of the run defense for a while, but our focus has been on improving the pass defense. The last couple of years we've been improving and we want to be the No. 1 defense in the league."
Considering the Vikings were without starter Cedric Griffin and top rookie pick Chris Cook for the first two games, what the Vikings have accomplished has been noteworthy. Playing without all of its top defensive backs, in the first three games of the season, they have faced Pro Bowl wide receivers Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson. None of the three has scored a touchdown and they have averaged five catches for just 63 yards.
Although the Vikings aren't patting themselves on the back for their overall performance, keeping those star receivers contained has been the top priority and that mission has been accomplished.
"Every week has been a challenge," Winfield said. "We've been playing against some of the greatest athletes in the world. We haven't given up that many big plays. Last week we finally were able to touch some balls (interceptions) and get moving in the right direction. Overall, I think we've done a good job even being shorthanded."
With a strong start to the season by Adrian Peterson and the arrival of Moss expected to open up the passing game, the talk is again about the Vikings offense, leaving the defense in obscurity once again. Cornerback Lito Sheppard said that's fine with the defenders, as long as they continue doing what they've done to this point.
"With all the talk about the offense and our record, I think our performance has been a little overshadowed," Sheppard said. "We've done some good things as a defense. Obviously, it hasn't been great, because we let two out of three games get away. But we know we've got a lot of good things to build on and I think it will help us build momentum as we get deeper into the season."
Had someone told any member of the Vikings that they would allow 14 or fewer points in each of their first three games, few if any would have projected anything less than a 3-0 record. Instead, the Vikings are 1-2, which tempers any enthusiasm about how any phase of the Vikings has performed. Linebacker Chad Greenway they believe they can have a shut-down defense that will earn its accolades in time, but, with 13 games remaining, the defense will have a lot of chances to make a name for itself and emerge from the shadow of an attention-hogging offense.
"We want to continue to build on what we have done," Greenway said. "We want to be one of the top-echelon defenses in the league every year. The season is only three games in, so you can't consider yourself one of the best defenses unless you've gone through a whole season and done it the entire time. We know where we want to be."
The Vikings have clearly dug themselves a deep hole early in the season. The arrival of Moss is expected to energize the offense, but, if the Vikings are to come all the way back and reclaim their place atop the NFC North, it will more likely be the defense that brings them to the promised land, whether it gets the attention of the football world or continues to fly off the grid and under the radar.
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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