The Vikings have a top-10 defense once again.
Five years ago, that was commonplace during a three-year stretch when they shut down the run better than any team in the NFL. Over the last few years, however, the Vikings had their issues on defense, as witnessed by a 21st-ranked unit to end the 2011 season – 11th against the run and a fairly typical 26th against the pass.
But the rebuilding may be paying dividends and Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers could be Exhibit A. The 49ers came into Mall of America Field as the top-ranked team in the Associated Press Pro 32 rankings, averaging 28.5 points per game and 363 yards of offense per game. The Vikings held them to 13 points and 280 yards.
"We just wanted to win. We wanted to win at home. We wanted to win the way we wanted to play football," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It just falls in line with what they do. We have been built around stopping the run. We did it as good as anybody for three, four years in a row. We know what that's like and we want to be back to that mode. We've just got to start with our mentality."
All week, coaches and players stressed the importance of playing a physical game against the team that had been ballyhooed for that quality. The 49ers had averaged 167 yards rushing in their first two games – against the Vikings' NFC North rivals in Green Bay and Detroit. In Minnesota, the 49ers ran for only 89 yards and got taken out of their running game, rushing only 20 times.
The Vikings, meanwhile, stuck with their running game despite averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. They continued to feed the ball to Adrian Peterson and his backfield mates. Peterson carried 25 times and the Vikings rushed the ball 41 times.
"We wanted to go out and match their intensity and I feel like we did that," linebacker Jasper Brinkley said.
"They're physical. They're a physical team. We had to match their intensity and I felt like we did. It was bloody game so we had to match their intensity."
The 49ers might have been the Vikings' toughest opponent on the first half of their schedule, but Minnesota emerged with the NFL's eighth-ranked defense – 12th against the run and ninth against the pass.
Since moving to a Tampa-2/Cover-2 base defense in 2006, the Vikings' defenders have been resolute in their mantra: Stop the run and make the opponent one-dimensional. They had a four-year stretch where they were either first or second in the league in run defense. But slowly dominance gave way to mediocrity.
Greenway, who was drafted in 2006 and has seen the dominance and the decline, was one of the veterans that talked last week about regaining that power.
"When you've been that team, when you've had that success, you have to get knocked off that pedestal before you believe somebody is going to be able to beat you at your own game. This is the NFL. People are going to be proud about what they're doing," Greenway said Monday.
"We just made too many mistakes (in the past) to give ourselves a chance. We know we're capable. We know what's in this building. We know the personnel is not exactly the same, but the way it's being taught is, so we know we can get back to being what we want to be."
They are on that path.
Three weeks into the 2012 season, the defense ranks eighth in total yards per game, eighth in yards per play, eighth in rushing yards per attempt, ninth in passing net yards per game, ninth in passing net yards per play and eighth in net yards per game differential.
Most importantly, they are ninth in points per game and have a 2-1 record.
Despite facing a tough San Francisco team, the Vikings defense helped its cause Sunday, even with injury issues. They entered the game without their leading tackler to that point, Erin Henderson, who was out after suffering a concussion the previous week. In the first quarter, they lost starting safety Mistral Raymond to a "significant" ankle injury. Later, the NFL's defending sacks champion, Jared Allen, missed time with neck spasms. Still, a defense that had broken down in crucial spots in their first two games remained relentless for four quarters.
The 49ers had two drives that went more than 10 plays, both in the second quarter. The first resulted in a field goal and the second in a blocked field goal. Three of San Francisco's five drives in the fourth quarter ended in turnovers – two fumbles and the Vikings' first interception of the season.
For Greenway, the formula isn't complicated and neither are the defensive principles under first-year coordinator Alan Williams.
"He knows the personnel and he's done a good job of making it better based off the personnel rather than throwing his system at us and saying this is what we're going to do. He's done a good job of playing off our strengths," said Greenway, who led the team with 13 tackles and two sacks.
"In the situations I've been in, it's always been smarter to keep things simple and just do what you do and do it well. Then I think you don't have the ups and downs and you don't have problems with ‘I didn't know my assignment because it's something new.' You feel confident in what you're doing and just go out there and play."
On Sunday, the defense was part of the solution. Keeping it that way is the defenders' next challenge.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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