For much of the 2013 season, the Vikings defense was a running punch line on third down. Through nine games, the Vikings were the worst defense on third down, allowing more than 50 percent of third-down opportunities – regardless of distance – converted into first downs. It extended opposing drives. It wore down the defense, which had to stay on the field longer. It was a shot at the pride of the defense.
Over the last three weeks, however, the Vikings have turned that ugliest of statistics around – in a big way. Over the last three games, the Vikings have allowed just 9 of 38 third downs – 23.7 percent, an NFL best – to be converted. Next on that list are Cleveland at 27.3 percent and Carolina at 27.8 percent.
The Vikings are still 31st, so they haven't turned a massive corner, but in the second half of the season, they've dropped their full-season percentage by more than six points (down from 50.7 percent to 44 percent), but it's a marked improvement over the last three games that the Vikings hope to carry on in the final quarter of the season.
Defensive lineman Everson Griffen thinks the Vikings have committed themselves to being much more fundamentally sound on third down – a function of getting a strong pass rush and taking away throwing lanes for the back end of the defense.
"It's our attitude on third down," Griffen said. "We call that the money down. You've got to get off (the field) on third down. You've just to go out and execute the play call and put the pressure in the quarterback's face and cover the wide receivers well."
Third-down defense has been a hallmark of the Vikings in recent seasons. Having the league's worst third-down defense was an embarrassment for a team that has prided itself on being among the best in that statistical category.
"It was frustrating," Griffen said. "But if you keep in fighting and keep plugging at it to get better, that's the only way you get better – by practicing and making the call."
Part of the reason for the Vikings' improvement on third down has been forcing opponents into third-and-long situations due to being able to consistently stop the run. Defensive end Brian Robison believes the Vikings have done a better job limiting gains on first and second down.
For the Ravens, running successfully has been more than just a minor problem.
For more than a decade, the Ravens have been one of the NFL's dominant running teams, but Baltimore is averaging just 2.9 yards a carry this year. Multi-time Pro Bowl RB Ray Rice has been the primary culprit. He has run 169 times for just 462 yards – an average of less than 40 yards a game. Changes on the offensive line have been part of the reason and Griffen expects the Vikings to try to take advantage of what many Ravens opponents have done.
"People are getting after their O-line," Griffen said. "We've just got to go out and dominate their O-line like other teams are doing. We've got to go out, play our ball and finish like we've been doing. Instead of making the games close, start fast and end fast. That's our whole philosophy."
Whether the Vikings can continue their strong play on third down or not will play itself out over the final four games, but Griffen believes there is reason for optimism that the defense is playing some of its best ball of the season when it is needed most – down the season's stretch run.
"We've been getting a lot better," Griffen said. "We've been getting to the quarterback and getting pressure on the quarterback. We're trying to find ways to stop the run and execute on the pass. I feel that we've been doing a pretty good job, but we've got to just keep it going. We've got to put a solid four quarters together to start fast and end fast."
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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