After a brutal year in 2013, the Vikings defense appears primed for a turnabout after a dominating opening performance.
When the Vikings went searching for a new head coach, it seemed obvious that the biggest improvement the Vikings needed was on defense. No team allowed more points than the 480 (an average of 30 points a game) that Minnesota allowed last year.
Mike Zimmer promised to bring change. In his first game, his new-look Vikings defense was dominant, shutting down the St. Louis Rams
34-6 in the regular-season opener.
After allowing 30 or more points in eight games last year and less than 20 in just one, the Vikings defense of 2014 made a strong early statement that it can be a dominant group, especially when not facing an elite quarterback.
“It’s good. It’s so much different from what we’ve been doing around here,” linebacker Chad Greenway
said. “The communication is key and we’re trying to get everyone lined up where they need to get to and once we get lined up we just go play and play fast, having guys fly to the ball.”
One of the Vikings’ biggest failings a year ago was the inability to win away from home. The team went 0-7-1 on the road last year, a fact that was noted by Zimmer in his post-game speech to the players. But it was obvious from the outset that this isn’t the 2013 Vikings, especially on defense.
Last year, the Vikings had just 12 interceptions in 16 games. In the opener against the Rams, they recorded two interceptions. Josh Robinson
provided the first one right before halftime that led to a Vikings touchdown on a pass from Matt Cassel
to Greg Jennings
with 21 seconds left to give the Vikings a 13-0 lead. The second came in the fourth quarter as Harrison Smith
returned an Austin Davis
pick 81 yards to give the Vikings a 31-3 lead.
Another problem the Vikings had in 2013 was consistently putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The team recorded just 41 sacks – an average of less than three a game. On Sunday, they had five – two from Everson Griffen
on back-to-back plays and one each from Smith, Tom Johnson
and Linval Joseph
Despite playing essentially a prevent defense in the final 20 minutes of the game, the Vikings allowed St. Louis just 318 yards and limited them to just 72 yards rushing on 22 carries.
And perhaps the most troubling statistic the Vikings defense had last season was allowing teams to extend drives by converting third downs. For much of the season, Vikings opponents were hovering around a 50 percent conversion rate – the worst in the league for almost the entire season. While they were facing two backup quarterbacks, the Rams converted just 4 of 14 third downs with two of those coming in the final six minutes.
Vikings fans weren’t 100 percent convinced that the tough talk about how much improved the Vikings defense would be this season would prove true. They needed to be shown. They did just that on Sunday and ran away from the Rams for their first win of the season on the backs of a dominating defensive performance.
“We have to keep on going,” Griffen said. “This can’t be where we think that we’ve arrive. We’ve got to keep on driving each and every game, have the carryover from this game, fix the penalties and mistakes and go out there, get prepared for New England and win against them at home.
“It wasn’t dominating. We can play better – penalties, penalties can kill a team.”
GAME DAY NOTES
Cassel had an impressive day managing the offense. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns for a passer rating of 113.8.
It was just the opposite for the Rams. Starter Shaun Hill completed 8 of 13 passes for 81 yards with an interception and a passer rating of just 47.3 before being replaced at halftime with a quad injury. Austin Davis completed 16 of 23 passes for 192 yards, but his interception was returned for a touchdown.
Sharrif Floyd injured his shoulder late in the game and his status for next week is uncertain, although Zimmer didn’t seem to think it was too serious.
Cordarrelle Patterson had just three catches for 26 yards, but his contribution on the ground was incredible – three rushes for 102 yards and a 67-yard touchdown – making him the first Vikings wide receiver to ever rush for 100 yards in a game.
Adrian Peterson was bottled up most of the game, rushing 21 times for just 75 yards – 11 carries for 39 yards in the first half and 10 times for 36 yards in the second half.
The Rams ground game was stalled much of the day. Lead back Zac Stacy had just 43 yards on 11 carries to lead the team. No Ram had a run of longer than seven yards in the game.
One of the talking points in the week leading up to the game was the battle between Patterson (the 29th pick of the 2013 draft) and Tavon Austin (the eighth pick). Austin had a pretty brutal day, catching three passes for 34 yards, rushing three times for 5 yards and fumbling two punts.
Punt returner Marcus Sherels took a vicious hit on a punt return, but he returned to the game after getting some attention on the sidelines.
Much of the Rams’ offensive production came in the second half when the Vikings had a comfortable lead and went into a defensive shell to prevent the possibility of big plays over the top. The Rams had just 108 total yards at halftime.
Blair Walsh kicked off seven times and had six touchbacks.
If the Vikings offense had a failing Sunday, it was that it converted just 3 of 11 third-down opportunities.
The Rams were their own worst enemy much of the day. They committed 13 accepted penalties for 121 yards, often coming in critical situations both on offense and defense. The Vikings had seven penalties for 60 yards and just one in the second half. The Rams had seven second-half penalties.
Thanks to having a big lead, the Vikings actually lost the time of possession battle. St. Louis had the ball for 31:43, while the Vikings had the ball for 28:17.
Left tackle Matt Kalil had a pair of false start penalties in the first half as he was engaged in battle with 2013 NFL sacks leader Robert Quinn.
The Vikings were pinned deep often in the early part of the game. Of their first five drives, three of them started from inside their own 10-yard line.
Captain Munnerlyn was all over the field in his Vikings debut and played with a lot of aggression. He had just four tackles, but was very strong in coverage.
Safety Robert Blanton and linebacker Anthony Barr led the team with seven tackles each.
There were some communication problems between Cassel and center John Sullivan. Two snaps were mishandled by Cassel when he was lined up in the shotgun and he was forced to cover both of them for big losses.
The Vikings will wake up Monday in sole possession of first place in the NFC North. The Packers and Bears both lost their openers and Detroit doesn’t play until Monday night.
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.