One touchdown. Two interceptions. Five sacks. Six forced punts. Six points allowed.
The revamped Minnesota Vikings defense could hardly have made a better 2014 debut.
“It’s nice not to come in here and apologize things away,” linebacker Chad Greenway said on Monday.
Mike Zimmer’s first game as a head coach, a 34-6 victory by the Vikings at St. Louis, featured plenty of positive signs from a team that stumbled to a 1-7 start last year and finished in last place in the NFC North at 5-10-1.
The defense that allowed an NFL-most average of 30 points per game, albeit against a team that turned to third-string quarterback Austin Davis in the second half, was downright dominant.
The longest running play by the Rams went for 7 yards. Of the 318 total yards allowed, 109 of them came late in the fourth quarter after the Vikings built a 27-3 lead. Only once did the Rams advance past the 20-yard line.
The system Zimmer uses is a basic 4-3 setup, but it’s built around frequently shifting alignments designed to keep the offense guessing. The disguises sure worked well in St. Louis.
“It’s awesome. They don’t know where we’re going to be,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “We could be on the right. We could be on the left. It shows how much talent we have on this team and how they’re going to use us within the scheme.”
Seven new starters are only part of the new look that the Vikings defense took into the season.
They rotated their defensive linemen even more than in the past, with seven of them playing 25 percent or more of the snaps on Sunday.
Griffen, outside linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Brian Robison moved around to different spots often. Free safety Harrison Smith picked up a sack on a blitz from the outside, and Zimmer said the lopsided score in the fourth quarter prompted a reduction in the amount of times they sent a linebacker or a defensive back as an extra pass rusher.
“If we can be unpredictable and not allow them to just game-plan every single person on the field, put us in different positions, have different blitzes, show different ways and things like that,” Robison said, “it keeps them off balance.”
Even with Sam Bradford, whose knee injury knocked him out for the year, at quarterback the Rams have an ordinary-at-best offense that finished with the third-fewest total yards in the league last season. After backup Shaun Hill hurt his quadriceps, Davis, a third-year undrafted player from Southern Mississippi, took over.
Five weeks from now, the sample size on the Vikings defense will be more accurate. In consecutive games starting this Sunday, they must face the following quarterbacks: Tom Brady (New England), Drew Brees (New Orleans), Matt Ryan (Atlanta), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay) and Matthew Stafford (Detroit). About the only member of the NFL’s elite missing from that list is Peyton Manning.
“We’re going to worry about Tom Brady first, and then we’ll worry about the guys after that,” Robison said.
That might explain some of the temperance of enthusiasm.
“Clearly there were many, many, many things that we have to clean up in order to be a good football team or to get to my expectation levels and the team’s expectation level,” Zimmer said. “But it was a good start, and we look forward to try to build on what we’ve done.”
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was bothered by the late yards the Vikings gave up.
“I know at the end of the day they only had six points, but I’m a guy who has pride in myself. I want to be the best. And I want us to be the best defense,” he said.
But look back at the scoreboard. This was an unquestionably encouraging start.
“Anytime you can go out there and not play a perfect game and have the result that we had, it kind of boosts your morale,” Robison said.
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