Vikings in NFC race with improved defense

The Vikings defense is keeping them in games and in the NFC race. Who would have thought that after last year?

Mike Zimmer’s reputation as a defensive mastermind was a significant factor in him getting the job with Minnesota.

His influence with the Vikings on that side of the ball has been immediate.

The learning curve is typically steep for a first-time NFL head coach, and barely halfway into the season Zimmer and his staff have already faced several unpleasant surprises and had to navigate a handful of setbacks.

The Vikings are averaging just 18.7 points per game, the sixth-worst in the league. They have an NFL-worst six touchdown passes, a total that Ben Roethlisberger reached for Pittsburgh in each of his past two games.

In their three games against 2013 playoff teams, New England, New Orleans and Green Bay, the Vikings were outscored by a combined 92-26.

Here they are, though, resting during the bye week with a chance to remain in the NFC race. Their 4-5 record has the potential for swift improvement, with a trip to sputtering Chicago (3-5) on Nov. 16 followed by three straight home games. Of the seven games left, four are against NFC North foes.

The Vikings would not have this opportunity were it not for their defense, a group that gave up more points last year than any other in the league and is now 13th in that category. They’ve jumped from 31st to fourth in the NFL in passing yards allowed and from 13th to first in sacks. They’ve stayed steady in the middle of the pack in takeaways and yards rushing allowed.

“The defensive line is going out there and putting pressure on the quarterback. The linebackers are coming up and making tackles, and in the secondary we are trying to cover everybody up,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.

The 4-3 alignment is the same, but the strategy is more aggressive than what the Vikings played before. Not only has Zimmer excelled over his years running NFL defenses, he has succeeded in confusing opposing coaches and quarterbacks with a wily package of blitzes, but his overall pass-rushing scheme that calls for linemen to stay in certain lanes has helped produce plenty of pressure.

Defensive end Everson Griffen has thrived in his first season as a starter. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd has made strides from his rookie year. Linval Joseph has been an upgrade at the nose tackle spot, making it easier for first-round draft pick Anthony Barr to roam free. The linebacker from UCLA has a team-high 82 tackles plus 11 quarterback hurries and four sacks, not to mention the game he won all by himself with a touchdown return in overtime at Tampa Bay of a fumble he forced.

Munnerlyn has missed some coverages, but he has two interceptions. Young cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson have made improvements. Safety Harrison Smith is a budding star.

“I do believe that we are building what I envisioned this football team to look like,” Zimmer said.

There’s a long way for the Vikings to go to reach the NFL’s elite, though. There’s certainly no guarantee this progress will translate to a continued rise up the standings in 2014.

Road games at Miami (5-3) and Detroit (6-2) loom in December, and there’s the rematch, albeit at home, against the Packers (5-3).

“We’d like to be in a different situation, but the reality is we are what we are,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “We aren’t the type of team that’s going to live in fantasy land. We know who we are and what makes us good and what makes us bad.”

Missing Adrian Peterson has been a stumbling block for the offense, but the Matt Asiata-Jerick McKinnon tandem has produced enough that the absence of Peterson can hardly be considered the problem.

The Vikings have allowed 30 sacks, the second-most in the league. Bridgewater has played more like a rookie than not, and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson has been a nonfactor after an electrifying second half of the 2013 season.

“We know that we can play much better than we’re playing right now,” Bridgewater said. “Good thing is we have some momentum going into this bye week coming off two straight victories.”

General manager Rick Spielman has been a sounding board for Zimmer, whose impatience has been impossible to mask.

“But that’s his personality, and that’s what makes him I believe the type of coach that he is,” Spielman said. “He is very driven and his staff is very driven, and I think that’s flowing right down to our players.”


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