The Minnesota Vikings ranks sixth in rushing yards per game and punt return average, but those are the only statistics among the 17 main “offensive” categories that the team ranks in the top 10.
Defense, however, is another story.
At the midpoint of the season, the Vikings are in the top 10 in eight of the 17 categories – total yards per game, passing net yards per game, passing net yards per play, first downs per game, third-down efficiency, punt return average allowed, points per game and points per game differential.
Nowhere do they rank higher than in third-down efficiency and points per game – finding themselves second in each of those categories.
Against the Rams, the Vikings allowed only 2 of 16 third-down attempts to be converted for a first down – 13 percent.
The key to success for Mike Zimmer’s defense? Perhaps his propensity to keep the offense guessing where the pressure is coming from, but he said there is no surefire answer.
“I wish I had an easy answer for you. We try to mix it up and we try to give them different looks. We try to pressure some, we try to play coverage some,” Zimmer said of the third-down stinginess. “I see a lot of teams worried about the pressure so they try the wide receiver screens – I think maybe that was a big thing; we’ve been playing them very well. I think our guys are understanding their responsibilities better and things we’re trying to get done. I don’t really have a for sure answer for you on that.”
The Vikings have been especially good with their defensive backs and linebackers knifing through the traffic to take down the receiver screens. The Rams tried several of them early, with little success, but found some room with end-arounds to Tavon Austin in the first half before the Vikings adjusted and limited the yardage on those, too.
The receiver screens seem to be the newest attempted answer to pressure for offenses, but Xavier Rhodes, Captain Munnerlyn and Terence Newman have been especially good at finding their way to the ball despite blockers set up thwart them, and the defensive ends and outside linebackers have been quick to offer support from the inside.
“We’re seeing them a lot because that’s kind of everybody’s answer to our pressures - throw this screen, throw that screen,” Zimmer said. “Honestly, it’s kind of discouraging for the offense if they think, ‘Hey, we’ve got a big play here and we can throw this screen,’ and it ends up being a no-gainer, it’s like, ‘Should have done something else.’”
The one time the Vikings didn’t play it well, the Kansas City Chiefs got a 42-yard touchdown to Albert Wilson. Munnerlyn was at the line of scrimmage and got caught up with blockers and Newman and Rhodes over-pursued as Wilson cut inside and found a lane to the end zone in the fourth quarter. Other than that, the Vikings have been proficient at limiting wide receiver screens for short or lost yardage.
That was one of the defensive lapses the Vikings had that could have cost them.
On Sunday, the Rams scored a first-quarter touchdown when Newman was locked in single coverage with Kenny Britt deep down the middle of the field that resulted in St. Louis’ longest play of the day. But with Harrison Smith near the line of scrimmage, Andrew Sendejo might have been responsible for help.
“If you ever see one guy running with one guy down the middle of the field, somebody has probably messed up,” Zimmer said Monday. “It’s typically not mental errors, it’s some kind of physical error. We have mental errors, but it’s typically more about guys getting themselves out of position to be able to help, so there was a couple of those. There was a couple where we let our eyes be in the wrong place, which caused us to be in bad positions, things like that. I just think if we can eliminate some of these things, then we can get better.”
Even so, Zimmer seems to have confidence in his defense. When the Vikings won the coin toss in overtime, Zimmer put the onus on the defense to get a stop and it did, sending the Rams on a three-and-out series – one of the plays being a receiver screen that Munnerlyn dropped for no gain – and set up the offense near midfield for the game-winning field goal drive after a 26-yard punt return.
That confidence in the defense didn’t always exist.
“It’s probably been a few years – 2012 we did a lot of nice things that year. That probably would have been the last time around here where we felt like we were a defense that could go out and control a game,” linebacker Chad Greenway said.
“It comes down to we just know we’re going to get off the field. We feel good about the calls. We know we’re in good hands on the sidelines and we just go do our jobs. I don’t think it’s anything over and above that. We have confidence in what we’re doing.”