The Minnesota Vikings faced an uphill battle from the start of their 23-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday and most people didn’t think they stood a chance. The Cardinals owned the No. 1 offense in the NFL, averaging 419.5 yards per game and the Vikings were coming into their home stadium missing four defensive starters.
Not only that, but the Vikings had three rookies – Anthony Harris, Trae Waynes and Edmond Robinson – getting their first starts of the season. They also had veteran cornerback Terence Newman getting his first start at safety.
All signs were pointing to the Vikings being on the wrong end of a blowout in this game with the point spread set at 7½ in Arizona’s favor, but the predictions of a blowout were far from the truth when the game clock struck zero. The Cardinals did come away with the victory, but just by the narrowest of margins when they recovered the strip sack in the final seconds of the fourth quarter to seal away their 23-20 victory.
“I thought they tried to execute the game plan that we could have in a short week against a good offensive football team,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said of his defense. “It wasn’t by any stretch perfect, but we played hard.”
The Vikings defense was able to hold the Cardinals offense to under 400 yards, a 46 percent third-down conversion rate and just two touchdowns. The Cardinals were averaging 419 yards per game and had the No. 1 offense in the NFL. But even with fill-in players in the back end of the defense, Zimmer still thought they could have done better.
There were a couple of times throughout the game where there was a miscommunication on defense and it is hard not to wonder if the inexperience of the rookies filling in was to blame. One play in particular was on the Cardinals’ second touchdown.
They lined up with three players wide to the right and then as one player cut to the middle of the field all of the Vikings defenders followed, including Waynes, who appeared to be responsible for covering the sideline. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer completed the pass to a wide-open Malcom Floyd who ran down the field for a 42-yard touchdown.
After the play, veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was talking to Waynes about what happened as if coaching him on what he needed to do differently.
“I thought they played hard. Two of the touchdowns were completions and runs. I mean, we got to get those guys on the ground,” Zimmer said. “Those things were not good.”
But even with the rough patches for the defense, there were also positives to take away from the performance on the field. The defense was able to make a goal-line stand at the end of the third quarter when the Cardinals had the ball and first down at the 2-yard line. Veteran leaders on the defense made a majority of those plays, but one of them was made by the rookie safety Harris, who was promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday.
He was able to stop the Cardinals running back for no gain on first down, which then gave the Vikings defense another down to make a play and defensive end Everson Griffen made a big sack, forcing a third-and-9, which the defense was able to stop.
Throughout the game, the Vikings’ young rookies who received their first starts were able to step up and make plays in critical situations. Harris was tied for the team lead with eight tackles and also broke up a pass deep down the field that would have likely been a touchdown otherwise. He nearly intercepted that.
Waynes recorded five tackles himself and a pass breakup that came on a key third down late in the game that forced the Cardinals to kick the field goal that ended up winning the game. But that pass breakup gave the Vikings a chance to drive down the field and tie, or win, the game.
Zimmer has never been one for moral victories, but after the game it seemed as though he even appreciated what his defense was able to accomplish when so much was stacked against them.
“I hope that they learned that if we fight and play with a chip on our shoulders, we fight and give the kind of effort that we did tonight, we have a chance to be a good football team,” he said. “I’m hoping that this is a good learning experience for our guys. We lost, I’ve always said no moral victories, but this is hopefully a good learning experience for us.”