Last year, what became the hallmark of the 2015 Minnesota Vikings was their ability to limit points allowed and making the big plays on defense to win games.
It looks as though 2016 has used a similar blueprint, as it was defense that kept the Vikings in the game early and dominated the second half in a 25-16 win over the Tennessee Titans Sunday.
For most of the first half, the Vikings offense struggled and the defense was pushed around a little bit by some of the exotic schemes the Titans broke out offensively, but head coach Mike Zimmer was pleased with many things the team did, especially in the second half.
“There’s a lot of things we have to clean up and we’ve got to get better at, but it was good to win,” Zimmer said. “We changed the momentum in the second half, starting with the kickoff return and then we made some plays defensively. They did a nice job at the beginning of the game keeping us off balance and controlling the clock and field position. But, like I told the team at halftime, it showed kind of the urgency of this football team. They’ve been through a lot in the last 10 days and the last couple of years. We’ve got some good fighters in this crew.”
The Titans controlled the tempo for much of the first half, but came away with just 10 points – producing a Minnesota deficit that could have been much worse.
On the first drive of the game, quarterback Marcus Mariota and the two-headed running game of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry were getting the better of the Vikings, driving to the Minnesota 35-yard line. But a pair of plays by defensive end Brian Robison stymied the drive – an aware play that Mariota was looking to dump a screen pass over him that Robison slapped down and a one-on-one tackle on Murray on the next play for a 1-yard loss. In what looked to be a field goal attempt at a minimum turned into a punt and kept the game scoreless.
On Tennessee’s next drive, the Titans got inside the 10-yard line, but a blitz by Eric Kendricks brought Murray down for a 2-yard loss and stalled the drive, forcing the Titans to settle for a field goal. Despite dominating the first 10 minutes of the game, Tennessee had just a 3-0 lead.
The Titans had their best drive of the game in the final five minutes of the half to take a 10-0 lead into intermission, but when the Vikings came out in the second half it was the defense and special teams that were making the biggest plays.
The momentum took its first shift when Cordarrelle Patterson brought the opening kick of the second half back 61 yards. While the offense wasn’t able to accomplish much after that, the Vikings were already in scoring position and Blair Walsh delivered a 50-yard field goal to cut Tennessee’s lead to 10-3.
From there on, it was defensive dominance that turned the game completely around.
Harrison Smith made the first of many big plays, knifing through on a third-and-1 run by Henry to get the defense off the field with a three-and-out drive – a play that helped the Vikings inch closer with another field goal to carve into Tennessee’s lead and reduce it to 10-6.
The Titans looked to reclaim momentum and Mariota did a solid job of moving the team down the field into scoring range. But when he was getting pressure from Everson Griffen, he tried to check down a pass to veteran receiver Harry Douglas. Instead, Kendricks jumped the route, caught the ball in stride and was off the races for a 77-yard touchdown that would give the Vikings the lead to stay in the final minute-and-a-half of the third quarter.
“On that particular play, we had good pressure and I thought Eric made a great play,” Zimmer said. “He had a good week of practice this week and intercepted a lot of balls. I was hopeful that would carry over to the game.”
The game went into the fourth quarter with the Vikings getting another three-and-out from its defense and, after the Vikings took a 15-10 lead on Walsh’s third field goal of the day, it was the defense again that would put up the touchdown numbers for the offense.
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On the first play of their drive after falling behind 15-10, a fumbled exchange between Mariota and Murray left the ball on the ground, where Danielle Hunter scooped it up and rumbled 24 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reach by extending the lead to 25-10 with 2:36 to play.
On a day when the Titans were hell-bent on shutting down Adrian Peterson – a mission they clearly accomplished – it was the impact plays of the Vikings defense that brought home the victory. The combination of limiting the damage in the first half and scoring twice in the second half – the only two touchdowns of the day for the Vikings – was what made the difference and gave the Vikings a much-needed road opening win to the 2016 season.