When there was a general panic around the Minnesota Vikings as Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season a month ago, the only people who didn’t believe the sky was falling were the Vikings players and coaches.
This wasn’t like the Indianapolis Colts losing Peyton Manning. The strength of the Vikings was defensively and that hadn’t changed.
Through three games of the 2016 season, the Vikings defense has continue to make the statement that they built upon last year with a defense that kept them in just about every game and, more times than not, was the dominant unit on the field.
If anything, that feeling has been ramped up even more this season. The Vikings haven’t allowed more than 16 points in any game this season and the numbers are piling up in terms of sacks, turnovers and big plays.
Safety Harrison Smith, who is one of many Vikings defenders off to a very strong start, believes that the Vikings have set the bar very high for their performance and aren’t going to take a backward step.
“None of our goals are going to change throughout the year,” Smith said. “We always set them high and try to reach those goals. You can’t just look at the stats at the end of every game. You’ve just got to play as hard you can, try to make every play and have everybody do their job – play as well as you can on every play and stack those up.”
The numbers that have jumped off the page have been the ones that historically kill drives – sacks and turnovers. The defense has scored two touchdowns and a safety, has 15 sacks through three games and has forced nine turnovers.
But, when it comes down to it, whether the front four is piling up sacks, stripping the ball or forcing quarterbacks to throw ill-advised passes for the back seven of the defense, it’s the meshing of all three lines of defense that are making the difference.
They may be reflected by the numbers, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
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“It’s not about the stats,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “I think that’s the best part about this defensive front. They put up great numbers, but, in that room, it’s not really about that. It’s about just trying to get wins. The stats are coming for those guys, which is great, but that usually comes when you’re winning and they’re playing so well.”
Defensive end Danielle Hunter is no stranger to that. He’s tied for second on the team with three sacks and has scored a touchdown and a safety early on in the season.
For Hunter and the rest of the defense, it’s not about looking for the big personal play that shines the spotlight on them. If one guy makes a play, the entire defense has made a play, regardless of whose name gets highlighted on the stat sheet.
“Every guy goes out there to do his job and we all trust each other,” Hunter said. “The coaches always stress to just do your job. If you do your job, everything is going to be OK. Everybody who goes out there feels that and it’s working for us.”
Technically, Hunter isn’t a full-time player. Neither are Tom Johnson or Shamar Stephen, but head coach Mike Zimmer has had nothing but praise for all of them. While the frontline guys are getting a lot of the media attention, when the Vikings rotate out defenders, there isn’t a big drop-off in talent or production, which has made the Vikings defensive front one that has offensive coordinators shaking their heads at because the team is getting contributions from so many of them.
“Everyone is doing well up front, even the backups,” Greenway said. “Look at Shamar. He’s not getting sacks, but he’s playing extremely well in the run game. They’re put in positions to succeed.”
The scariest part of the Vikings defense? There is room for improvement. They’ve allowed teams to convert too many third downs (almost half) and that has been a hallmark of the Zimmer defense in the first two years.
If that comes back in line, it’s going to be tough for any opponent to put up 20 or more points. The Vikings aren’t satisfied with what they’ve accomplished – no matter how impressive it has been – and they’re still looking for the perfect game.
Perfection will never come, but with this bunch they can get close because they all know if they do their jobs, the entire defense will benefit.
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“We still make mistakes and still have a lot of things to tighten up,” Smith said. “But there is a level of trust – a lot of guys having a better understanding of the defense and how we adjust to certain things. We’re still getting better. There’s good chemistry across the board – the back end, the guys up front, the linebackers. We can’t get happy about it. We have to keep progressing and try to improve.”null