When the 2016 schedule was released, there were some that lamented that the Minnesota Vikings bye week came early. But, given the M*A*S*H unit that the Vikings have become this season, it’s amazing that they head into their bye as the only undefeated team in the NFL at 5-0.
The reality of the NFL is that teams can crumble when they sustain one or two critical injuries. The Vikings have been hit on both sides of the ball, hardest on offense, yet somehow have not only won, they have rallied around their adversity to become stronger than most could have imagined.
“You look at what we have gone through the last six week, and every time we think we are through adversity, somebody else goes down and someone else has to step up,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It is the mindset coach (Mike) Zimmer has instilled throughout our organization over the last three years. We feel like no matter who we have up, if we play the way we are supposed to, and play with the mentality that is smart, disciplined football, we will like the end result in the fourth quarter. Guys have bought into that and we know it is important for guys to step up if we want to keep this thing going, but we hate to have guys go down.”
If it was one injury, that would be enough to set a team back, but, when you put the injuries in their totality, it would be hard to imagine that the Vikings are not 1-4 or 0-5. There haven’t been many positions spared and both sides of the ball have been hit.
Quarterback – Teddy Bridgewater’s injury was massive because almost all of the offseason was spent in anticipation of Bridgewater having a breakout year. It seemed like the stars were aligning. When he blew out his knee, a lot of people wrote off the Vikings as dead in the water before the season began. It forced the hand of General Manager Rick Spielman to swing the trade that brought Sam Bradford to Minnesota. They survived the initial shock and have thrived at the position. Why? Because they adapted.
Running Back – Few teams run their offense through a running back as much as Minnesota does. But that’s because most teams don’t have a first-ballot Hall of Famer on their roster. When Adrian Peterson went down, the Vikings were forced to completely revamp their playbook, because when Peterson was running the ball, Bradford and Shaun Hill were most often taking snaps from under center. With Peterson sidelined, the Vikings have been taking most of their snaps out of the shotgun with Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. That wasn’t the plan coming into the season or even into the home opener against Green Bay. It’s the reality now. The Vikings adapted.
Wide Receiver – Coming into a game against the league’s top pass defense, the Vikings were without their top receiver in Stefon Diggs, sidelined with a groin injury. Adam Thielen stepped up with a career day. Jarius Wright made his first impact of the season with some critical catches that kept drives alive. Last week, it was Cordarrelle Patterson who stepped up both in the offense and on special teams when the Vikings needed a boost. They have thrived because they have adapted.
Tight End – Injuries have killed this unit. With Rhett Ellison and David Morgan both inactive Sunday due to injuries of their own, which greatly impacted the Vikings’ blocking schemes, they only had two healthy tight ends on the active roster – Kyle Rudolph and MyCole Pruitt. In the second half Sunday, Pruitt went down. Yet the Vikings survived because they adapted.
Offensive Line – Where do you begin? Veterans Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan spent the entire offseason rehabbing injuries to reclaim their starting spots. Loadholt retired and Sullivan was cut. The Vikings were the only team in the NFL to start the same five offensive linemen last year. This season, it has been nothing short of devastating.
Left tackle Matt Kalil went on injured reserve with a hip injury after two games, being replaced by former right tackle T.J. Clemmings. Left guard Alex Boone got hurt early in the Carolina game and was replaced by swingman Jeremiah Sirles. A week later against the Giants, right tackle Andre Smith suffered an elbow injury and was replaced by Sirles, who started in his place Sunday. Early in Sunday’s game, right guard Brandon Fusco was sidelined with a concussion. Backup Zac Kerin replaced him.
The only O-lineman who has played every snap is center Joe Berger, who came to the Vikings to compete for a guard spot and was pushed into center duty when Sullivan got hurt last year.
In a last-man-standing scenario, the offensive line has adapted like no other unit on the team.
Defensive Line – Sharrif Floyd was expected to have a big season but got injured in the opener and hasn’t played since. Thanks to excellent depth, the Vikings have adapted.
Defensive Back – With all the other injuries, it has been largely overlooked that Xavier Rhodes missed the Tennessee and Green Bay games after feeling an odd pop in his knee during pregame warmups. It forced Trae Waynes into full-time duty and he not only held up well, he made the game-clinching interception against Green Bay before Rhodes came back. Now the Vikings look to have three legitimate starting cornerbacks because they went through the adversity. They adapted.
For the players, it has been just as stunning.
“It’s been crazy what has happened to this offense this year,” Boone said. “It seems like we lose somebody every week. I think it just speaks to what the coaches and front office guys have done. They have been coaching us all up to be ready if the next man up needs to step in. I can’t remember a situation like this. But, every guy who has been asked to step up on this team has. It’s a great year we’re having and I think it’s because we are all doing our part to help this team win. Offense. Defense. Special teams. It doesn’t matter.”
For most, the term “next man up” has become a cliché, right up there with “it is what it is.”
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But the Vikings are the embodiment of what the whole “next man up” mantra really means and they’re running with it.
“You hear that all the time – next man up,” Wright said. “But we’re living it. Everybody on this team wants to contribute. I consider myself to be a leader on this team and it’s been hard not being a part of things. But, when we need someone to step up, we all have. It’s great because we all want the same thing and everyone is doing what they can to do their part.”