In the NFL, teams tend to break a 16-game schedule naturally into segments – most typically four-game increments. The Minnesota Vikings are no exception.
The first quadrant of 2016 was a rousing success. The Vikings won all four games they played. The second quadrant was a disaster, as Minnesota lost three of four games, including the last three they have played since their bye week.
But, as they turn the page to the second half of the season and the third quadrant, the Vikings are cleaning the slate and starting fresh. Defensive end Everson Griffen is buying into the notion that the clock gets reset at midseason and it helps that the Vikings saw offensive improvement for the first time in the last month despite losing Sunday to Detroit.
“Offensively, they did a lot of great things,” Griffen said. “They protected Sam Bradford well. They came out and executed – got the ball out his hand quick. The running game was clicking.”
Part of resetting their season to a 0-0 mode with five wins in the bank is getting back to the fundamentals and the most basic tenets of successful defense: stopping the run.
When the Vikings were rolling in the first five weeks of the season, they were consistently putting opposing offenses in bad down-and-distance situations. If the Vikings can be successful on first and second down, they can open a lot of things they do on third down.
“Our main thing on defense is to get them back in passing downs – second-and-9, third-and-8, third-and-7 – so we can pin our ears back and rush,” Griffen said. “We did a lot of great things. We’ve got a lot of fight in this team. The biggest thing for us to do right now is to go out there and practice and get back to the way we practice – running to the ball, finishing the plays, finishing the rushes and just doing all the right things we did when we were hot in the first five games.”
Part of getting back to the swagger the Vikings had in September when they kept rolling out of the gate is to execute Mike Zimmer’s defense to its intent – each of the 11 players doing his role in making a play work for the group.
It’s a share-and-share-alike scheme, and when everyone is working well, big plays come from several different sources – not the same one or two players.
“On this defense, we have a lot of good players,” Griffen said. “Our main focus is that you don’t have to be a superhero. Just go out there and do your job and go out there and execute your call.”
The bandwagon for the Vikings has been losing passengers during their recent swoon, but Griffen has been around long enough to know that there are ebbs and flows in just about every football season.
Are the Packers happy they are 4-4? Are the Steelers happy to be 4-4? Or Arizona at 3-4-1 or Carolina at 3-5? Of course not. But, for reasons solely that the NFL is a week-to-week business that can change fortunes in a hurry, the Vikings find themselves in the same boat as those other teams with legitimate playoff expectations.
The only difference is that the Vikings don’t need any help to get to the top of their division. Despite their three straight losses, the Vikings are still alone atop the NFC North and control their own destiny.
“Would we like to be 7-1 or 8-0?” Griffen asked. “Of course, but that’s not reality right now. Reality is that we’ve got to go back to work and find a way to get back on track. We’re still leading the NFC North at 5-3, but now we’ve got to separate ourselves. Now we’ve got to get hot again. These are the months that count – November and December.”
To reach their ultimate goal, the Vikings need to, in Griffen’s view, get back to the fundamentals they used so well last season and the early portion of the 2016 season – take what they’ve worked on tirelessly in practice and translate that to the playing field on Sunday.
It helped them win five straight games coming out of their bye week in 2015 and was the same mode they were in when they won their first five games this season.
They know how to catch lightning in a bottle. It’s just a matter of getting that spark back.
“The biggest thing for us to do is take the game plan and execute it on game day,” Griffen said. “Find a way to win, that’s first and foremost. We’re not about individual stats, it’s about the win. We’ve got to find a way to get one win underneath our belt. It’s now the second half of the season, so we’ve got find a way to start the second half of the season with one win and get ourselves back on track.”