The Vikings defense is still ranked 28th in the NFL when it comes to yardage, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a close observer of the Vikings the last few weeks who wouldn't say that defense has made significant strides.
Players spent post-game Sunday and Monday explaining how a defense that gave up an average of 178 yards rushing in its first four games could suddenly be yielding only 76 yards rushing in their last seven games.
Nose tackle Pat Williams, arguably the Vikings' best free-agent acquisition, is a big reason for the improvement. He might be the Vikings' best player this year and should receive strong consideration for the Pro Bowl. For him, the difference is the mindset.
"Attitude, man. I ain't going to let no back run on us – that's the attitude we've got. No more backs are getting a hundred yards on us, I don't care who it is. That's our attitude from here on out," Williams said.
Ever since the Falcons rushed for 285 yards against the Vikings in Week 4, Minnesota has been struggling to get out of that hole in the season statistics. In the first four games, they gave up 712 yards rushing. In the seven games since, they have given up only 423 yards rushing, moving them to the 15th-ranked rush defense in the league despite a poor start.
The latest accomplishment was holding running back Reuben Droughns, who was coming off a 166-yard rushing performance for the Cleveland Browns the week before, to 78 yards on Sunday.
"We changed their philosophy," Williams said. "They're on the field trying to run, we stopped the run so they had to pass. That's how we got the sacks."
Stopping the run has coincided with a dramatic turnaround in other statistics as well.
Since being blown out 38-13 in Carolina, the Vikings haven't given up more than 21 points in the last four games. It was at that point that head coach Mike Tice became more involved with the defense, at least in the meetings with the coaching staff. Up to that point, he had always spent time in the offensive installation meetings. Now he has been spending Tuesday nights in the defensive installation meetings as well.
"I am kind of the devil's advocate. I have taken this posture in the Tuesday night meetings. From the first meeting I sat in four weeks ago I said, ‘I am a linebacker we just traded for and I am starting on Sunday. Teach me the game plan by the time we leave this room.' So we go through every situation and they take me through," Tice said. "At the same time they do that, things come up that they have to talk through and I love listening to them talk those things through and iron those things out. If the coaches have those things ironed out, then they can communicate those problems to the defense and put the checks in and get us out of bad situations. I think it has worked pretty well. The coaches put the plan in. I don't really have anything to do with that."
Whether that has helped or not, the timing of it can't be completely ignored. But from the start of training camp, players have insisted that it might take some time for the defense to jell.
"We weren't as comfortable in what we were doing and weren't in the proper positions. Now, we know where we need to be and can mix it up so we can fool the offense so they don't know what we're doing," safety Darren Sharper said.
That has led to an uptick in defensive turnovers, while at the same time the offense is taking better care of the ball.
In the first four games alone, the Vikings offense had turned the ball over 15 times, leading to a minus-12 turnover ratio for the team, which was tied for 30th in the league. In the seven games since, the offense has limited that number to eight turnovers.
In the first seven games of the season, the Vikings had 13 takeaways, five fumble recoveries and eight interceptions. Since the Carolina game, in the last four games, they have had 11 takeaways, three fumble recoveries and eight interceptions.
The improvement on both sides of the ball has allowed the Vikings to pull back into a positive turnover ratio for the first time all season at plus-1.
"Turnovers and sacks, when you're around the ball and you execute the defense, they start to happen more often. They come in bunches," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said. "(About a month ago) I know people said if we wanted to make something out of this year, everybody has got to play better."
The consensus among players and coaches is that the defenders know the defense much better now after spending more time with each other and in Cottrell's system.
"When you add a (Fred) Smoot, a Sharper, a Sam Cowart, a Pat Williams or Napoleon Harris early when he was in the lineup and Erasmus James, when you add all these guys – we had five or six new guys all coming from five or six different places – they all had to jell. That takes time," said linebacker Keith Newman.
That time of enlightenment has arrived, according to Cottrell.
"They understand the weakness and the strength of the calls I make," he said. "If I make a call and they run a certain play that goes against the strengths of that call, they know how to make up for the weaknesses."
They also know to disguise their defenses better, according to Sharper, who said they weren't able to do that earlier in the year. Now, it's all optimism around Winter Park when it comes to discussions of defense.
"As long as we continue to play the way we're play now, we're going to be hard to beat," Sharper said.
SAFETY'S BIG YEAR
Sharper is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, but despite two interceptions Sunday he was disappointed with other missed opportunities.
On a fade route to one Cleveland receiver, Sharper was preparing to hit the receiver after the catch, but the receiver had "alligator arms," according to Sharper and the ball unexpectedly was available for an interception as it deflected off Sharper's shoulder pads.
"After that one, I went over to the sidelines and had (backup quarterback) Shaun Hill throw me some passes. I had to catch some passes on the sidelines because I had a feeling I was going to get him. It worked out for me, because the two I got I was able to hold onto them," Sharper said.
On one of his interceptions six yards deep in the end zone, Sharper tried to do more than he should have, attempting to advance it out of the end zone and getting tackled on the 2-yard line. Tice said something to him after the play, but "he didn't have to say anything," Sharper said. "A couple of years ago I did that and got hurt. I should have stayed in the end zone."
Newman continues to make a positive impression, just as he has done all season. His strong play in a specialty role at linebacker early in the season and Napoleon Harris' lack of play-making ability led to a starting promotion for Newman in Week 5, and he has started every game since.
Sunday, his positive impact was on a sack and forced fumble against Cleveland.
"It was a good play all week in practice," Cleveland quarterback Trent Dilfer said of the fake reverse screen play. "We really felt like it a had a chance. We had been good on our screen game for the most part and we felt like it would be a good opportunity to get field position for us. They executed their defense better than we executed our offense."
From Newman's perspective, that's exactly how that play unfolded.
"Coach Cottrell made a great call. We had two linebackers coming off the edge and I think they were trying to run the fake reverse screen, fake the ball to (WR Braylon Edwards) and throw the screen pass to (Droughns). I was able to beat my man and knock the ball out of Dilfer's hands. It was a big turnover for us," Newman said.
Indeed, the Vikings turned the fumble recovery into another Marcus Robinson touchdown, as Minnesota scored 21 points off turnovers Sunday.
Newman also played some defensive end when the Vikings needed additional help with the defensive line rotation after tackle Kevin Williams was lost for the game with a sprained ligament in his knee.
Players, Coaches Explain Defensive Turnaround
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