The Vikings are getting tremendous play from a savvy veteran in the defensive backfield. Despite Darren Sharper's Pro Bowl possibilities, the safety is remaining focused on winning another bowl.
One year and one player are making all the difference for the Vikings defense.
The Vikings' dramatic turnaround in the last four games mirrors two things: quarterback Brad Johnson has thrown only two interceptions in four starts and safety Darren Sharper has intercepted six passes in November.
Both players count turnovers as the most important statistic in winning in the NFL, and while Johnson's game-management skills have been impeccable on offense, Sharper's game-turning plays may be even more critical on defense.
With seven interceptions this season, Sharper is tied for the NFL lead and should be garnering serious consideration for the Pro Bowl (announced Dec. 21) among his peers, but the ninth-year NFL veteran has bigger Bowls on his mind now that the Vikings have started winning again.
"I think how you play will take care of all that. I've done that (the Pro Bowl) before so it's not necessarily anything that's a goal of mine. It's a nice achievement and accolade, and it's good to get that recognition, but my main focus is trying to win championships right now, especially at this point in my career," Sharper said. "I've done the Pro Bowl thing. I need to do the Super Bowl thing."
Sharper made the Pro Bowl following the 2000 and 2002 seasons. In 2002, he had seven interceptions with the Green Bay Packers. In 2000, he had a career-best nine picks, but he thinks more of his seven interceptions so far this season.
"I'm proud of myself now even though the season is not over with because, when I had nine picks, that year I wasn't injured," he said. "I started off fast that year, too, and had like four in four games. This year, the fact that I was able to bounce back from an injury and play well, I'm proud of myself for that."
Sharper was inactive twice this season after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Even when he returned his second of three interceptions against the New York Giants 92 yards for a touchdown, he wasn't at full speed.
Part of the reason for his intercepting revival is the pressure the defensive line has been getting on quarterbacks after struggling with that earlier in the season.
"The guys up front and having the mentality that we want to get after the quarterback and we want to get sacks and make the quarterback make decisions before he's ready to make them. We're not doing anything different as far as stunts or more blitzes or things of that nature," Sharper said. "It's just the attitude of the guys up front and getting to the quarterback. The coverage in the back end has been a little bit better. We're making the quarterback hold the football. … It's kind of a group effort."
Sharper compared the Vikings' current defensive line to the one he had in Green Bay in 1997. That was Sharper's rookie season, and he wasn't slow to show off his ball-hawking skills that year. Both of his interceptions that year went for touchdowns, and he returned another fumble for a touchdown as part of the Packers' run to Super Bowl XXIII.
It was the defensive line in Green Bay that helped him pick two passes after being drafted with the last pick in the second round. On that line were Reggie White, Gilbert Brown, Santana Dotson and Gabe Wilkins.
Sharper compared the Vikings' Pat Williams to Gilbert Brown in his prime.
"He has a non-stop motor – with his legs and his mouth," Sharper said of Williams. "He's like a 300-and-some-odd-pound little kid because he has energy that just goes on for days. That's one thing I haven't played with in a long time, a defensive lineman with the motor and the size that Pat Williams brings to the table, and he goes out and dominates every player that he goes against."
The safety believes the rest of the Vikings' defensive line stacks up well against that 1997 Green Bay line … with one obvious exception – Reggie White. Sharper admits that having White tips that line in Packers' favor.
Yet it was the Packers who were forced to make a delicate decision this offseason. They could struggle even more than they were with their salary cap and pay Sharper a big bonus or they could release him. They chose the latter, and Sharper set out to prove wrong their decision, which he believes he's already accomplished.
"I've done that already. If they don't think that they made the wrong decision, then someone needs to take them to the clinic and check their head," he said.
Indeed, despite the Packers being 2-9, they have outscored their opponents 232-223. Think a seven interceptions, or even a couple of those going for touchdowns as they have for the Vikings, wouldn't have made a huge impact on Green Bay's season of disappointment?
That is of no concerned to Sharper now. The man who now has 43 career interceptions and is on the brink of his third Pro Bowl selection, is more concerned about winning in Purple.
And that is finally happening with the Vikings on a four-game winning streak and back in the hunt for a playoff spot.
"I expected us to come together at some point in the season. I wanted it to be earlier on, I really thought it was going to take us three or four games before we were jelling as a defense, but injuries and people out of the lineup kind of slowed down that process a little bit. But this is perfect timing for us," Sharper said. "If we continue to win and play at the level we're playing at right now, we'll have a shot to achieve our goals of not only getting to the playoffs but hopefully winning the NFC North Division."
Sharper Staying Focused During Hot Streak
Viking Update Top Stories
Too many factors in Thielen not getting 1,000Adam Thielen obviously wanted to get to 1,000 yards. But he was only targeted once in the season finale and still took that in stride.
Viking Update7:53 AM
How good is Vikings’ front seven?The analytics site Pro Football Focus has ranked the 2016 defensive front sevens, with the Minnesota Vikings ranking sixth as a unit.
Viking Update4:29 AM
NFL’s important offseason datesFrom all-star games to free agency to the draft to the start of the preseason, the key dates for the NFL offseason.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 11:45 AM
Berger has much to consider before he’s backMinnesota Vikings center Joe Berger says he has a lot to think about and discuss before he returns for a 13th NFL season.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 8:43 AM