Five weeks ago, after getting embarrassed in a 38-13 loss at Carolina, the Vikings defenders decided they could either continue to get embarrassed or try harder and start living up to the preseason expectations.
Obviously, they chose door number two.
"There were a lot of high expectations put on the defense and rightfully so," linebacker Keith Newman said. "There were a lot of big names coming in here – (safety Darren) Sharper, (cornerback Fred) Smoot, (nose tackle) Pat Williams, (middle linebacker) Sam Cowart and (outside linebacker) Napoleon Harris was added. What everybody failed to mention was that you've got five or six new starters coming in from five or six new systems and it's going to take these five or six new guys maybe a few more weeks than preseason to all get on the same page. After the bye week, we kind of had that chemistry start to come together defensively."
The Vikings surrendered 449 yards of offense in Carolina, but that wasn't even as bad as it had gotten for the Vikings. In Week 2, they gave up 504 yard in Cincinnati. In fact, in the first seven games, there were only two occasions where they gave up less than 340 yards to the opposition – 296 yards to New Orleans and 192 to Chicago.
Now, things have improved. In the last five games, only the New York Giants have exceeded 290 yards on the Vikings defense.
"When you're winning, you gain confidence. When you're struggling earlier in the year and you get in different situations you're kind of unsure of yourself," Newman said.
As the defenders have been saying all year, it would take some time for all the new parts to come together. But there are other reasons for the improved defense.
Depth: As the Vikings have gotten further into the season, the depth has begun to show.
"In the NFL, each team suffers injuries and it's always the team that best handles the injuries throughout the year that ends up in the Super Bowl in February, i.e. the New England Patriots three out of the last four years," Newman said.
Guys who were once backups have moved in starting roles – some permanently, others temporarily.
Rookie defensive end Erasmus James became a starter when the Vikings scrapped a temporary use of the 3-4 defensive alignment, 2004 first-round draft pick Kenechi Udeze was lost for the season and Lance Johnstone was limited with a shoulder injury. James has been a starter ever since, directly following the Carolina game.
Sixth-round draft pick C.J. Mosley has stepped up with three sacks in two games since Kevin Williams was lost for two to four weeks with a sprained knee.
When Napoleon Harris wasn't playing up to expectations at strongside linebacker, Keith Newman stepped into a starting role and has been a vital cog ever since.
Cornerback Brian Williams has been a solid playmaker in the stead of Fred Smoot, who injured his shoulder and is expected to return in a limited capacity this week. Still, with Williams' performance in the last month, there is no rush to hurry back into the starting lineup.
"Good teams have 33 guys that can make plays on offense, defense and special teams. When you just rely on a couple players, a lot of times that doesn't carry you through. If you have all 11 – whoever is on those teams at that time – making plays, it really allows you to play better football and win games," Sharper said.
"A championship team, the depth really shines through when it comes to November and December because the nature of this game is you're going to lose some players and you have to have your backup step in there, whether they are young or old, and play well."
Pressure: Early in the season, the Vikings needed a more aggressive defense to create pressure on the quarterback. But now, even with the injuries to Kevin Williams and Udeze, the front four has been supply a harried environment for the quarterback without the aid of blitzes.
"We've played more coverage, but the more we've played coverage it's amazing to me the more people say we're more aggressive defensively when we're not blitzing – we're playing coverages. It kind of makes me wonder: do some people know what they're watching?" Newman said.
Turnovers: In the seven games in September and October, the defense created 10 turnovers via the fumble recovery or interception, a 1.43 average per game. In the five games since then, they have created 16 turnovers, a 3.2 average.
At the end of October, the team was minus-8 on the turnover ratio. In the five games since, they have pulled back into positive territory at plus-2.
Despite all the progress, the Vikings admit there is still plenty of work to do.
Head coach Mike Tice brought the players in on Monday despite a five-game winning streak because he said he didn't want to get away from correcting mistakes, and Sharper felt like one area showed a need for improvement in Sunday's 21-16 win over Detroit.
"We kind of let Detroit linger around and make a game out of it. … We didn't put our foot down as far as closing the door and taking the game and making it over with as far as scoring points, allowing big returns on special teams that really set them up to score. Then they had a drive at the end of the game when the game should have really been 40-6 at that point or 40-9 and we let them score and drive down the field on us," he said.
"You have to really put your foot down and, for lack of a better, choke the breath out of a team – don't allow them to breathe. We didn't do that (Sunday), but we're gonna get that knack to do that and that's going to come with us not becoming complacent."
They haven't displayed complacency yet. Despite the defense's poor showing in the first seven games, they are starting to overcome those gaudy numbers and slowly, slowly move up in the rankings. The league's 30th-ranked defense after five weeks has moved up to the 23rd-ranked unit.
But that's still not nearly good enough for Newman.
"When you look at the numbers and what we're able to do turnover-wise, yardage-wise and stopping the run, total yardage, we're starting to get to the point where we want to be defensively. We still have four games left and we're not at the point we want to be defensively," he said.
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