Last week, all the Vikings defenders could talk about was creating more turnovers. After returning a fumble and an interception for a touchdown, consider that mission accomplished – at least for one game.
But some of the top playmakers on this defense continued to emphasize not relaxing on a few good games.
"We've got to keep getting the sacks, we've got to keep getting the turnovers, we've got to keep getting the fumbles and then we've got to keep getting interceptions. That's our main goal," said defensive tackle Pat Williams, who had a fourth-quarter momentum-turning sack and forced fumble that led to Ben Leber's fumble recovery in the end zone that could have tied the game in their come-from-behind win against the Detroit Lions if Ryan Longwell's ensuing extra point hadn't been blocked.
"We can't just stall after one game. We've got to keep on getting them, week after week."
That was the message reiterated in the Metrodome locker room Sunday after the game and again Monday at Winter Park before the players were allowed to leave for five days off over their bye week.
"That's something that we've been talking about a long time – scoring on defense," said defensive end Kenechi Udeze. "All the good defenses in this league and eventually great defenses, they always find a way to score and always find a way to put their offense in a good position."
The Vikings defense is actually starting to fit into that "great" category. They have moved all the way up to the No. 7 defense in the league after five weeks, fourth against the rush and 17th against the pass.
But consistency will be the key after the players return from the bye. They have done well against the rush in each of their games, keeping their opponents under 100 yards rushing in each of the last three games and holding Detroit to a measly 16 yards rushing, eight of those coming on a quarterback sneak.
Creating turnovers consistently is the next step. They have gone two games – each of their road games against Washington and Buffalo – without getting a fumble recovery or an interception. The four turnovers – three interceptions and one fumble recovery – were the most produced by the Vikings defense this season, and they needed each one to pull out their win.
The fumble recovery by Leber was the first of two defensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
"From my vantage point, it was a strongside blitz where I was coming off the edge, Big Pat just got great penetration and knocked the ball out and I was already rushing from the backfield. Fortunately for me, the ball bounced right in my hands," Leber said.
"We really tried to emphasize searching for the ball – on running plays, the second or third guy trying to get the ball out. … We're still going to emphasize stripping the ball out and doing all those things."
The second defensive touchdown came on E.J. Henderson's 45-yard interception return for a touchown with 1:31 to play. That sealed the Vikings' 26-17 win and took advantage of a play in which Lions quarterback Jon Kitna was nearly sacked three times.
"That Will (weakside) linebacker spot is the playmaking spot on our defense and it was good for (Henderson) to get his hands on the ball," Sharper said. "We'll have to keep making plays as a defense. The way Pat Williams is moving at 33, he's moving like a 20-year old, and he's going to keep playing like that. He's playing extremely well.
"We don't start sticking our heads down and start thinking, OK, things are not going our way. Our mentality as a defense is if things aren't going well, we're going to force the issue."
Even more surprising was that the Vikings had at least two other opportunities to score on defense. On one play, Leber appeared to have Kitna wrapped up in the end zone and forced out of bounds. The officials, however, ruled that Kitna made it out of the end zone to avoid the safety.
On the play before Henderson's interception return for a touchdown, cornerback Ronyell Whitaker had a similar opportunity. Kitna unloaded a pass intended to Mike Furrey, but Whitaker had a great chance to haul in the interception with room to roam in front of him. Instead, he let the ball slip through his hands.
"I was just hoping the next play they didn't score a touchdown because then it would really hurt, especially when you know you had a chance to close the game. … It was bad enough that I didn't make the play, but I was just hoping there wasn't something good from their end because of what I did," Whitaker said.
Luckily for Whitaker, the defense had found its turnover groove and got it done on the very next play with Whitaker hoping for the best from the sideline.
"Our mentality is that if we have to win games by creating turnovers and scoring points, we'll do that," Sharper said. "We need to find a way to put more points on the board still."
And, like all good motivational coaches, defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin has carrots to dangle in front of this rabbit-fast defense – continually raising the bar.
"Coach Tomlin has said, ‘Have guys ever been a part of a defense where you hold a team to under 150 yards total – a 10-yard rush game accompanied with under 100-yard passing game.' That's what we're shooting for," Sharper said. "We want to continue to, week in and week out, just dominate teams. That's the mentality we want to have."
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