Even if observers around the league are slow to catch on to the Vikings' defensive revival, it's understandable. Minnesota hasn't had a top-10 defense in a decade. After a weekend in which they didn't even play, the Vikings now have the league's fifth-ranked defense.
Respect from peers is important, said safety Darren Sharper, but he isn't about to try and force other teams to respect his team's defense.
"They think we have a good team, and at 3-2 that's all they should think. We haven't proven anything yet, haven't won any championships," Sharper said.
But the attention to the cliché of stopping the run first has paid off for first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. His defense is ranked fourth against the rush and 16th against the pass.
According to head coach Brad Childress, that success comes from Tomlin being a strong motivator and having solid assistants, among other things.
"Mike has done a great job. I think schematically they have done a great job. (He's) a great motivator, a great teacher, and obviously I think the guys respond to what he has to say," Childress said. "He's got a good group of coaches underneath him in Fred Pagac, Karl (Dunbar) and Joe Woods. I'm pleased with those guys. Five games, as we know, does not a season make. It's the body of work over the course of 16 (games). He'd be the first to tell you that."
But he wouldn't be the last.
Tomlin's players were echoing that sentiment in the locker room earlier this week.
"A lot of times teams get good early on when it's easy to be enthusiastic and excited about the season, but after the grind hits – and right now is about that time – the playoff race gets to become more true," linebacker Napoleon Harris said. "Weeks 6 through 10 basically show the face of the team, the teams that are the pretenders and the contenders around the league. I definitely feel like defensively we have a lot to prove."
One of those areas to prove could come this Sunday in Seattle. The Vikings' pass defenders could do wonders for people's perception of them if they were able to limit what the Seahawks can do in their aerial game.
With 2005 league MVP Shaun Alexander sidelined, the Seahawks are expected to come out throwing the ball with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback and a strong contingent of receivers that includes Darrell Jackson, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and maybe Bobby Engram if he is healthy.
"With how good our rush defense has been, pretty much they've been forced to throw the ball. We're excited about that and I know I'm excited about that. I know Hasselbeck is a good quarterback and we've played him a couple times," Sharper said. "It will be a good challenge for us and a good test for us because I don't know if a lot of people necessarily know if we're for real. They know we have a good team, but they don't know how for real we are. Going to Seattle and playing a good game there – hopefully winning – can let them know we are a for-real team."
That will have to start up front, where the Seahawks have taken 17 sacks in five games.
"If we're able to get four-man pressure up front, that allows us to do things that we want to do in the back end as far as linebackers and secondary," Harris said. "If not, then we have to use linebacker pressure, secondary pressure – by any means necessary basically to get the job done."
And with the Seahawks at 4-1, that would be a good place for the Vikings to start proving their defense can hold up against talented offenses. While some players view the Seattle game as a good barometer of where the Vikings are at as a team and a defense, others are still preaching that they want to be judged by an entire season of work.
"I think our measuring stick is going to be the full year. We don't pull out one game like it's the game to determine if we're a great defense," cornerback Fred Smoot said. "It's just going out there and playing steady defense, getting people used to seeing the same defense week in and week out."
"I don't look at games as measuring sticks, I look at each individual game as an opportunity to improve ourselves in the playoff standings," he said.
Still, if the Vikings can go out to Seattle and beat the defending NFC champs – even without their star running back – it would bring a new level of respect for Childress and Company … and a new fly in the ointment that the Seahawks are dealing with.
"Having respect is a good thing, but a lot of times it can make your task a little tougher because every team is gunning for you. A lot of times you sneak up under the radar for a lot of teams, but I think each and every week the focus that we have is to bring our best to the table."
HARD TO HANDLE
Like Minneapolis' Metrodome, Hutchinson said Qwest Field can be a tough place for visiting teams to get off to a good start.
"They get on a roll. You can tell by watching the beginning of the Giants film, the Giants got down by a pretty good deficit pretty early in the game. They had a lot of problems communicating and there were a lot of false starts," Hutchinson said of the Seahawks' third game of the season, a 42-30 over the New York Giants. "You know it was loud for the visiting team. You want to make sure you don't dig a hole there."
The Vikings offense is likely to be the recipient of most of the noise, which will make it harder on the offensive linemen to hear the snap count and make any presnap adjustments, but Hutchinson said the much-heralded line is making improvements.
"We're getting there. We made some strides. As an offense, we've had some lulls in the second and third quarters, but we came back and moved the ball and scored when we had to. Hopefully we can continue that this week," he said.
"I think it's his strength, and his energy. It's my understanding this thing sapped his energy, and then his measurables when they test him. His percentages of this and that and all that has to be right. He's responding well to the medicine they're giving him. It's a little too early to have a definitive answer. I feel we're approaching, it's going to be sooner than later."