Sunday in the nation's top media market, the opportunistic, turnover-creating, points-scoring version of the Vikings defense was in full bloom. The Vikings defense allowed quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to put in an efficient effort because he didn't need to rack up big points in the second half. The defense took care of that for him with a team-record three interceptions for touchdowns.
Scoring from the defense is a learned response, according to safety Darren Sharper.
"Whenever you get an interception in practice, you have to take it all the way and score, no matter if you're 10 yards away or a hundred yards away during practice. I've been got on a little bit (when) sometimes I don't go all the way because I figure if I'm 10 yards from the end zone and no one is around me I figure I'm going to score," Sharper said. "When you get that repetition in practice, it kind of gets you in the mindset and it's worked for us because we have been a defense that scores with the football once we get turnovers."
Against the New York Giants, the Vikings had no trouble turning practice repetition into game-day production. With 3 minutes, 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter, Sharper started the defensive assault with a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown when he sprang in front of tight end Jeremy Shockey and began a four-interception day for quarterback Eli Manning.
That interception came on the second series, after Minnesota had allowed the Giants to drive 65 yards for a touchdown on their first series.
"I thought defensively that they did some good things communicating after that first series and getting some things straightened out on that side," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I thought they did a good job of blending their looks and mixing their looks against Eli and that offense."
Two factors have come to the forefront in the days following that game: The Vikings defense has been doing a better job disguising their looks, and putting players in position to make more plays.
It's been a process this season for the players and for first-year Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
"I think Coach Frazier is figuring us out as players and understanding what guys do well and what's going to allow us to be effective as a defense," Sharper said. "The good thing about Cover-2 is when it's used as a mixture. If you just sit back and say, okay, 70 plays of Cover-2, you don't know if you're going to be as effective because teams will be able to know what you're doing, game-plan it and find little holes and be effective against you. But as a mixture, confusing them up, blitzing here and there … we've seen as of late, just the fact of having that disguise and having that mix of the zone, blitz sometimes, man, (it) allows you to keep the offense unbalanced."
Childress said that last year the Vikings only used their signature Tampa-2 defense 33 percent of the time. The rest of the time they mixed a combination of Cover-1 (one safety over the top for help), other zones and man defenses.
"There were games last year where we did a lot of blitzing and were in Cover-1 and then there were some games where we did a lot of Cover-2 and the zones. It all depends on how the game goes a lot of times," Sharper said. "If you are effective and you blitz them early on and you have a lot of success, a lot of times that makes the blitz plays and aggressive calls continue to come. Now if you get gashed and you're in a blitz, sometimes it'll curtail a little bit."
The Tampa-2 zone defense is little more than a name for the Vikings' base defense, Childress said.
"That's the house that it falls under, but there is plenty of single safety, there is plenty of fire zone, there is plenty of three deep, there is plenty of man-to-man," he said. "I just think you are just still finding out what people can do and I think Les (Leslie Frazier) and the defensive staff did a great job of scheming this last week."
So far, the Vikings have given up a lot of yardage in the passing game – the pass defense ranks 31st in the league, better only than San Francisco's when measure by yards – but it hasn't given up a lot of long touchdown and ranks 13th in the league in points against.
Conversely, the team has been scoring points on defense. In the Vikings' 47-year history, 77 interceptions have been returned for touchdowns. Before 2006, when the Vikings implemented the Tampa-2 base defense, they had produced an annual average of 1.53 interception returns for touchdowns in the previous 45 years of Vikings football. This season, they already have five interception returns for touchdowns.
For Sharper, the refrain has been the same most of the season: Put playmakers in position to make plays and they will.
"It's a situation where you put certain guys that you think can do certain things, but does it work best for the whole team? Is everyone going to be in the best position for what's best for you to win? A lot of times that goes into the equation and you can't just think about, OK, I have a guy that can do real well at covering this guy and lock him down and take him out of the game. Well, can everybody else cover that guy? It's kind of a give and take," he said of the Vikings' philosophy.
"We do talk about scoring on defense. We talk about it in practice," Childress said. "We talk about if they get their hands on the ball in practice. It's the hardest thing that our scout teams quarterbacks if you will have trouble doing because they don't want to ever put the ball in the defender's hand. When they are running the card team and a line has a circle on it, that is where the ball usually goes in this particular route and they see it covered. They get admonished if the ball doesn't go there. They are going to get picked and they are going to come back the other way. We talk about whether it's scooping and scoring because the ball is on the ground or picking it off and scoring and kind of riding that wave. It's practiced."
The Vikings are also allowed to get more aggressive with their defensive calls as their young cornerbacks – second-year players Cedric Griffin and Charles Gordon and rookie Marcus McCauley – gain more experience.
"They are young and they'll take their bumps, but that'll be the thing that'll make you improve. When you take your bumps early on, you see later on – now in the latter part of the season – it's paying off because they're seeing how teams are going to attack us when we're in Cover-1 or when we're blitzing. With that knowledge, you can use that to help you out and prepare you," Sharper said.
"We have confidence that our corners can stand up. A lot of times you have to just learn through fire. If you're a team that is aggressive, it's like gambling – you're going to win some, you're going to lose some. The fact of the matter is, we'll win more than we'll lose. If they get confidence and they make the plays outside, they'll continue to make them."
And that, in turn, will allow Sharper and his playmaking defenders to become more aggressive and be in a position to make those big plays.
"This last game we were, so I just hope it continues, but it's all on what's called," Sharper said.
"Really, nobody has shifted somebody over there against us or anything," Lions coach Rod Marinelli said on Monday when asked about team picking on a weak spot like right tackle. "We just played a couple really good ends in a row, with (Michael) Strahan and (Aaron Kampman). I think, maybe with the combination we're putting together right now, I think Woody is a veteran, he's bright, he's athletic, and he can absorb the power rush - he's strong enough to do that. … We have to look at that, may have to give them some help over there. You hate to give too much (help), because it hurts some of the things you're trying to do in the passing game, but we've got to do what it takes to move the football."