Against Detroit on Oct. 12, the Vikings limited the Lions to 112 total net yards passing. Against Green Bay on Nov. 9, the pass defense held Aaron Rodgers to 110 yards and Sunday night against the Bears it yielded 125 yards to Kyle Orton. (Net passing yards subtracts sack yardage from the passing total.)
Part of the improvement has been the pressure the front four generates on the quarterback at home. They sacked Detroit's Dan Orlovsky six times, Rodgers four times and Orton three times, with numerous other pressures and general harassment.
But the reserve defensive backs also deserve some credit. Teams aren't finding as much success spreading out the Vikings offense like they did over the last few years. Nickel back Benny Sapp has been solid in coverage even if his emotions got the best of him Sunday night when he had one of the worst penalties of the season.
With the Bears leading 7-3, Minnesota's Kevin Williams stuffed running back Matt Forte for a 2-yard loss on third down, but Sapp got into a shoving match with wide receiver Rashied Davis, and the cornerback retaliated with a few open-handed shots to the helmet that drew a 15-yard penalty.
"Me and 81 were just going through it during the heat of the game and it was just a battle. Both of us were tired and just going at it. We just kept pushing. A pushing match, that's all that was," Sapp said.
"He baited me up pretty good. I fell for the okey-doke. But you live and learn."
That penalty could have cost the Vikings big. On the next play, Forte got around the end when the Vikings couldn't contain him and ran 26 yards to the 1-yard line. That's when the biggest goal-line stand of the season made the Vikings defense look great on national television. After an incomplete pass from Orton, Vinny Ciurciu, Chad Greenway, Fred Evans, Pat Williams and Jared Allen were all credited with at least a half a tackle on three consecutive running plays that went nowhere.
"The only thing I was praying was Big Pat and Kev, please come through for me. Please, please come through for me. The only thing I can say is, ‘Thank God.' That's it," Sapp said. "(Coaches and teammates) were pretty upset. It was a big play, man. I'm better than that. I just lost it a little bit. I didn't go over the edge, but me and the dude were just pushing a little bit, going back and forth."
Safety Darren Sharper said Sapp needs to reign in his emotions.
"He's just got to be smarter and he knows that," he said. "Benny's a veteran player. He knows he's just got to control his emotions. He's an emotional player and sometimes those things will happen. In a game as big as that, we have to make sure we keep all of our emotions tight to the chest."
Sapp admitted the mistake and appreciated the ensuing goal-line stand that helped minimize the mental blunder.
"That's what teammates are for. When one of your teammates makes a bone-headed mistake, you come through for him in the clutch. I apologized to the ownership, my coaching staff, my teammates, my friends and my family, and most of all I apologize to God," Sapp said.
Following the goal-line stand that turned the ball over to the Vikings, the offense tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian.
And just like the Vikings defense, Sapp himself rebounded. He ended up with the team's third interception of Orton in the game after he had gone more than 185 passes with throwing one.
"It kind of smoothed it out a little bit," Sapp said of the interception, but added, "I'm still upset with myself."
Sapp wasn't the only reserve defensive back helping make a difference in the defense's solid effort in the passing game. When Sapp had to leave the game to get intravenous fluids, Marcus McCauley was used in the nickel defense and Antoine Winfield slid in to cover the slot receiver.
But it didn't end there, either. Rookie safety Tyrell Johnson was implemented in certain nickel and dime defenses to cover the Chicago tight ends, which combined for nine catches for 133 yards, 43 percent of Chicago's receptions and 47 percent of the passing yards, in the first meeting between the two teams. They had one catch apiece on Sunday night.
"It was big to put a defensive back on their tight ends and treat them like receivers. The matchup is a little bit better for us," Sharper said. "Our linebackers are athletic enough to cover, but a lot of times when you have a tight end that is a pass-catching tight end, it's going to create a matchup. Us putting a nickel back and a defensive back on their tight ends and knowing what they wanted to do in getting them the football in their pass routes was big for us. (Cedric Griffin) had a breakup earlier in the game. I think overall our coverage on the tight ends was a lot better."
Winfield said they used Johnson "essentially like a little linebacker," saying the assignment wasn't hard on a rookie because it was a limited role.
As solid as the Vikings defense was overall in the passing game, if they hadn't give up one big play, the numbers might have been even more impressive. Devin Hester beat Winfield for a 65-yard catch-and-run on a slant route in which the elusive receiver juked Sharper badly. Winfield was left shaking his head about that play on Monday.
"That kind of messed up my night. I was hot about that. … Orton was checking at the line and I knew he was going to run a slant. I was trying to get a quick read so I could jump it, but Hester burst right down the line, caught the ball and took off," he said.
"(Cook) asked me that back when we sat down and I said, ‘I am not going to tell you that you have a chance to win it back, but you never know if it is a play, a snap, a series. You don't know that.' So you are not going to open it up to a full-blown competition. If Artis is able to get healthy and come back, he will go back in there," Childress said.
"I just thought he was on his way back to the huddle. Clearly that ball was out and he had back-stepped two, three or four steps. I know that the job of the referee is to protect the quarterback, but I thought maybe he was looking at where the ball went and didn't see it," Childress said. "He doesn't have a lot of flop in him. He's not really a very good thespian, I don't think. Nonetheless, when you're taking three steps and the play, as far as you're concerned, is over, you can't hit the quarterback. You can't do that."