It's only five games into the 16-game season, but a couple of 300-yard passing performances surrendered in the last two wins has the defense ranked 14th overall, 10th against the run and 18th against the pass.
However, with a 5-0 record, the defense is focusing as much on points surrendered and their accomplishments inside the 20-yard line. The team is ranked eighth in points surrendered and first in points scored on offense, and their red-zone defense stepped up to first in the league after Week 5 was in the books.
That red-zone defense was especially apparent on Sunday, when the St. Louis Rams imploded and failed to score a touchdown on four tries inside the red zone in a 38-10 Vikings win. The Rams fumbled the ball twice inside the 5-yard line – once on an exchange between Kyle Boller and Steven Jackson that Jared Allen recovered and another when Chad Greenway knocked the ball out of Daniel Fells' grip and into E.J. Henderson's arms – and safety Tyrell Johnson intercepted a pass in the end zone. A fourth St. Louis attempt inside the red zone was limited to a field goal.
"We've seen a couple different things. They're doing a great job of breaking on the football, whether you're talking about Greenway's hit and E.J. rallying behind that or you're talking about Tyrell Johnson's interception," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I just think they're doing a great job of running to the football and moving to the football when the ball comes out in the pass game. A little less ground to cover, but there's still got to be a different mentality in terms of red zone defense, and then obviously the one close in, I guess it was an exchange issue. You have to be aggressive from the standpoint of penetration, knowing where the ball is, and being able to cover that thing up. I just thought they were on top of it down there. They picked the game up down there."
Greenway was quick to credit defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
"You want to be stingy down there. I think coach is calling some good defenses down there. We're playing our rules. I don't think it's anything special. We're just playing," the linebacker said. "Got a few lucky bounces and things go our way. Other than that, it's not like we're calling anything crazy or doing anything different."
The Vikings fully realize that they got one gift in the red zone when Jackson never had a grip on the ball and fumbled at the 4-yard line. No matter if the success is earned or simply accepted, the Vikings aren't about to turn away a red-zone denial.
"That's why they keep red-zone statistics. It's a little harder because the field's not as long there. It gets condensed a little bit," Childress said. "… That's why we spend so much time in the red zone, in the red area. But, yeah, we're sure not turning them back."
Sunday's performance added to the Vikings' previous success in tight quarters this year. Opposing offenses have had 13 possessions in the red zone this year but earned only four touchdowns, a 30.8 touchdown percentage. With five of those also turning into field goals, those 13 possessions have resulted in 43 points.
"Things are just working out for us," Leber said. "We're playing aggressive, detailed. We're committed to not letting anybody in the end zone. It's just been a great team defense when we get down there. Unfortunately, teams are getting down there more than we want, but we're stepping up when we need to."
The 1,603 yards allowed on defense through five games is more than the Vikings would like, but Childress is more concerned about the points surrendered and not as worried about the yardage.
"It's always points for, points against. That's what they're keeping track of on the scoreboard," Childress said. "… Points scored is really the litmus. Left side, right side. Not how. They don't say how, they say how many. So that's what we're always zeroing in on. Those are nice things – run defense, pass defense, run offense. But the bottom line is somebody turns it over to you, you do something with it. It's only a 20-yard field, you don't get the yards, you get the points. We can't argue with that."
"I played and beat his fanny in a touch football game, a flag football game," Childress said about summer charity events hosted by Birk. "Come on, quote me the statistics. You guys were there. What was I – 3-for-3, three touchdowns there at one point and time?
"I mean, I hate to beat my chest. But, yeah, we kicked his ass in that flag football game."
Birk is scheduled to talk with the Vikings media in a conference call Wednesday. We'll see how he reacts to that assessment.
"I expected (no interceptions). I expect none every game, just like I expect to win every game," Childress said. "… They are all designed to be completed. That's the thing that the quarterback has, he has the power of choice. He's the decision-maker. You don't want to compound things. I think he's done a great job with that."