After eight weeks of the season, the Vikings were in the top half of the league in overall offense, rushing offense, passing offense, points scored, rushing defense, points allowed and turnover ratio. By Week 11, the overall defense had improved to the top half and is now ranked sixth in the league. Before last week's game, the Vikings were top-10 in each of those categories except rushing offense (11th) and pass defense (21st).
The pass defense is still teetering around middle-of-the-league rankings, but it improved five spots – from 21st to 16th – the biggest jump of any of those yardage-based categories since the halfway point of the season.
Holding Carson Palmer to 94 yards passing and the Bengals was a big reason for that.
"I thought our guys did a great job early of getting him to move his feet a little bit, letting him know that the rush was coming. Any time that you can do that, it usually bodes well for you as you move down the road," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I thought our guys thundered it down around him early. I think it helped us as we went through the game."
The defensive line managed only one sack – by Brian Robison – against the Bengals, and that's the only one in the past two games, but pressure on the quarterback remains.
"We had some looks in the back end that kind of confused them a little bit. I just did a great job getting off the ball," Robison said. "I faked the guy left and I came back inside and he didn't really have a chance on me. The center turned away so it left me wide open to come through the middle."
Cornerback Benny Sapp seemed especially elated when informed that Palmer had only 94 yards passing.
"We lost last week and we had to put it together this week and when we put it together, that's what you get," Sapp said.
Part of the reason for their success was the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield, who had missed the previous six games with a foot injury.
"I want to be the difference-maker," Winfield said. "I want to go out there each week and make a play that changes the game and my teammates count on me to do that and I expect that of myself."
This week, the Vikings turn their attention to Matt Moore, who is expected to make his third straight start for the Carolina Panthers after standing on the sidelines for the first 11 games. During his two starts this year, Moore has completed 29 of 50 passes for 358 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
"Matt Moore is a younger quarterback. Hasn't had the number of starts and he is gaining experience in some ways on the run," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "It's been a while since he's been in that role, probably two or three years. That's the probably the biggest difference, the lack of experience."
Moore made three starts in 2007, but hadn't started another game since entering the fray this month. In those three starts in '07, he completed 49 of 79 passes for 358 yards, three touchdowns and two inceptions. He hasn't thrown for 200 yards in any of his five career starts.
The Panthers also face the challenge of having both of their starting offensive tackles on injured reserve – second-year right tackle Jeff Otah and their gem of free agency, left tackle Jordan Gross.
Frazier said he doesn't believe that will affect anything the Panthers do schematically, but with backups at both offensive tackles – especially first-year lineman Geoff Schwartz – staring, the matchups should be in the Vikings' favor.
"You'd like to take advantage of younger players as much as you can, when the opportunities present," Frazier said. "It's more important for us to do the things that we do as a group. We're going to be aware that they've got some young tackles playing and a young quarterback. But it's more important for us to be able to execute our defense as opposed to the personnel that they have on the field."
As noted earlier in the week, the Vikings made a more concerted effort to run in the middle of the field last week against Cincinnati than they did the previous game against Arizona. According to the official play-by-play, the Vikings ran between the tackles on only 23 percent of Adrian Peterson's running plays against the Cardinals. The rest of his rushes went off-tackle or around the ends.
Against the Bengals, the Vikings were credited with 66 percent of their rushing plays being either in the middle or behind one of the guards.
"I'm a north and south runner. I love the hard-nosed football," Peterson said. "Don't get me wrong, sometimes you want to go outside to throw the defense off. I definitely prefer running in between the tackles."
According to Scout.com's Ed Thompson, the Vikings have run outside the left guard 145 times, the third-most in the NFL this year. That should come as no surprise given that is considered the strength of their offensive line with Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie on that side.
Last week, however, the team averaged 6.5 yards per carry going over right guard Anthony Herrera and only 3 yards per carry behind left guard Steve Hutchinson.