Mitchell Trubisky took the snap, dropped back to pass and his pocket immediately began to collapse. Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Danielle Hunter converged on him like lions stalking their prey.
Trubisky backpedaled into the end zone before offering a quarterback’s universal sign of panic. He flipped the ball sidearm to no one in particular before ducking for cover.
Trubisky was called for intentional grounding, giving the Vikings a safety since it occurred in the end zone, which proved to be one of two sequences that highlighted a suffocating defensive performance Sunday in a 23-10 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I was like, who is he throwing to?” Hunter said of Trubisky’s bailout throw. “He just tossed it like he was scared or something.”
Smart move, actually. Any rational human would have done the exact same thing for the sake of self-preservation.
The Vikings enter the postseason as strong Super Bowl contenders largely because their defense is entrapping opponents like quicksand. They finished No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense and posted the league’s lowest third-down percentage (25.2) since 1991.
Their defense allowed only 10 points total the final three games of the regular season.
Sometimes in the NFL, you get exactly what you pay for.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman authorized $135 million in guaranteed money to lock up four key members of Mike Zimmer’s defense the past two years: Joseph, safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The blueprint designed by Spielman and Zimmer focused on constructing a stalwart defense around a nucleus of stars in their mid- to late 20s.
Their plan has gone according to script, and Spielman is not done writing big checks. Anthony Barr, Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Hunter should be in line for hefty paydays in the next few years.
Based on the team’s current view, that’s all money well spent.
“I’ve played on some really good defenses,” said cornerback Terence Newman, a 15-year veteran. “This one is just as good as any I’ve been on.”
Don’t confuse their confidence with contentment. Zimmer’s crew never seems satisfied, not even after dominating performances. They often acknowledge their mistakes as counterbalance to weekly praise.
“I wouldn’t say we’re great at this point,” Smith said.
“Hopefully there is a time,” he said. “It’s not right now.”
They understand that playoff success ultimately will define them and their place in history. Owning the NFL’s top defense in the regular season is a noteworthy achievement. Continuing that dominance in the postseason will validate it.
“We understand that if we do our jobs, do what the defense is called, nobody can stop us,” veteran defensive end Brian Robison said.
The Bears probably won’t argue with that assessment. They managed only 30 yards rushing (minus-1 in the first half) for the game, 86 total yards through three quarters and didn’t cross midfield until early in the fourth quarter.
The Bears made a few plays in the fourth quarter, but one sequence demonstrated the Vikings’ refusal to concede anything.
The Bears faced a fourth-and-2 from the Vikings 4 late in the game. Hunter jumped offsides, giving the Bears first down at the 2.
First down: No gain.
Second down: No gain.
Third down: Incompletion.
Fourth down: 1-yard gain.
“Our mentality is, don’t let them cross that goal line,” Rhodes said.
Putting that into practice takes a certain toughness and togetherness.
“That’s one of those scenarios that obviously you don’t draw up,” Smith said. “But when you’re in it, just go do your job and have fun doing it.”
That’s a hallmark of this defense. They play with confidence, enthusiasm and belief. Belief that somebody will make a play regardless of the situation.
This was the vision Zimmer and Spielman shared when they formulated a plan that enabled the organization to pay their stars big money while keeping the core intact.
“We’ve been together for a while,” Rhodes said. “We know each other in and out. We try our best to not let each other down, not let the coaches down. We just play our game.”