The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to collect his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
Seven months ago, Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn watched the Denver defense dominate the Super Bowl and thought, “Why can’t that be us?”
Unrealistic? Absolutely not.
That Broncos defense — the one that racked up six sacks that night, forced four turnovers and set the tone with an early touchdown — was one of the best of this decade, if not one of the best in the modern era. It made league MVP Cam Newton look like he was from Earth again, not Krypton. It carried a QB older than Shaun Hill to a trophy presentation.
The Vikings defense in 2015? Fifth in points against. Tied for seventh in sacks. Ranked 13th in yards allowed. Pretty solid, but not great.
So why should Munnerlyn and the Vikings think a leap to the elite is possible in 2016? It’s the reason why their arms often ached this offseason and also the reason why they escaped Nashville with a 25-16 win.
It’s those field-flipping, tide-turning, soul-sucking takeaways.
“We talked about it all offseason, that we need to create more turnovers,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s what we’ve been preaching. For us to take that next step, we need more of them. We put our best foot forward out there.”
Since Mike Zimmer was hired, the Vikings have assembled an admirable collection of defensive talent, adding studs such as linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and nose tackle Linval Joseph to a core that already included safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Everson Griffen.
The Vikings don’t have a Von Miller-type supernova — yet — but Smith, Griffen, Joseph and Barr are among the NFL’s best at their positions.
They have game-wreckers at all three levels and one of the league’s top defensive play-callers putting them in position to thrive, which is why they took another step forward in 2015. But takeaways have been lacking.
The Vikings had 22 last season. The Broncos had five more. The Panthers, who also know a thing or two about defense, led the league with 39.
Sunday’s win was just one game, against a young, inexperienced team still breaking in a new offense. But there was enough evidence in the second half alone to suggest that this group is ready to get greedy in 2016.
Kendricks changed the game with a third-quarter pick-six, jumping a pass thrown by Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota with Griffen all up in his business. That sort of thing is what we saw from Kendricks in training camp, before a hamstring injury sidelined him for a couple of weeks.
“Everson’s rush made Mariota spit the ball and Eric was just in perfect position to make the play,” veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said, nodding toward Kendricks. “We expect him to make some plays now.”
The Vikings later capitalized on a couple of Titans fumbles, one of them unforced. Defensive end Danielle Hunter, another one of those exciting youngsters, scooped that one up and ran it back for another score.
It was the first time since 2007 the Vikings D scored twice in a game.
“If we don’t turn the ball over and you get turnovers on defense, then you typically win — especially if you score on defense,” said Zimmer, who frowned on freelancing in his first two seasons in Minnesota but is now encouraging his defenders to take more calculated risks.
The Vikings defenders — who drop to the ground and pump out push-ups after dropped picks in practice — would have had a fourth takeaway, but Smith’s would-be game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter was wiped out by Griffen’s roughing the passer penalty.
The Titans capitalized with a last-minute touchdown that did nothing but increase the Vikings’ points allowed by six. But who’s counting?
“We don’t want to give up 16 points,” Greenway said. “We feel like that’s too many for what we’re capable of on defense.”
Capable of greatness, perhaps? Hey, they’re telling you there’s a chance.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Even though top split end Charles Johnson was considered questionable to play Sunday due to a quadriceps injury and did not make much of an impact with only one 5-yard catch, top draft pick Laquon Treadwell did not play a single snap against the Titans. And, yes, he was active. The Vikings really didn’t think he could help their sluggish offense, at least a little?
2. Cornerback Trae Waynes, the top pick in 2015, played all 67 defensive snaps against the Titans with Xavier Rhodes sidelined due to a knee injury. It was an up-and-down game from Waynes, who will need to stick with some good Packers receivers if Rhodes remains out for Week 2.
3. With Barr and Kendricks both playing every snap, Greenway got only 29 in the win and was not credited with a tackle for only the second time in his career. Emmanuel Lamur, meanwhile, did not play on D.
4. Bracing for a run-heavy attack from the Titans, Zimmer dressed all eight defensive linemen. Seven played at least 22 snaps. Griffen and fellow defensive end Brian Robison led the way with 59 and 56 snaps, respectively. Joseph led the defensive tackles with 40. And Tom Johnson actually out-snapped Sharrif Floyd, 29-25, while Shamar Stephen played 22.
5. With MyCole Pruitt out becuase of a knee injury and Rhett Ellison still rounding back into form after his own, the Vikings leaned on Kyle Rudolph a lot against the Titans. He played 58 of the 63 offensive snaps, tops among the team’s skill position players. He had four catches for 65 yards. Rookie tight end David Morgan played 20 snaps in his NFL debut. Ellison played 13.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “They saved a little bit of their gimmicks, their tricks for us.” — Kendricks on the Titans offense, which in the first half flummoxed Zimmer’s defense with designed QB keepers, full-house formations with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry both in the backfield, a Wildcat run without Mariota on the field, and play-action passes built off all that.
2. “They pretty much bailed us out today” — running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for only 31 yards on his 19 carries, on the defense.
3. “He’s very strong but you can’t underestimate his quickness. He’s very quick off the ball. That’s why he’s a Pro Bowler. He makes plays. … He can play all over the place. That’s kind of what makes him unique. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.” — right guard Brandon Fusco on Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey, who had two QB hits and one tackle for a loss.
4. “I feel alive.” — Hill when asked about some of those QB hits.
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings have painted themselves into a corner with kicker Blair Walsh. Their decision to give Walsh a contract extension after 2014, the worst season of his career statistically, raised some eyebrows at the time. But based on his body of work — and remember, this was before his big miss in the playoffs — it was not a bad investment, unless you are totally against giving a seven-figure salary to kickers. A little over a year later, though, the long-term extension has the Vikings in a jam. His three misses against the Titans suggest that Walsh hasn’t escaped his own head after his infamous “wide left” miss, even after a solid preseason. And cutting him would mean they would have to eat more than $3.3 million on next year’s cap. But if he continues to struggle, the Vikings will have to do move on despite that hit. The question is what might be the breaking point?
2. Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson will have a role on offense early this season. Whether that role expands or decreases will be up to him. The coaching staff was urged this offseason to get the 2013 first-round pick involved in the offense again. But if you listen to Zimmer, it sounds as if though Patterson has garnered a role by merit. “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,” Zimmer said. “That’s what he’s done. He’s earned playing time. It hasn’t been like, ‘OK, let’s just put him in there.’” Patterson was on the field for five offensive snaps, five more than he had in the final seven weeks last season. He touched the ball twice on offense, picking up a first down on an end-around and making a nice catch just shy of the sticks on a third-quarter field-goal drive. Patterson probably still lacks polish, but in the right role he can help this offseason in 2016.
3. Hill didn’t do anything here in Nashville to throw the starting job away, but it is probably time for the Vikings to make the switch to Sam Bradford, the guy they traded away a pair of premium draft picks to get. Among Hill’s 18 completions on 33 attempts were some good throws and in the second half he led three field-goal drives of at least 40 yards, and he did it without a reliable running game. Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over in a game that was turned by takeaways. But this 236-yard performance was probably the best-case scenario for the career clipboard-holder. To give the Vikings their best shot against the Packers this upcoming weekend, they will have to get Bradford comfortable with a large package of plays but not the whole playbook. That was a lot to ask in eight days, but doing it in 15 days is realistic. If they can, it’s time to hand over the huddle to him.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. So, uh, who is going to be your starting QB against the Packers?
2. What can the big guys up front do differently to give that starting QB a chance? After all, Hill was pressured on 11 of his 34 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and was hit hard a few times.
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. The Packers had to overcome some communication issues to escape Jacksonville — not exactly known for its fervent fans — with a win. Aaron Rodgers was flagged for delay of game after a timeout and there was reportedly a play where some members of the Green Bay offense thought it was a pass and others thought it was a run. Keep that in mind if you scored tickets to this week’s home opener at U.S. Bank Stadium. Fans were able to pump up the volume to 114 decibels during a preseason win, according to the Vikings. Making it louder, if possible, for the Packers QB will give the Vikings and their quick-twitch pass rushers a big advantage.