The Vikings were one of only three NFL defenses entering Sunday without having a takeaway.
It was bulletin-board material in the team meeting rooms at Winter Park last week before the Vikings forced the Buccaneers into three turnovers during a 34-17 victory over Tampa Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“We came into this week wanting to get two turnovers,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “Our [defensive backs] stood up.”
They got three takeaways, all interceptions off Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. All three picks came in Vikings territory, stalling Tampa Bay drives that threatened to make it a game again after the Vikings had jumped to a 21-3 lead by halftime.
“We needed to get some turnovers,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We hadn’t had any, and those three were big, obviously. They had been moving the ball, really trying to get back in the football game. Kind of got the momentum back on our side.”
The first interception was the most important. Winston often looked away from cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who shadowed receiver Mike Evans throughout the game. The aversion put cornerback Trae Waynes in Winston’s cross hairs early. Winston completed a few early passes on Waynes and then targeted him again deep.
This time, Waynes undercut receiver DeSean Jackson’s go route and intercepted Winston near the end zone — a pivotal play that stalled the drive. Quarterback Case Keenum led the Vikings to their third touchdown of the first half on the next drive.
“It was nice for [Waynes] to get that interception,” Zimmer said. “He was playing a little cautiously early in the ballgame, so he just needed to take a breather, get back in there and go.”
The next pick flipped the momentum when the Buccaneers were starting to make a move. With Winston driving into Vikings territory, down by two scores in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers young quarterback misfired an errant pass to Jackson.
Safety Andrew Sendejo was in the right place at the right time.
“He threw it right to me,” Sendejo said. “I should’ve caught it. That was pretty much it. The guys up front did a great job with pressure and [Winston] just laid it up for me.”
Another desperate Winston heave stalled Tampa Bay’s next comeback attempt. Winston targeted Evans near the end zone from the Vikings 21 despite his receiver being in near triple coverage. Sendejo tipped the contested pass into the air for safety Harrison Smith to pick off, the Vikings’ third interception of the day.
Keenum and Dalvin Cook ran the clock out during the ensuing nine-play, 55-yard drive.
“That gives us opportunities,” Smith said. “Really, I should give an assist to Sendejo on [my interception].”