Let’s not lose sight of the Vikings defense, an aggressive role model the offense still is trying to match.
Focus rightfully fell onto Teddy Bridgewater after the Vikings quarterback turned in another solid preseason outing in Sunday’s 23-10 victory over San Diego, an effort effectively quelling concerns about his health. But what shined brightest under U.S. Bank Stadium’s clear roofing was a deep defensive roster that seems to be close to taking the “next step,” as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said.
“We were pretty good last year in getting off the field,” Munnerlyn said. “Doing some things different [now] and Coach [Mike] Zim[mer] has challenged us this offseason about turnovers. He wants to get better by making turnovers and changing the game. And we did that [Sunday].”
Four takeaways came from nine pass deflections, five tackles for losses and two sacks. Save for a busted blitz, in which two backups missed on Melvin Gordon’s 39-yard touchdown run, Vikings defenders held the Chargers down without much of a fight.
The most encouraging sign for Zimmer may have been safety Harrison Smith’s interception of just the second throw by Philip Rivers. If anything, it was a good example for how the backbone of the reigning NFC North champions can stake a claim among the league’s best.
First, two “fill-ins” initiated the play. Danielle Hunter got the edge on Chargers left tackle King Dunlap, forcing Rivers to jolt forward before throwing. His pass to receiver Keenan Allen was denied by the outstretched arm of Trae Waynes. Second, Smith snagged the jump ball, which marked the fourth of six Vikings preseason interceptions. They had 13 picks last season.
“That’s one where I get the stat,” Smith said. “But Trae made the play.”
This strong performance came from a Vikings defense that didn’t exactly resemble what is expected to take the field Sept. 11 in Tennessee.
Hunter filled in for Everson Griffen, who was held out as a precaution after he didn’t practice on Friday. Waynes’ deflection came in his first career start at right cornerback, where Xavier Rhodes continues to rest a hamstring pull. Linebacker Eric Kendricks is dealing with his own hamstring injury and has not played in the preseason. And starting defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd played only sparingly with the starters.
And three of the four takeaways came from reserves, including rookie cornerback Mackensie Alexander, rookie safety Jayron Kearse and backup defensive end Justin Trattou. The Vikings know firsthand how crucial their defensive depth can be after Griffen, Floyd, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Smith all missed starts last season.
“People know that in this league you’re only as good as your weakest link,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “And if we can bring those young guys along, like Mackensie and those guys. And bring them along, and there’s no drop off when they come into the game for somebody or something.”
There’s been little drop off by the Vikings’ decisions to rest some of their starters for much of the preseason. Without Floyd, the pass rush still corralled Russell Wilson for four sacks in the first half at Seattle earlier this month — albeit against the Seahawks’ makeshift line.
And on Sunday, with three interceptions and a strip sack, the defense flexed a takeaway muscle it has been working on this offseason.
“I think today was a good example,” Smith said.
Weathering the storm of an NFL season will be critical for a Vikings team unlucky enough to get a bye week as early as Oct. 10 (Week 6). Though to maximize their strengths — pass rush and coverage — they’ll need to consistently defend the run.
That’s why run defense has been preached as often as takeaways. One can lead to the other fairly quickly.
“The thing about turnovers is,” Zimmer said, “if you can get them, and you’re doing things right you have a chance to — I don’t know if blowout the team is the right word — you have the chance to get bigger leads.”