The Vikings' 21-18 overtime victory over St. Louis on Sunday was a matchup between great running backs — Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley — and the veteran bested the rookie for the most part.
Peterson rushed for 129 yards on 25 carries and scored a touchdown for the Vikings, while Gurley had 89 yards on 24 carries with a score.
Gurley was the talk of the NFL coming in, with 575 yards on 94 rushes (6.1 yards per carry) on the season.
But the Vikings held him to 3.7 yards per carry, with a long of 16 yards. Consider that in his previous four games Gurley had runs of 52, 55 48 and 71 yards and it's impressive that the Vikings shut down the No. 10 overall pick in this year's draft.
"Guys up front had a great game," safety Harrison Smith said. "Linval [Joseph] obviously — I was already saying that he causes havoc every game. I think more people might have noticed today because of the amount of tackles he had [10 tackles, including three for loss], but he always does that. Guys did their job."
Asked if the Vikings had a specific plan for Gurley, Smith said: "No, we just played our game, tried to fit where we're supposed to. We still didn't do as well as we wanted to, but we got the W and that's all that matters."
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn agreed with Smith.
"Nothing special for him, we just said we were going to try to hold him under 100 yards," Munnerlyn said. "I'm not sure how many he had, but we were able to contain him."
Munnerlyn said he respected Gurley, adding: "I came out and said he reminds me of Adrian Peterson. He's a big, tough runner, strong, has speed, and he's a big-time running back. I feel like we did a pretty good job on him. I don't know how many yards he had, but I wish we could have held him to 50 or 30 yards, something like that. But I feel like we did a good job."
How does Munnerlyn feel about this defensive unit?
"This defense is coming alive," he said. "We have a great group of guys. We have depth at every position, people stepping up when guys get hurt. I think we're coming alive lately."
Walsh regains form
One of the big reasons the Vikings won was the performance of their special teams, led by Blair Walsh, whose shaky performance in the preseason left some wondering if his job was in jeopardy.
Walsh went 5-for-11 on field goals in the preseason, and his slump continued when he missed a 44-yarder in Week 1 at San Francisco. He has missed only one since, a 38-yarder in Week 4 at Denver, and has since converted his past 15 field goals, including game-ending winners the past two games, the first time that's happened in Vikings history. He's the first Vikings kicker to hit decisive field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime in back-to-back games since Ryan Longwell did it at New Orleans and against Detroit in October 2008.
Walsh was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie in 2012, when he set an NFL record with 10 field goals of at least 50 yards. He has had rough patches in the years since, but it appears as if he has regained his form.
"He did struggle but he had signed a big contract [four years, $14 million] so we knew he was going to be our kicker," special teams coach Mike Priefer said. "We rode through some tough problems and he has really responded well."
Was there any doubt about keeping him? "I don't think so, not in my mind," Priefer said. "I think we knew he just had a couple minor issues going on, and he's figured those out and done a great job.
"He just worked at it, we tweaked a couple things, but mainly it was him getting his confidence back, to be quite honest with you. Once he got his confidence back he's one of the best kickers, if not the best kicker in the league. He does a great job kicking off for us, kicking extra points, field goals, everything."
Priefer said that when it comes to Walsh, he gives him coaching advice, but a lot of his success is his own.
"We always talk about stuff, we work together, but like any guy at this level, he has to figure it out on his own," Preifer said. "I steer him in the right direction and then he figures it out on his own. He has done a good job with that."
Sherels shines again
Walsh's winning field goal was set up by the latest big punt return by Marcus Sherels, who continues to perform well in this role year after year. His 26-yard overtime return, where he ran up the right sideline but avoided going out of bounds, got the Vikings to midfield.
Sherels didn't even return punts with the Gophers, but with the Vikings he has held the job for 72 consecutive games, and last week he was named NFC special teams player of the week following his 65-yard punt return for a touchdown at Chicago.
Even with all of Sherels' accomplishments, it seems as though every year he has to fight to keep his roster spot.
"We always bring in competition and Marcus knows that," Priefer said. "He always responds really, really well. I'm proud of the way he responded and made the team again, and he has been a huge weapon for us — for me and our punt return unit — for the last five years that I have been here."
Priefer admitted the Vikings had rookie receiver Stefon Diggs competing with Sherels for the punt return job. Priefer said Diggs had a great preseason, but because Sherels is so valuable on every special teams unit the team kept the Rochester native for a sixth season.
"I'm going to fight for whoever the best player is to help our football team. I don't make those decisions, I just give my opinions, and I'm glad Marcus is still here," Priefer said.
Priefer added: "I'm real proud of him, proud of the guys blocking for him. It was a great team win. Offense, defense, special teams contributed. Just like last week it was a huge win that ended on a game-winning field goal. I'm real proud of Blair and the guys blocking for him, Jeff [Locke] and Kevin [McDermott] who snap and held for him. A great team win."
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