The Vikings’ last regular-season game against the Rams, back on Nov. 8, 2015, when the opponent was from St. Louis and the venue was TCF Bank Stadium, remains one of the most riveting games I have covered in my six years on the beat.
The violent, visceral affair, played in early November sunshine and winds that gusted to 26 mph, was Mike Zimmer’s first victory over another team with a winning record. Adrian Peterson ran for 125 yards, and the Rams countered with 160 yards on the ground of their own.
Gregg Williams’ defense hammered Teddy Bridgewater outside the pocket all day — Zimmer’s profane reactions were captured in vivid detail during an NFL Films video package — and after Lamarcus Joyner’s elbow to Bridgewater’s head knocked the quarterback out of the game because of a concussion, Shaun Hill drove the Vikings to a winning field goal in overtime, following Zimmer’s bold decision to give the Rams the ball and make them drive into the wind.
The game concluded with a brusque handshake between Zimmer and Rams coach Jeff Fisher, and afterward, when asked to detail his team’s reaction to Joyner’s hit on Bridgewater, Zimmer said, “If we were out in the street, we probably would have had a fight.”
Much has changed since then: the Rams are in Los Angeles, with a 31-year-old coach and a quarterback picked No. 1 in the 2016 draft directing the league’s top-ranked offense. The Vikings, too, have changed since then, waving goodbye to Peterson, investing in their offensive line and building the league’s 10th-ranked offense this season with an egalitarian scheme that has called on a number of playmakers to help them survive the loss of Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook.
But while the furniture might be fancier for both teams as they meet Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, the foundations haven’t changed much.
The Vikings and Rams are where they are in large part because of their investments on defense. They will start a combined nine first-round picks on that side of the ball, as well as four second-round picks and three third-rounders. A former first-rounder (Terence Newman) and second-rounder (Mackensie Alexander) share the nickel cornerback position for the Vikings.
Each team has four defensive starters with cap hits of at least $7 million this season. Both have poured resources into players at all three levels of their defense. The Vikings have given up the fifth-fewest points in the league, the Rams the third-fewest.
“The whole deal is pressure on the quarterback,” Zimmer said. “They’ve got five first-rounders in the front seven, so they have a lot of good players. They try and get after the quarterback, play good in coverage in the back end.”
Even though the Rams have shifted from a 4-3 defense under Williams to a 3-4 under new coordinator Wade Phillips, their basic tenets are similar to the ones the Vikings used to overhaul a defense that was the league’s worst before Zimmer was hired in 2014.
The Vikings, who had already used first-round picks on Harrison Smith (in 2012) and Xavier Rhodes (in 2013), spent the ninth overall pick in 2014 on linebacker Anthony Barr and bet on Everson Griffen’s development with a $42.5 million contract that spring. The 2015 draft brought cornerback Trae Waynes, linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter. Alexander came in the second round a year ago, and the Vikings have continued to invest in athletic pass rushers such as Stephen Weatherly and Tashawn Bower — following Zimmer’s belief that a team can never have enough of them.
“The way the game is now, it’s all spread out, it’s quarterback-driven,” Zimmer said. “So however you can rush the quarterback — and if you get some big-time rushers, you have some advantages there, with some of the guys coming out of college on the offensive line.”
Said Smith: “You’ve got to do both [rush the quarterback and cover receivers]. I think when you do one, it makes the other easier. I always defer to the guys up front, because if they’re getting home, you don’t want that as a quarterback, and then that helps us on the back end.”
Goff and Case Keenum have hogged headlines this week as the two former teammates square off Sunday, and Bridgewater will again be one snap away from resuming his playing career. History suggests outstanding quarterback play is almost a prerequisite to a deep playoff run, and two of the NFC’s most surprising teams will at least need its passers to be reliable heading into the deep stretch of the season.
Stout defenses, though, still form the bedrock of both teams. They are both capable of taking over a game, and in a matchup rife with playoff implications, one of the defenses might make the difference.
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib. E-mail: email@example.com