Creating takeaways was a defensive focus of the Vikings’ offseason, and through three games they are among the NFL’s leaders while forcing an average of two turnovers per game.
Mike Zimmer coaches Vikings defenders to be disciplined and not gamble; his defense has ranked in the top 10 in scoring for four straight seasons but is typically middle of the pack in takeaways.
“There’s a really fine line,” Zimmer said. “That comes with being able to rush the quarterback, give him different look, disguises, things like that.”
The Vikings’ six takeaways are tied for sixth most in the NFL, and the plus-two turnover differential is tied for seventh. Safety Harrison Smith intercepted Raiders quarterback Derek Carr on Sunday. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes nearly came away with another takeaway when he stripped the ball from tight end Darren Waller, who was ruled down before the fumble.
“It just breeds more confidence in doing those kinds of things,” Zimmer said. “We emphasize it every day, but sometimes they come and sometimes they don’t.”
Many Vikings defenders say they’re at their best when they can just rush the passer. Takeaways can help build early leads forcing opponents into a pass-heavy approach.
“Just trying to get a few every week,” defensive tackle Shamar Stephen said. “So eventually we can pin our ears back at the end of the game.”
A different game?
The Vikings lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns (seven) and 20-yard runs (seven) after three games, providing one end of the balance Zimmer sought on offense. He’s anticipating quarterback Kirk Cousins and company might have to play a “different ball game” against the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday.
“If we’re running the ball effectively like we have been, we’ve had some big-play runs in there,” Zimmer said. “It’ll be harder to run the ball this week. These guys are a load up front. It may be a different ball game this week.”
Finding a rhythm
Kicker Dan Bailey made all six kicks against the Raiders, his longest a 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. It was Bailey’s longest conversion in nearly a year, and a confidence boost for a Vikings field-goal operation that changed holders when signing punter Britton Colquitt days before the season opener.
“In a perfect world, would you love to have a whole offseason? Yeah,” Bailey said, “but he’s done a great job. He’s done it for a long time in this league. I wouldn’t say it’s as easy as plug-and-play, but he’s made that transition really easy.”
Harrison Smith didn’t expect to learn much from “Monday Night Football” between the Redskins and Bears as the All-Pro safety lamented the broadcast’s restricting camera angles, preventing him from studying much about the Bears, the Vikings’ next opponent on Sunday.
“I watch it more from an entertainment perspective,” Smith said. “I try to pick some things up, but it’s kind of hard because you want to see the routes and coverages and stuff. It’s normally just zoomed in on the ball, you can’t see anything. It just makes it look faster if you zoom in on the ball, so I think as viewers we think it’s more entertaining. That’s my take.”
Getting his chances
Fullback C.J. Ham played 41% of the Vikings’ offensive snaps against the Raiders, and now trails only 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk in playing time at the position this NFL season. “It’s a chance to get an extra blocker to the point of attack,” Zimmer said. “Then sometimes we use him to get the linebackers going one way and bring the runner back the other way.”