Vikings coach Mike Zimmer knew that his defense had been struggling some this season after giving up a league-best 275.9 yards and 15.8 points per game in 2017.
Since the end of the 2017 regular season, including the two playoff games and the first five regular-season games of 2018, the Vikings had been giving up 386.3 yards and 27.6 points per game.
So the dominant defensive performance in a 27-17 victory over Arizona on Sunday — the Cardinals offense managed only 10 points, with Arizona also returning a fumble for a touchdown — was a welcome sight for Zimmer, and a challenge that he said started with him.
“Our big thing right now with the defense is making sure we eliminate the big plays,” Zimmer said. “I have been doing a better job of changing up coverages and changing up some of the different looks we have been getting and giving the quarterback a few more things to think about.”
Arizona had 269 yards of offense, the fewest against the Vikings since they held Chicago to 201 yards in Week 17 last New Year’s Eve.
Zimmer said he was mostly happy with Sunday’s defensive performance. However, he remains concerned about the protection of quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was sacked five times by the Cardinals. The Vikings have given up 16 sacks over six games.
“There are always things I’m not happy with in games, but for the most part, overall I was happy with the defense today,” Zimmer said. “Offensively I thought there were times we should have ran the ball a little bit more and obviously the tipped balls, the turnover for the touchdown, some of those things were not very good. We had three three-and-outs in a row. Those are things we have to work on and get better.”
The Cardinals had shown they could get after it on defense when they had four sacks and three forced fumbles last week in their lone victory, at San Francisco. Zimmer said he saw that pressure Sunday on Cousins.
“They were doing a good job of sitting on routes, and their defensive line was bringing a lot of people from a lot of different areas,” he said. “When you do that, you can sit on routes a little bit, and if you don’t have time to burn them that’s what happens.”
Cardinals no surprise
While the Vikings came in as 10½-point favorites, Zimmer was not fooled into thinking he had an easy matchup with the Cardinals.
Zimmer noted the Cardinals should have come in on a three-game winning streak. In Week 3 against Chicago, Arizona blew a 14-0 first-quarter lead and lost 16-14. In Week 4 against Seattle, veteran kicker Phil Dawson missed a couple of field goals in a 20-17 loss.
“I knew this was going to be a dogfight,” Zimmer said. “Their defense is very aggressive. They have really good, fast receivers, they have a really good running back. I knew this was going to be a battle today, and we had to play well.”
One of the big keys Sunday was Vikings receiver Adam Thielen continuing his dynamic start to the season, catching 11 balls for 123 yards, one touchdown and seven first downs.
“He is a great player with a great heart that fights,” Zimmer said. “He doesn’t think anybody can cover him. He catches the ball, he sells out his body to catch the football any way he can.”
I believe Thielen, who had another absolutely sensational grab in this game to convert on third-and-13, will do everything Randy Moss did during his best seasons here.
Run game awakens
The Vikings had been averaging only 65.8 yards rushing per game coming into Sunday, and Zimmer and his staff had made a big point of saying they had to balance out the pass game with the run game. They did just that against Arizona with a season-high 195 yards, including a career-high 155 from Latavius Murray.
“Latavius is a great kid, No. 1. He runs the ball hard and physical and he gets downhill and makes good cuts, keeps his shoulder pads in front of him, but you know those kind of things help us win football games,” Zimmer said. “We have to continue to get these runs going so that we run the ball better.”
But still, this game came down to the defense getting its act together, including a goal-line stand in the second quarter following a Cousins interception. The Cardinals had first-and-goal from the Vikings 7 but were stopped on third and fourth down from the 1.
“That was big, that we stopped them on the goal line on four plays,” Zimmer said. “We made a nice play on the pass [on third down] and then our guys — we talk about changing the line of scrimmage, changing the mentality, getting our pads low. That is really what it was all about there. It’s about mentality when you get down on the goal line.”
Now the Vikings will travel to face a New York Jets team that all of a sudden looks much more competitive at 3-3 after beating the Broncos 34-16 last week and the Colts 42-34 this week.
Gophers grow up
You might not realize that the Gophers are ranked No. 21 in the country in total defense. Their 324.1 yards per game also ranks third in the Big Ten behind only Michigan, which is No. 1 overall, and Iowa, which is fourth.
Yes, this is an indication of why there never was any doubt in my mind that P.J. Fleck had the coaching and recruiting ability to put the program on the winning path. And he proved that even more Saturday with a performance that the Gophers put up on the road against a great Ohio State team that will compete for a national championship.
The Gophers held the Buckeyes to their second-fewest points on the season in a 30-14 loss. Only Penn State was able to hold them to fewer when the Buckeyes escaped Happy Valley with a 27-26 victory on Sept. 29.
The Gophers also held Ohio State to 92 yards on 32 carries, continuing to show that their defensive front is one of the best in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes had been averaging 166 yards rushing in Big Ten play.
And while the Gophers had three sacks against Ohio State, the Gophers offensive line, which remains a young position group with two freshmen, a sophomore and two seniors, gave up only two sacks of quarterback Zack Annexstad. The Buckeyes had entered the game with 22 sacks, the most in the nation.
At 3-3 overall, I still think this Gophers team can find three conference victories to reach a bowl game. Saturday, they visit Nebraska, which is 0-6 for the first time in program history and has lost 10 in a row dating to last season.
When this freshman class becomes sophomores next year, along with a great 2019 recruiting class, there might finally be good times for Gophers football.