Mike Zimmer: defensive wizard, quarterback haunter, cornerback molder, X-and-0 alchemist.

Six weeks ago, those descriptions might have sounded cynical, but Zimmer's work with his young, shorthanded defense has put the Vikings in position to play a meaningful game on Sunday in Tampa.

He has succeeded in a way Patriots fans might find familiar. Bill Belichick is known for taking away an opponent's strength. His defenses don't necessarily throttle opposing offenses, but they often make star players uncomfortable.

That's what Zimmer has done as the Vikings have won five out of their last six to reach .500 for the season.

After losing to Atlanta 40-23 on Oct. 18, the Vikings were 1-5. Then they traded their best pass rusher, Yannick Ngakoue, to Baltimore a couple of months after trading for him to fill in for injured superstar Danielle Hunter.

The defense was missing Hunter, free-agent signee Michael Pierce and linebacker Anthony Barr. Zimmer was breaking in rookie cornerbacks.

He lacked the elements that typically make Zimmer's defenses daunting: an outside pass rush, an oversized run stopper in the middle, an outside linebacker he could use as a chess piece, and savvy cornerbacks.

What spurred the turnaround?

The Vikings stopped letting opposing stars shred them.

In the first six games, the Vikings allowed 300-yard passing games four times, to Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Tannehill, DeShaun Watson and Matt Ryan. In their past six games they have allowed zero.

In their first three games, they allowed two 100-yard rushing games, to Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry. In the past nine games, they have allowed one. (They are 0-3 when allowing a 100-yard rusher.)

In their first six games, they allowed four receivers to reach 100 yards: Davante Adams, Kalif Raymond, Will Fuller and Julio Jones. In the past six games they have allowed zero.

In their first seven games, they allowed four tight ends to produce 50 yards. In their past five games they have allowed no tight ends to reach that mark.

The Vikings' defense remains inexperienced and flawed, and could be in dire straits if linebacker Eric Kendricks can't play against Tampa Bay. But they have stopped allowing opposing stars to operate at will, and that has given an improving offense a chance to win shootouts.

Zimmer and his defenders deserve credit. So do opposing quarterbacks.

Who you play can be more important than how you play, and in the past five games the Vikings have faced Chase Daniel (when Matthew Stafford was injured during the game), Nick Foles, Tyler Bray, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater and Mike Glennon.

The best of that lot is Bridgewater, and he missed two wide-open receivers for touchdowns, including one that would have clinched a Carolina victory.

The defense has made most of its progress at cornerback. Cameron Dantzler has been outstanding of late when healthy and Jeff Gladney has improved.

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady will provide a different kind of challenge to the Vikings' remade defense. Brady has produced big games this season, but his deep passing has been inefficient.

The last time Zimmer faced an all-time great quarterback who was having trouble throwing deep, the Vikings beat Drew Brees and the Saints in the playoffs in January, 26-20.

Brees completed 26 of 33 passes but none for longer than 20 yards. The Vikings slowed him just enough to win in overtime.

Brady has an excellent deep receiver in Mike Evans, but the key to this game might come down to an old formula: whether Brady can hit Rob Gronkowski for big plays in the middle of the field.

The Vikings have excellent safeties in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, but rely heavily on Kendricks' coverage skills.

The formula has worked well in the past six games: Limit big plays and place a governor on opposing stars.

Sunday, we'll find out whether Zimmer can make that approach work against Brady and Gronk.

Jim Souhan's podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com