Only four weeks ago, entering his second game of the season, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer hid his starting quarterback while saying the team was “just trying to be in the fight” with the Packers.
The Vikings are now controlling the fight. At 5-0, they have clawed into the driver’s seat of not only their division, but the entire NFC entering their bye week. Zimmer said doubt never crept into any corner of Winter Park, including a crowded athletic trainer’s room now servicing half the starting offense.
“I don’t think our team ever thought of us as kind of being written off,” Zimmer said. “Maybe other people did, but I don’t think our team did. I don’t think our defensive players did. I don’t think really anybody on our team did.”
Zimmer will have to look long and hard to find doubters now. The Vikings’ unblemished record has been paced by the NFL’s best scoring defense (12.6 points per game) while quarterback Sam Bradford gets comfortable.
The Vikings offense scored 24 points Sunday in a 31-13 victory over the Texans, tying a season high despite playing without three offensive line starters and top receiver Stefon Diggs. For a group heading into the bye week, even Zimmer was pleased with the results.
“They weren’t focusing on going fishing or doing those things,” Zimmer said. “One of the things I really appreciate about this team is these guys, when they come in here to the building, they grind in the meeting rooms, they’re listening to things I’m telling them.”
Aging like wine
The Vikings secondary, including 38-year-old cornerback Terence Newman, has been a nice complement for an unrelenting pass rush.
On Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler’s 46 dropbacks Sunday, the Vikings levied 13 hits and deflected eight throws. Newman’s two deflections led the secondary during a team-high 56 snaps among cornerbacks. Houston star receiver DeAndre Hopkins, shadowed by Xavier Rhodes, was held without a catch in the first half.
“Terence probably played his best game he played this year,” Zimmer said. “The thing I like is we’re playing tight in coverage, we’re challenging the receivers, we’re playing aggressive. We got double-moved about four or five times in this ballgame and covered it well.”
Bradford has now tied the longest stretch of his seven-year NFL career without an interception at four games.
Zimmer credits his staff’s ability to adapt and open communication for Bradford’s relatively seamless transition from Philadelphia. Mainly from the shotgun, Bradford has completed 70 percent of his throws for 990 yards and six touchdowns.
“He’ll communicate the things he likes to do,” Zimmer said. “If we have a play in the game plan he doesn’t like, he’s going to say it. He’s going to tell [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner], and we get rid of the play. We try to do things he’s comfortable with even though it’s been a short period of time.”
Mixing it up
The wildcat formation, with Jerick McKinnon behind center and Bradford split out wide, has surfaced for the Vikings a few times this season.
It’s one noticeable deviation from the Adrian Peterson-heavy run approach. McKinnon, a triple-option quarterback at Georgia Southern, is comfortable in those spots whether he’s handing the ball off or running, Zimmer said. Offensive line coach Tony Sparano used the wildcat when he coached the Dolphins from 2008 to 2011.
“[McKinnon] did it in college, so I mean he’s pretty good at it,” Zimmer said. “He’s quick and he reads things fast. I have a lot of confidence in him doing it.”
• The Vikings might not need to reinforce the tight end position after Kyle Rudolph was the only player available in Sunday’s fourth quarter. “I think they’ll be back next week,” Zimmer said of the injured Rhett Ellison, David Morgan and MyCole Pruitt.
• On fixing the NFL’s worst running game (2.5 yards per carry), Zimmer said, “We’ve got to get some more efficient runs than what we’ve had, so that’ll be our focus going into next week during the bye.”