Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday that one of the special things about this Vikings team, which has dealt with its fair share of adversity, is the camaraderie in the locker room.
“I meet with the captains every week and they tell me how great it is,” he said. “No one is complaining about anything. They work really hard, they study really hard, practice really hard and they get along really good with each other.”
Zimmer said he knows the Vikings (9-2) are going to have to be on the same page in all three phases of the game this Sunday at Atlanta, but especially on defense.
The Falcons (7-4) are ranked ninth in the NFL in passing yards per game with 256.5, while the Vikings pass defense has been good but not great in allowing 215.0 passing yards per game, the 11th-best mark in the league.
Zimmer said he knows the Falcons are more dangerous than that record indicates.
“They have tremendous athletes,” he said. “Mohamed Sanu is a very good player, along with Julio Jones. They have other speed at the receivers. [Austin] Hooper is a good tight end. It all revolves around Julio Jones and Matt Ryan, obviously.
“Defensively they are very solid. They don’t give up big plays. Last three games, they’re averaging 32 points per game. It will be a tough matchup, but everybody said we were going to have a tough matchup in every ballgame we’ve had. So we just go out and play and keep fighting.”
The Falcons might have been the best in the NFC last season, but their play this year was uneven until their recent three-game winning streak. Before that they had lost four out of five, including home losses to Miami and Buffalo.
“One game at a time. We can’t look past Atlanta,” Zimmer said. “Not that we would, but Atlanta is the returning NFC champs. It’s always going to be a great test.”
Defense is healthy
Compared to the offense, the Vikings defense has been pretty healthy this season, with no long-term injuries. That has played a big part in their success.
“And the guys that have gone in there [when injuries have occurred] have played really well,” Zimmer said. “Brian Robison was gone for a game. Everson [Griffen] was out for a game. [Andrew] Sendejo has been out for three or four games maybe. But for the most part we have been pretty healthy.”
When it comes to special teams, Zimmer said he’s hoping for an improved performance.
“We’ve played OK on special teams,” he said. “We haven’t gotten very many explosive plays and we haven’t covered very well. That is part of it. We have to do a better job with some of the guys that are in there. They have to play better and help us a little bit more than what they’ve been helping us.”
Quarterback Case Keenum was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Month, the first Vikings player to get that award since running back Adrian Peterson in 2015 and the first Vikings quarterback since Brett Favre in 2009.
Keenum posted a 114.0 passer rating and was sacked only twice in the entire month, an incredible stretch.
“I think he has improved a lot with his confidence,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s improved a lot with knowing where to throw the football and taking care of it. There has been times where he’d make some poor decisions. Last week I thought he made really good decisions all day. But he has been accurate and made a lot of plays with his legs, which has helped.”
And while Keenum hasn’t been sacked much, he has been pressured. Vikings quarterbacks have been pressured on 34.6 percent of their dropback passes, according to Football Outsiders.
Still, Zimmer said he’s not overly concerned. He thinks the team’s ability to rally around Keenum has been a big part of its character.
“I think they like [Keenum] a lot,” Zimmer said. “I think they feel comfortable with anybody. That is one of the things about this group. They don’t worry about who is not in there. When [quarterback Sam] Bradford went down, they said, ‘OK, let’s go win. Who cares? We have been through all of this before.’ Then [Keenum] has been able to go out there and play good. He has developed the confidence in the rest of the football team.”
Zimmer has been especially pleased with the play-calling of offensive coordinator Pat Shumur, and said his coaching staff has put his players in good spots.
“I like these coaches. I think we have a very good relationship with everybody and everybody gets along,” he said. “Everybody is in it for the right reasons.”
• An indication of how tough the Vikings’ next two opponents are is that both of the teams’ quarterbacks, the Falcons’ Ryan and Carolina’s Cam Newton, are the past two MVPs.
• Former Armstrong power forward Race Thompson, who graduated early to sign with Indiana, appears to be redshirting this season. He hasn’t yet appeared in a game.
• Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said the Atlanta offense was “clicking on all cylinders” during the Falcons’ 34-20 victory over Tampa last week, resembling last year’s Super Bowl entrant. That’s despite their top running back, Devonta Freeman, missing the game because of a concussion. He returned to Falcons practice Wednesday.
• Shumur said one of the Vikings’ big priorities this season has been using different personnel groups. “We want to use the whole roster,” he said. “Everybody that is active on offense, we want to get them involved.”
• Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant said fewer athletes are playing football and another sport because of sports specialization.
• Gophers basketball is the hottest ticket in town. They have added 1,000 new season-ticket sales this season and have 7,100 public season-ticket sales. The allotment of 2,200 season tickets for students is completely sold out.
• Gophers junior forward Jordan Murphy, who has eight double-doubles so far this season, is currently projected as the No. 50 overall pick in the 2019 draft by NBADraft.net.
• The Timberwolves game against the 76ers on Dec. 12 at Target Center will be broadcast by ESPN, with a new tipoff time of 8:30 p.m. It’s a reflection of the Wolves’ solid start and the growing interest in the 76ers, featuring young stars such as center Joel Embiid and forward Ben Simmons.
• The Twins made a nice signing when they grabbed 26-year-old utility infielder Willians Astudillo. The 5-9, 225-pounder hit .342 at Class AAA Reno, the top Diamondbacks affiliate, and is hitting .326 in 36 games in winter ball in Venezuela.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org