On Oct. 7, as the Vikings closed out a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles to end a three-game winless streak by beating the defending Super Bowl champions, they began a run of defensive success that has stirred up echoes of what made their unit so special last year.
If the top-ranked Vikings defense had a calling card a year ago, it was the group’s ability to get off the field on third downs that stood out more than anything it did to pressure quarterbacks or force turnovers. Last season, the Vikings allowed opponents to convert only 25.2 percent of their third downs — the lowest rate since the league started tracking the statistic in 1991.
Their success rate had slipped early in the season, as they adjusted to the loss of defensive end Everson Griffen and the retirement of veteran nickel cornerback Terence Newman. But now, the winless streak has been erased by three consecutive victories. And whatever concerns there were about the Vikings’ struggles on third downs early this season are long gone.
From the end of the Eagles game to the third quarter of Sunday’s victory over the Jets, when Sam Darnold scrambled for a first down, the Vikings had stopped opponents on 20 consecutive third-down attempts.
“It’s not a turnover, but when you can stifle them — especially the third-and-shorts, when you have a physical [opponent] and stuff like that — it’s big,” safety Harrison Smith said. “It normally allows us to flip the field and give our offense a good opportunity.”
After stopping the Eagles on seven of their nine third downs on Oct. 7, the Vikings held the Cardinals without a third-down conversion on 10 attempts last week.
They stopped the Jets’ first 11 attempts on Sunday, holding New York to two conversions on 13 attempts for the day. All told, the Vikings’ last two opponents are 2-for-23 on third downs, and their last three foes are 4-for-32.
They started the year by allowing conversions on 35.5 percent of third downs in their first four games. Now, they are ahead of last year’s pace; their performance during the win streak has dropped their rate to 23.4 percent for the season.
“The worst thing we’d been doing defensively is first and second down,” Zimmer said. “We haven’t been very good there. Recently, we’ve been better. We work real hard at third downs. We’ve been working real hard on first and second downs the last few weeks. Guys are executing. We change up some calls here and there every week and try to figure out what is the best way to stop them and guys have executed.”
The Vikings blitzed Darnold on five third downs Sunday, sending players like cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safeties George Iloka and Smith after the quarterback. They also showed their 3-3-5 nickel package on three third downs Sunday, using second-year linebacker Eric Wilson in lieu of a fourth down lineman to add another wrinkle to their pressure packages.
“Usually with a four-down front, in protection, they’re identifying four guys and one more guy, and in the three-down front they have to identify three down and one other guy,” Zimmer said. “That might be [Anthony] Barr, that might be [Eric] Kendricks, that might be Wilson. There’s different ways to rush the quarterback, but you also have other guys in coverage, so you may have a guy covering a back, covering a tight end, doubling a guy. I guess it’s a little more varied.”
It’s another way the Vikings have continued to mix up their personnel this season as the double-A gap blitz package that Zimmer pioneered has become commonplace enough that teams have standard ways to account for it.
“Every team in the league now is running double-A gaps,” Zimmer said. “Five, six years ago, whatever it was, seven years ago when we started all that stuff [in Cincinnati], it was free runners all day long. Now [they say], ‘OK — we’re going to block it this way. We’re going to do this, we’re going to check to that, check to a screen, do this.’ [The three-man front] gives us something else to work on, and at some point we’ll be back to our old self.”
Though things will get tougher with Drew Brees coming to town on Sunday night, in one sense, the Vikings are back to their old selves. Once again, they’re asserting themselves as the league’s best at ending drives.
“That’s always a focal point for us: during OTAs, during meetings, obviously during the season,” Smith said. “Third downs are huge.”