In his attempt to rouse the Vikings' defense from a stretch of late-game lapses, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson appealed to the starters who remain from when the group was at its game-sealing best.
"The point that I made to the defense on Monday [was], Harrison [Smith] and Griff [Everson Griffen] and [Eric] Kendricks and [Anthony] Barr, they've been here when that's been part of our nature," Patterson said. "In years past, the defense wanted it on them at the end of the game, and we won a bunch of games in the past around here because our defense was on the field at the end and they were able to win it. And those guys had that mentality. So we've gotta get our group back to that mentality."
In Minnesota's first six seasons under Mike Zimmer, opponents had scored to tie or take the lead just five times in the final two minutes. It's happened six times in the past two years: three in 2020, and three in the past three games.
The Vikings escaped with wins in two of the games, thanks to late drives from the offense, but through seven games, they've had as much trouble holding late leads as any Vikings club since the one that opened the head coaching job for Zimmer.
Leslie Frazier's final team in Minnesota blew five last-minute leads, the last of which came in a wild December 2013 game in Baltimore when the Vikings and Ravens traded five touchdowns in the last 2:05. The Ravens scored on Marlon Brown's touchdown with four seconds left; the Vikings fell to 3-9-1 and Frazier was fired the day after the season.
As the Vikings head back to M&T Bank Stadium for the first time since that game, they need their defense to look less like the 2013 unit and more like the proud group that's rarely struggled to close games since then.
"Whatever we're doing those first three quarters, we've got to carry that into the last drive, the last two minutes of the game and find a way to close teams out," Barr said. "I think we're pretty solid through the first three quarters of the game."
On Sunday night, the Cowboys' eight-play, 75-yard drive for the winning touchdown started with Amari Cooper's 33-yard catch off a pass that hit Bashaud Breeland in the chest before the cornerback deflected it toward Cooper and the receiver bobbled it twice on his way to landing with it.
Had Breeland turned his head around, Patterson said, he would have "intercepted it and the game would've been over. So that's No. 1."
The second thing that needs to change is the Vikings' mentality, Patterson said.
"We've got to get to the point where instead of trying not to lose the game, as players, we're going to win the game," he said. "I think we've got some guys that are trying not to make a mistake in that situation and try not to be the guy that causes us to lose the game. And that mentality has to flip. It's got to be 11 guys on the field that believe that they're going to go win the game, I'm going to make the play to win the game. And so that's the kind of thing that we've been driving into players' heads this week."
The Vikings, after ranking 29th in points allowed last season, have improved to 12th this year, as Zimmer pointed out while reading from a sheet of statistics he brought to his news conference as a rejoinder to reporters he's chided for focusing too much on numbers.
"We're eighth in turnover differential, 12th in points per game, number one in sacks, fifth in third down [conversions allowed], 13th in first downs per game. So there's some good things," he said. "Got to be prepared, for some of these questions I get."
But the statistic that defines a team, as Zimmer's mentor Bill Parcells famously said, is its record. After falling to 3-4, and losing defensive end Danielle Hunter to a torn pectoral muscle before back-to-back road games against the Ravens and Chargers, the Vikings need to quickly change habits that can turn late leads into losses.
"It's really about just finishing," Barr said. "It really comes down to that. I don't think there's any recipe for it. It's just about being better in those critical situations."