Mike Zimmer doesn’t pay attention to the stats, but he can’t tune out all of the chatter.
Through three games — all wins, in large part due to his defense — the Vikings have, according to the numbers, been one of the NFL’s best defenses this season. And with a pair of impressive wins over the Green Bay Packers and the Carolina Panthers in showcase games the past two weeks, his defense is getting hyped up nationally.
Asked about that Vikings defense Monday afternoon, the head coach had the sly smirk of a novice poker player who has just flopped a full house. But Zimmer proceeded to preach caution about not getting too carried away with so many cards still left to be dealt.
“When I was in Dallas [in 2006], with four games left we were fifth in the league [in total yards allowed] and we were good. We had big players. And we didn’t play good the last four games and wound up 13th in the league,” Zimmer said. “This is three games. Typically I won’t even look at the stats until at least Thanksgiving.”
Others, however, could not resist. The Vikings defense rank first in sacks (15), first in takeaways (nine), third in scoring defense (13.3 points per game), and sixth in total yards allowed (295.0). They are in the top 10 against both the run and pass, too.
The sacks were the story in Sunday’s 22-10 win over the Panthers. The Vikings dragged down quarterback Cam Newton eight times. Everson Griffen racked up three sacks, giving him four on the season. Fellow defensive end Danielle Hunter got a safety, his third straight game with a sack. Nose tackle Linval Joseph got another sack, too.
“I understand guys have [high] sack totals and things like that, but at the end of the day, a lot of these are team sacks,” Zimmer said. “I think Everson’s last one, Hunter actually beat the guy and missed sacking [Newton]. And Everson got the sack.”
Zimmer also noted that the team’s run defense, which was a trouble spot at times in his first two years on the job, has been getting it done on early downs. That has set the table for his deep group of pass rushers to feast in obvious passing situations.
Running back Cameron Artis-Payne popped runs of 12 and 20 yards in the first quarter Sunday. The Vikings put the clamp on the Panthers’ prolific running game after that.
“Once we settled that down, we were able to be more varied defensively,” Zimmer said.
The Panthers topped 100 yards only because Newton scrambled 11 yards for a first down late in the game as he unsuccessfully tried to lead them back to the end zone.
The Vikings have allowed 84.0 rushing yards per game, seventh in the NFL. They are limiting opponents to 3.5 yards per carry. Last season, they averaged 4.3.
Zimmer said the improved run defense is the result of a team effort, from the big guys up front to the linebackers and safeties. But he specifically singled out defensive tackle Shamar Stephen for praise as he has filled in capably for the oft-injured Sharrif Floyd.
The one headline grabber whom Zimmer didn’t want to pat on the back? Himself.
“I know people say it’s me against this [player] or that [player]. We’ve got good players and these guys execute the things we try to get them to do. It’s a player’s game,” the 60-year-old football lifer said. “You know, I can’t go out there and cover a guy or rush a guy or do anything like that. It really has nothing to do with me.”
He might not think so, but some national analysts have given Zimmer early buzz for Coach of the Year consideration for leading the shorthanded Vikings to a 3-0 start. It probably will continue as long as his athletic, young defense — a top unit by most measures — does not fizzle out like that Dallas defense he coordinated a decade ago.