Reinforcements could soon arrive for coach Mike Zimmer’s depleted defense. But Sunday’s dominant victory over the Chicago Bears showed that the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for the Vikings without Linval Joseph, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr.
Rookie defensive end Danielle Hunter had 1.5 sacks and another tackle for a loss. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes blanketed Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery until Jeffery was knocked out of the game. Backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson recorded a key sack on the opening drive. And defensive end Brian Robison had a game-changing strip sack.
“That’s just the thing about our unit,” Robison said after the Vikings moved closer to a playoff spot with a 38-17 win over the Bears. “We have so many guys that I think can play some good ball.”
Even with three of their top four defenders sidelined and the other, defensive end Everson Griffen, limited to a part-time pass-rushing role due to an injured shoulder, the Viking defense helped set the tone early against the Bears and kept it going all game.
The Vikings forced the Bears into three-and-outs on their first two drives and limited the visitors to only 10 yards of total offense in the first quarter.
For the first time in weeks, the pass rush had some teeth with five defenders getting a piece of five total sacks of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
And that group put the offense in position to put the game away with a pair of second-half takeaways, none bigger than Robison’s strip sack of Cutler after the Bears had recovered a surprise onside kick at the start of the second half.
“I think it was the play of the game,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said.
That stingy defensive performance came after an impressive effort, considering the circumstances, in the 23-20 loss to the high-powered Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 10.
The Vikings were without Joseph, Smith and Barr in that game, too.
But Zimmer was optimistic Monday about the chances of getting some or all of those banged-up standouts back for this weekend’s game against the New York Giants.
“I think there’s a good possibility,” Zimmer said. “They’re getting really close.”
Smith has missed three out of the past four games because of knee and hamstring injuries that are related. The safety was officially ruled out two days before the win over the Bears even though he practiced Wednesday and Thursday.
Barr, the young outside linebacker, has missed two straight games because of a groin injury.
Joseph was questionable to play against the Bears but Zimmer said the Vikings knew Saturday that the disruptive nose tackle would not be playing.
“He was close but sometimes there’s a possibility that you go in there and you reinjure it when it’s not quite totally there,” he said. “But he was close.”
Zimmer said of course he wished he had that trio healthy in the recent losses to the Seattle Seahawks and the Cardinals, along with the win over the Bears.
But Zimmer believes it is a good thing that Hunter and fellow rookies such as safety Anthony Harris and outside linebacker Edmond Robinson handled the experience well, and that a seldom-used player in defensive end Justin Trattou could step in and pick off Cutler, which Trattou did early in the fourth quarter.
“I think it’s good for this football team when they see guys that haven’t played a lot step in and perform the way they’ve performed,” Zimmer said.
“I think it gives everybody confidence that the guys can go in and be effective. There’s no ‘woe is me’ because somebody is hurt. I think they have confidence in what we’re trying to do defensively, so I think it’s good for the team.”
Harris knows that the return of Smith could push him back to the bench. But he said the defensive stand-ins have felt an obligation to pick up where Smith, Joseph and Barr left off and make sure the Vikings defense remains tough to play against.
“Guys are just excited to get out there, play hard and fight as a team,” Harris said. “It just shows you the resiliency and the depth that this team has. Guys were able to step in and perform and give us a chance to win. But it’s also important that we get those guys back.”