The Vikings won Sunday’s game as soon as they forced the Ravens to beat them with Joe Flacco.
Yes, he’s a Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback. Fight amongst yourselves as to whether we should call him “elite” or whatever, but he ranked 31st in passer rating (66.1) and was missing three top receivers.
And a fourth receiver, Mike Wallace, was done as soon as he darn near had his head removed by safety Andrew Sendejo three minutes into the game.
“It obviously isn’t the best situation,” Flacco said after losing to the Vikings 24-16 at U.S. Bank Stadium. “But we’ve got to make it work.”
The only chance Baltimore had on Sunday was an outbreak of takeaways and a running game that ranked seventh in the league (129.5). The Ravens got just three points off one takeaway and were slam-dunked by a Vikings run defense that ranked third (78.7).
Several defenders were asked if this is the best run defense the team has played in the Mike Zimmer era. Typically, when Zimmer’s defense has wobbled, the first cracks come against the run.
“What were our stats?” Sendejo asked.
Well, you held the Ravens to 64 yards, less than half their average.
“I’d say that’s pretty good,” Sendejo said.
Actually, it was better than that. The Ravens had two seven-yard runs as the Vikings let them harmlessly mismanage the closing seconds of the first half. And the only explosive carry was a 19-yard jet sweep that backup receiver Michael Campanaro sneaked in during the third quarter. Baltimore’s other 17 carries netted 41 yards.
“You have to preach stopping the run every week, but the Ravens are really a run team,” Sendejo said. “Put them in third-and-long and let our front seven get after Flacco. That was the plan. That’s what we did.”
The Ravens took the opening kickoff and tried two runs. On second-and-5, Anthony Barr slammed tight end Vince Mayle for no gain on a slow-developing end-around attempt.
Then, on Flacco’s first third-down attempt, Danielle Hunter simply ran past right tackle Austin Howard for the sack.
Barr agreed with the notion that this is the best run defense the team has played under Zimmer.
“I think we’re understanding our assignments and our gaps and really trusting each other to do our jobs,” he said. “It’s really a trust thing more than anything.”
The Ravens ended the first quarter with nine yards on seven carries. They had 29 yards on 11 carries at the half.
When Latavius Murray scored on his 29-yard run to make it an 18-6 game midway through the third quarter, Murray had 103 yards on 12 carries while the Ravens had 31 yards on 12 carries.
“It was fun out there,” middle linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “Just a lot of guys just flying around making tackles, man.”
Speaking of tackles, you can tell how well the Vikings played defensively by how their 59 tackles were distributed. Forty-four came from front-seven players, which helps explain why the Ravens averaged 3.3 yards on 64 plays compared to the Vikings’ 5.6 average on the same number of plays.
Kendricks (13) and Barr (11) combined for 24 stops. Kendricks had four tackles for loss, while Barr had two.
“This is the best we’ve played [run defense], but we have to keep it up,” end Everson Griffen said. “We are 5-2 and going to London. So we have to be smart with this trip and go there and handle business. This is not for fun.”
In 2014, Zimmer’s first year, the run defense ranked 25th (121.4). It rose to 17th (109.3) in 2015 and was 20th last season although the average dropped again (106.9).
The Vikings should climb this week. Through seven games, they’re allowing just 76.6 yards per game.
“We’re not a selfish group, and it’s fun when everybody has that same mentality,” Barr said. “When we play together, it’s tough to beat us.”