As he outlined the Vikings’ multifaceted effort to improve their offense this offseason, Mike Zimmer laid out a magic number: 21.
The Vikings, from 2014 to ’16, were 20-3 when they scored at least 21 points. It was a modest enough threshold to reach on a weekly basis, Zimmer reasoned, that a team built on a stifling defense should win most games when its offense does its part.
“That’s what we’re trying to do: score 21 points, however we can do it,” he said at his youth football camp May 20. “But I feel good about the things we’ve accomplished [in the offseason].”
Seven games into the 2017 season, Zimmer’s hypothesis appears correct. The only two games the Vikings have lost were the two in which they failed to reach double digits. They had already recorded wins where they scored 34, 29 and 23 points (and just for good measure, one where they only reached 20).
And on Sunday, in a 24-16 victory over the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings made perhaps their best statement about what they can do when their offense is self-sufficient.
Their reworked offensive line was down to a second-string left tackle and third-string left guard by the end of the day, after Riley Reiff and Jeremiah Sirles left with knee injuries. But before that, the group dutifully opened holes against an erratic Ravens run defense, helping Latavius Murray — who’d run for only 97 yards before Sunday — become the second Vikings running back this season to surpass 100 yards.
“When the O-line puts a hat on their guy and gets me to the second level [of the defense], that’s the best feeling in the world for a back,” Murray said. “That’s all you can ask for. The rest is up to you at the second level. We had a lot of those today.”
The Vikings weathered a handful of misfires from Case Keenum in the first half, none more costly than the first pass he threw. Keenum threw deep for Laquon Treadwell after a Danielle Hunter sack forced a Ravens punt, but Brandon Carr tipped the ball before corralling it at the Ravens 2 and returning it to the Baltimore 35.
“When the defense goes out and gets the sack and we have a good [punt] return, I’m taking the shot,” Keenum said. “I felt the momentum of the game; I thought we could jump on them quick. I put the ball out there, and the guy made a good play. That’s what you do when you take a chance.”
Keenum finished the first half with just 86 passing yards, overthrowing several downfield passes, but completed all but two of his passes in the second half.
And Minnesota’s defense, in a commanding performance against a Ravens team down to three receivers by the middle of the first quarter, showed again why these Vikings don’t need to mimic the 1998 edition of the team to be successful.
The Vikings sacked quarterback Joe Flacco five times, forcing the Ravens to subsist on a diet of short passes that were repeatedly snuffed out by open-field tackles from linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. The Vikings held the Ravens to 117 yards of offense through three quarters; only 54 of those came through the air.
“I know that if we continue to stop the run on defense and [play] good on third downs, we usually can match up pretty good with most teams,” Zimmer said. “I still feel like the strength of our defense is being able to rush the quarterback.”
There almost certainly will be another day where the Vikings need several touchdowns from their offense, especially as they begin a stretch of six road games in the final nine weeks of the season. Though they got six field goals from Kai Forbath, the kicker’s third missed extra point of the season could have come back to burn them in a closer game.
But they are 5-2 through seven games, in sole possession of first place in the NFC North after the Green Bay Packers lost a fourth-quarter lead in Brett Hundley’s first start at quarterback for the injured Aaron Rodgers.
“Right now I feel tired,” Zimmer said. “Just one game at a time, just keep going. We unfortunately know when you’re halfway through the season, or almost halfway through the season, it doesn’t mean anything. We’ve been there before.”
Their trip to London next week is for a date with the hapless Cleveland Browns, who played without Joe Thomas for the first time in 11 years on Sunday when a triceps injury ended the left tackle’s incredible streak of consecutive snaps at 10,363.
And though the status of quarterback Sam Bradford remains in limbo as Teddy Bridgewater presses toward his return date, the Vikings won after another uneven performance from Keenum, thanks to a defense that’s now in its third year as one of the NFL’s best units and an offensive line that, for the most part, has awakened from a three-year slumber.
“We do a great job playing complementary football: offense, defense, special teams,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It was important for us to rise to the occasion, and I thought we did that today.”