In the Vikings’ 23-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the offensive personnel was quite different from their season-opening 29-19 win over the New Orleans Saints because of injuries.
At quarterback, Case Keenum was in for Sam Bradford. At running back, Latavius Murray got the start for rookie Dalvin Cook and shared time with Jerick McKinnon. Jeremiah Sirles replaced Nick Easton at left guard. Michael Floyd and Laquon Treadwell helped fill in for injured No. 1 wide receiver Stefon Diggs, before Floyd left the game because of a calf injury.
As this season goes along, the biggest difference for the Vikings from last season is this team has shown great resilience in bouncing back from injuries. Heading into the team’s Week 7 home game against the Baltimore Ravens, coach Mike Zimmer said a lot of credit goes to building up roster depth.
“That’s really important throughout every football team in the NFL, because you’re going to get injuries,” Zimmer said. “[General Manager] Rick [Spielman] has done a nice job and really all of the guys, [assistant general manager] George Paton and all of the guys in scouting have done a nice job of bringing guys in here.
“We have a young football team and I think that helps as well, having some of the youth. … I think the other part is our weight program is doing well. Guys are staying strong and staying healthy for the most part. These guys come in here and learn the system and get ready to play.”
Zimmer said Keenum has done a fine job at that vital position. He’ll likely start again Sunday.
“I think he’s doing good and the most important thing is we’re winning,” Zimmer said. “You come in and as a backup quarterback that is your job, to continue to win. Take good care of the football and make sure we continue to move the ball. I think [offensive coordinator] Pat [Shurmur] has done a nice job with molding the offense towards Case.”
Offensive line gels
The offensive line has come a long way. So far this season, the Vikings have allowed only nine sacks in six games, which is tied for the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. They allowed 38 sacks in 2016, the 10th-highest mark in the league.
“They’re playing great,” Zimmer said. “They’re playing good together. [Right tackle] Mike Remmers has played well, [left tackle] Riley Reiff has played well, [center Pat] Elflein, all of these guys are doing a really good job and working together. We’re keeping [defenses] off-balance and changing protections and doing a really good job with the scheme.”
Perhaps most impressive has been the play of Elflein, the first Vikings center to start as a rookie since Mick Tingelhoff in 1962.
“Pat Elflein is just a grinder,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy who is going to stay on the blocks, continue to work, he’s a smart guy. I think he does a good job at identifying things and doesn’t have very many mental errors. In today’s NFL, that’s a big, big thing with the centers.”
Zimmer said one of the best parts about his defense, ranked fifth in the NFL at 17.2 points per game, is they have stars in the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. He talked about the play of defensive end Everson Griffen, who has seven sacks in six games.
“Griffen is a guy that’s going to give you a full day,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to make it hard for those tackles. He has a lot of moves, a lot of strength, a lot of power, a lot of speed. He is doing well. But he’s getting help from the other guys. We have been fortunate that we’ve played well at all three levels of defense.”
Perhaps the all-around star of the defense has been safety Harrison Smith, who has 32 tackles, 1½ sacks, three interceptions and six pass deflections.
“Harrison is playing well,” Zimmer said. “He’s settled down some of the stuff that was getting him a year ago, but he’s an instinctive guy. He’s competitive, sees things really well, obviously has had a couple interceptions which show up big. Harrison is a very good football player and I like to try and find ways to use him as much as we can.”
But Zimmer also pointed to emerging players such as linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, who had five tackles against Green Bay, and Jaleel Johnson, the rookie defensive tackle from Iowa who got his first tackle last week as a pro.
“Emmanuel Lamur did good,” Zimmer said. “He’s a guy that is a big, fast athlete. Had him when I was in Cincinnati and he’s a guy that can replace all of the linebacker spots and made some good tackles and is good in coverage. Jaleel Johnson came in and played, too, we’re trying to get him involved a little bit more. I think there’s a chance he’ll play some this week as well.”
Zimmer knows an awful lot about the Ravens, having been a defensive coordinator with the Bengals in the AFC North from 2008-2013.
“Baltimore’s defense is very good,” he said. “I think they’re fourth in the NFL in third-down defense [33.3 percent]. They do a great job on not allowing teams to score a lot of points moving down the field on them.
“They’re very physical up front. The outside linebackers [Terrell] Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, [Matthew] Judon, they’re all physical guys. They have this [defensive tackle] Brandon Williams back now who is an inside player, a really great player. Their two corners are tough man cover guys, [Brandon] Carr and Jimmy Smith.
“Offensively what they’ve done is they’ve had a tendency to run the football. It’s going to be a good test on our run defense. Then they want to throw the ball deep and get it down the field to [wide receivers Mike] Wallace and [Breshad] Perriman and [Jeremy] Maclin. [Quarterback Joe] Flacco has a big-time arm, he moves well in the pocket and we’re going to have to do a great job against them. And their special teams is probably the best special teams in the league.”
Zimmer always has been fond of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and he talked about seeing him on the practice field for the first time this season Wednesday.
“Teddy worked extremely hard for the last 14 months,” he said. “He did everything they asked of him. He showed up for everything. I think he has great perseverance and we’re excited to get him back out on the practice field, and I know he is, too.
“He took a couple reps in every period, went through all of the practice. We just kind of minimized his reps a little bit.”