ATLANTA – The Vikings already were without one starting safety when they boarded a team charter to Atlanta on Saturday. They lost their other one in the second quarter Sunday, which was not ideal when facing the most productive wide receiver in the NFL.
But with reserves Antone Exum and Robert Blanton as their last line of defense for much of the game, the Vikings limited the damage done by Falcons star wideout Julio Jones and held quarterback Matt Ryan to 230 yards on 31 throws in a 20-10 victory.
Exum made the first start of his NFL career in place of the injured Harrison Smith, who was ruled out Saturday because of a knee injury. Exum made three tackles, including one for a loss, and scooped up a fumble in the first quarter.
"For the most part, I thought he did things correctly," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He didn't seem to be out of position when I looked at the pictures, and we talked about things on the sideline. I think for the most part he was in good position and that was good to see."
Blanton, meanwhile, was forced into action when starting strong safety Andrew Sendejo injured a knee while making a tackle in the second quarter. Sendejo did not return.
"I came out and tried to test it out and go back in, but the trainers made a decision that it's probably best just to sit out for the rest of the game," Sendejo said.
Blanton ended up leading the Vikings with nine tackles in less than three quarters of work.
The Vikings were able to hold Jones to 56 yards on five catches, his least productive game since early October. With Exum and Blanton deep, they mostly minimized the big plays produced by Jones and the Falcons. Their longest pass play was 22 yards.
"I think we held our own," Exum said. "But Zimmer's the only judge of that, so we'll see."
After getting pushed around by the Green Bay Packers in last weekend's 30-13 loss, the Vikings offensive line responded with a much improved effort.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was not sacked on 29 dropbacks and, led by 158 yards from Adrian Peterson, the Vikings rushed for 191 yards against a Falcons defense that entered the game ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards per game.
"We were able to run the ball against a good defensive front. That all looks good. We'll see [in film review Monday]," center Joe Berger said. "No different than last week with a bad loss, there's things we need to work on. It's just more fun to work on them after a win."
Bridgewater said his body felt "better, that's for sure" after this game.
"[The linemen] take pride when they keep the quarterback clean and they did a good job of that today," he said. "It's always good when you can come out of the game clean."
Kick over pick
While Bridgewater was pleased the Falcons rarely touched him, he was kicking himself for an interception he threw in the end zone in the second quarter.
With the Vikings ahead 7-0, he tried to look off Falcons safety Ricardo Allen and toss a touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph. But Allen didn't stray from Rudolph and easily jumped in front of Rudolph to pick off a pass thrown behind Rudolph.
"I probably just could have thrown the ball further in the back of the end zone or just thrown it out of bounds," Bridgewater said. "The safety didn't move on the pump fake and he just made a good play."
For the second consecutive game, the Vikings defense allowed a 100-yard rusher.
This time, rookie Tevin Coleman, who got the start in place of the injured Devonta Freeman and rushed for a career-high 110 yards on 18 carries. Last week, Packers back Eddie Lacy got to triple digits on his 22 carries.
"We want to put an end to that," defensive end Everson Griffen said. "If we can stop the run more, we can get them into a longer distance and make the quarterback hold the ball and be able to apply [more] pressure to the quarterback."
Mike Wallace was held without a catch for the second straight game and the third time in the past five. But he drew a pair of defensive pass interference penalties, including one on third down that put the Vikings at first and goal from the 1.
"Great job by him understanding route separation, getting open and being able to put the defender in a bad position," Bridgewater said.
Some down time
Thanks in large part to a 7-for-12 third-down success rate on offense, the Vikings were able to hog the ball and keep the highly ranked Falcons offense on the sidelines. They dominated time of possession, keeping the ball for 33 minutes, 28 seconds.
Nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who typically plays about two-thirds of the defensive snaps, said it dawned on him early in the second quarter that he had yet to get on the field.
"They did a great job offensively of killing the clock today," he said. "They really milked the clock."