The Vikings, who last Tuesday scattered across the country for their bye week like college students peeling out for fall break, were back in the building Monday morning, rested and refocused.
Since the last time the players were all together, the Vikings gained another game in the standings on the Green Bay Packers, seemingly their only remaining threat to a second straight NFC North crown, after the Packers fell to 3-2 with Sunday’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
By starting 5-0 for the first time since 2009, the Vikings have positioned themselves to challenge for a first-round playoff bye, too. But as far as coach Mike Zimmer is concerned, they are 0-0 after their much-needed early bye week and will “start a new season” this weekend when they travel to Philadelphia to play Carson Wentz and the 3-2 Eagles.
“You just forget about what has happened in the past, and we start moving on,” Zimmer said. “So now, for us, I think it’s an 11-game season. And we’ll see where we’re at then.”
In both of Zimmer’s first two years as head coach, his players were not sharp in their first practice back from the bye week and Zimmer did not hide his frustration. This year, he was pleased with what he saw from them on the practice field and in the meeting room.
“My first year, when I’d give them some time off, they’d come back and forget everything they had learned,” Zimmer said after the practice. “Today it wasn’t like that. Now there was some things that I saw that we had to correct quickly. Their recall right now is so much better than what it was. That was the important thing to me.”
Asked what the difference was Monday compared with the previous two years, outside linebacker Anthony Barr said, “We know we got something special going right now so we want to make sure that we stay on point and continue to build on what we have.”
Zimmer and the coaching staff spent the bye week doing a “five-game self-scout” to identify areas where the Vikings need to improve in order to keep on rolling.
Offensively, the Vikings want to get their running game going and, on a related note, avoid negative plays that put the offense in tougher situations on third down.
Defensively, they are nitpicking, but they want to allow fewer conversions on third down and fewer touchdowns when opponents reach the red zone.
Players on both sides of the ball talked about playing better in the first quarter, too.
The bye week also gave some of their many injured starters a chance to heal. Right guard Brandon Fusco, who suffered a concussion in the team’s last game, was far enough along in the NFL’s concussion protocol to practice Monday. Tight ends Rhett Ellison and David Morgan, who are battling knee injuries, participated, too.
Wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Jarius Wright, tight end MyCole Pruitt and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, however, still were not healthy enough to resume practicing.
“We got a nice week off. It allowed some people to get healthy. It allowed us to kind of get our legs back underneath us,” veteran defensive end Brian Robison said. “But we’ve got to keep doing the things we’ve been doing to put ourselves in this position and we can’t relax. We’ve got to keep our foot on the gas pedal.”
Wide receiver Adam Thielen, who spent his first Sunday as a first-time father changing diapers and watching the Eagles and other future opponents live on television, echoed his head coach, too.
“It can be a bad spot sometimes when you’re a couple games ahead and you’re riding so high. You can easily get complacent,” Thielen said. “But I think the good thing about this team is that we don’t really care what our record is. The only thing we care about right now is Philadelphia. … Going 5-0 doesn’t make the playoffs. We’ve still got a long way to go.”